A new biography of a legendary actor who “used his fame to draw attention to racism and injustice.”
It has been 25 years since Peter Manso’s 1,000-page Brando: The Biography, and award-winning biographer Mann (The Wars of the Roosevelts: The Ruthless Rise of America’s Greatest Political Family, 2016, etc.) believes Manso (and “conventional wisdom”) incorrectly portrays Brando (1924-2004) as “eccentric, erratic, narcissistic and hypocritical.” In this meticulously researched book, bolstered by access to the Brando estate, Mann “attempts to see Brando’s life, career, choices, and actions in a new light.” The author describes him as a “thinker, an observer, an examiner of himself and the world, with the goal of figuring out both.” He sympathetically portrays Brando as a survivor of childhood trauma, the only son of alcoholic parents: an abusive father and a distant, neglectful mother Brando loved dearly. Mann begins in 1943 in New York City, where the impoverished high school dropout studied at the New School’s Dramatic Workshop. He was insecure about many things but not sex, and his womanizing would always be a problem. The gifted teacher, Stella Adler, took “her young student under her wing.” She wanted to make him great, but for Brando, acting would always be a “lark, a game of pretense.” Although he was in a dark place, Brando did A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway primarily because of director Elia Kazan, whom Brando greatly admired. After its success, Mann writes, he “knew his life was no longer his own.” In 1963, he walked with the Congress on Racial Equality—he believed that “if more people knew about the reality of racial discrimination, they wouldn’t stand for it”—and he was furious over what the studio did to his directorial debut, One-Eyed Jacks. Throughout, Mann balances Brando’s reluctance to act with excellent insights into his finest performances. Brando enjoyed the improvisation he brought to The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris; it made acting seem “fun and creative.” For Mann, Brando was always a “searcher” who “spent his life trying to become ever more conscious.”
A complex, intimate, and illuminating inquiry into and defense of Brando.