Marlon Brando’s film career lingers as a set of unforgettable images. We remember the violently bereft Stanley Kowalski of “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) calling out desperately for his wife, Stella; Brando’s Oscar-winning turn as the ex-boxer Terry Malloy of “On the Waterfront” (1954), mournfully telling his brother that he “coulda been a contender,” and (in another Academy Award-winning performance) the rueful don of “The Godfather” (1972), scolding a supplicant for not having called on him earlier.
Brando’s personal life, by contrast, has seemed a study in self-indulgence, involving prodigious sexual conquests, troubled family relationships, struggles with weight, cameos for cash, and epic battles with authority figures and institutions. In his 2008 biography, “Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando,” Stefan Kanfer described Brando (1924-2004) as leading “a life of ludicrous excess, outlandish triumphs, and appalling sorrows.”
Brando biographers in general have inclined toward pathography. So Susan L. Mizruchi’s “Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought, and Work,” timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of his death, comes as a necessary corrective, adding a surprising dimension to our portrait of the legendary actor.
Mizruchi, a professor of English at Boston University, is the first scholar to have had access to Brando’s 4,000-book library, much of it extensively annotated and used as background for his film roles. She also draws on his hand-edited screenplays, letters, and interviews to reveal Brando as an impressive autodidact who, through both rewrites and improvisation, contributed more than we realized to the characters he depicted.
An instinctual actor whose gift for mimicry was apparent in childhood, Brando was, in Mizruchi’s counterintuitive view, something of an intellectual despite failing to finish high school. She argues that the man has too often been confused with the roles he played and that his indisputable womanizing, weight gain, and other problems obscured his passionate commitment to social causes and his profession.
“As the actor and idol who made it all right for men to be tongue-tied or incoherent,” Mizruchi writes, “he became so synonymous with an inarticulate masculinity that it was impossible for audiences to accept that the physique was inseparable from an equally formidable intellect.”
Mizruchi goes on to assert that “Brando has been a victim of sexism,” a somewhat inapt way of intimating that his matinee-idol looks defined his image. In fact, it seems misguided to argue that he suffered either financially or personally for his attractiveness, let alone for his gender. Nor was he blameless: Brando’s unwillingness to engage with the press, his stubbornness and his erratic behavior all contributed to the deterioration of his public image.
Born in Omaha, Brando endured an intermittently dysfunctional and peripatetic upbringing, thanks to his alcoholic actress-mother and a violent father who was often absent. Mizruchi tells us that Brando’s mother did eventually stop drinking, but Brando’s resentment of his father never entirely dissipated.
Brando’s apparent dyslexia contributed to his struggles with formal schooling. But, perusing his extensive book collection, which included volumes on everything from bird- watching to religion and philosophy, Mizruchi demonstrates the catholicity of the actor’s interests. His annotations suggest that he read critically and often with an eye to contextualizing his film roles.
The director of just a single film, the unconventional Western “One-Eyed Jacks” (1961), Brando was influential in the screenwriting and even the direction of his other movies. Mizruchi shows how effectively he rewrote or rejiggered some of his most memorable roles, including tweaking the pivotal taxi scene in “On the Waterfront,” directed by Elia Kazan. For “The Godfather,” Brando not only applied his own famously jowly makeup, but reconceived the part, departing from the screenplay and drawing on Mario Puzo’s novel instead.
As a cultural critic, Mizruchi expends considerable effort trying to reclaim the many films of Brando’s middle period that critics (and audiences) have tended to dismiss. She demonstrates how carefully he worked on his characterizations in movies such as “Sayonara” (1957), about interracial romance, and “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1962), which led to his lifelong connection to Tahiti and his third marriage.
“Brando’s Smile” is not a definitive biography. It has very little to say, for example, about Brando’s dozens of romantic and sexual relationships, or even his marriages, which Mizruchi says were made solely to legitimate his children. Mizruchi credits Brando with six biological offspring (other accounts differ), but notes that he supported a dozen children financially, some of them stepchildren or children of close associates.
To understand the complete Brando, one would need to delve further into his complex personal life. Still, any future biographer will now have to take account of Mizruchi’s Brando as well — to somehow square the lover and the sensualist with the critical thinker.