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When Marlon Brando arrived in Manhattan in the spring of 1943, he was a Nebraskan by way of Illinois with a knack for mimicry. Just four years later, he would transform himself into one of the most important American artists of the twentieth century, originating the role of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. In the prolific career, and very public personal life, that followed, Brando would be commended for his “innate skill” and condemned for his “fair-weather activism.” Both charges underestimate his intellect, and in doing so, promote the popular myth of Brando as the hyper-sexed beacon of inarticulate masculinity.
In BRANDO’S SMILE: HIS LIFE, THOUGHT, AND WORK, renowned cultural scholar and Boston University professor Susan L. Mizruchi explores the Brando that was not visible to the world in order to better understand the one that was—a Brando that was independent of the public persona and often at odds with it. Why would a man so publicly dismissive of his craft privately preserve all evidence of it? Why did this same man, so consistently critical of Hollywood, continue to make films until the very end? This extraordinary biography will help to explain what has until now seemed contradictory, confusing, or accidental in the life and work of one of our greatest actors.
Mizruchi, with the support of the Brando Estate and numerous private collectors (including Brando’s co-star and good friend Johnny Depp), is the first to examine his impressive 4,000-volume library in its entirety. The library includes some 700 books on American Indians—many of which he annotated—a collection rivaling those of authorities in the field. Dozens of conversation and grammar books and nearly 100 books on Japan track his personal and professional travels. Jazz and bird-watching titles allow us to see the man in the movie star.
Among the most heavily represented subjects in Brando’s library were religion, spirituality, and myth. He owned multiple copies of The Golden Bough and poetry by T. S. Eliot—a pairing that in and of itself indicates a fierce and active curiosity—annotated The Way of Life (1962) by Lao Tzu cover to cover, and had texts from every major world religion.
Mizruchi moves through Brando’s film career chronologically, exploring the books he read and the perceptive script revisions he made—many times to delete lines to make a scene more dramatic–to delve further into the acting parts he chose. While filming Apocalypse Now, for example, Brando read two important works by Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic—which featured material from the Pentagon Papers—and Eichmann in Jerusalem. The relevance of Crises of the Republic, an honest appraisal of the Vietnam War commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, is obvious, the latter less so. It is Arendt’s portrait of Eichmann, however, that helped Brando to extemporize Kurtz in a way that takes us close to “the heart of darkness.”
Browsing Brando’s bookshelves, readers will experience the intellectual maturation of a man who lived a rich life beyond the margins, often feeling as if they were peeking over his shoulder. They will meet an actor they might not entirely recognize: a boy recalled to military school by his classmates’ votes; a son sobered by his parents’ alcoholism; a man whose bed was as often filled with books as women. They will learn about the studio system at its apex, both cosmopolitan and cruel, and witness the destruction wrought by McCarthyism. Readers will come to understand Brando’s complex relationship with the media that, while uniformly tenuous, evolved significantly over the course of his career, and was most often used as an asset for his activism. From the beginning of his career to the end, Brando treated his celebrity as a means to public ends.
Gracefully weaving one of the most compelling life stories of the twentieth century with the contemporaneous political upheaval in the United States, Mizruchi writes a groundbreaking account rich in personal, cultural, and film history that is truly revelatory in its use of sources. Now that we have a fuller record of what Brando said, read, and did, it’s possible to grasp the interior man as well as what he achieved. For aficionados of biography and cinema alike, BRANDO’S SMILE: His Life, Thought, and Work, is the definitive account of a remarkable life, adding new dimension to an uncontested acting legacy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Susan L. Mizruchi, a professor of English at Boston University, specializes in American literature, cultural history, and film. Her most recent work was The Rise of Multicultural America.
Read the reviews:
Los Angeles Times:
Wall Street Journal:
Omaha World-Herald (Brando’s home town)