Richard Schickel’s biography of the idol of his youth, Brando: A Life in Our Times, is an elegiac book, a meditation on a ruin. Its trajectory moves from Brando as myth, the embodiment of surly ’50s rebellion, to Brando as tabloid fodder, the embodiment of a lot of self-indulgence and food.
Schickel, a film critic for Time who came of age in the early ’50s, mostly confines himself to a meticulous account of Brando’s stage and film performances, punctuated by first-person plural pronouns on behalf of ”our” (the Silent Generation’s) furtive worship of the early, smoldering Brando image. He tiptoes warily around Brando’s private life, mostly averting his gaze. Absolutely no dirt is dished; it’s not even on the menu. There are a few gingerly allusions to his disastrous marriage to actress Anna Kashfi and their struggles for custody of their son, Christian, along with a postscript on Christian’s recent mayhem in Brando’s California house. But no detail, and nothing about Brando’s other marriages and affairs. The revelations in this wry, acute book are about Brando’s public life, about the actor and the god gone to seed.
If you want to be immortal, it’s best to die young. James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and innumerable rock crooners followed this simple procedure and as a result are still wall-poster icons. Brando merely died young at the box office in a string of mediocre ’50s and ’60s movies that followed his run of great roles from A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) to On the Waterfront (1954). Schickel puts most of the blame for Brando’s stumbling middle career on the abrupt decline of American movies after the mid-’50s, when they tried to counter television with Technicolor, CinemaScope spectacles, or coy sex comedies.
But what emerges from his account is Brando’s deep ambivalence about everything that might lay claim to him — family, Method acting, Hollywood, women, success, and the adulation of all the wistful young Schickels of the 1950s. He seems to have sabotaged his own film career, partly out of high- minded ethical disdain, partly out of sheer brooding and boredom. On the set he could be charming and hardworking or erratic and exasperating. The upper Hollywood echelons began to lose interest, and so did the fans. His brief resurrection in The Godfather (1972), which gave him a chance to fling an Oscar in Hollywood’s face, and in the X-rated Last Tango in Paris (1972), which gave Pauline Kael a chance to have a prose orgasm right in the pages of The New Yorker, isn’t enough to assuage Schickel’s sense of a myth turned fat and unemployed.
Brando’s basic ambivalence probably began with the conflicting signals of his prosperous Midwestern WASP family — a sternly practical but alcoholic father, a high-spirited but alcoholic mother who, as a thwarted actress, encouraged Bud Brando and his two sisters to dream and escape. He escaped military school and came to wartime New York as a teenager, absorbing Stanislavsky’s acting technique from Stella Adler. Before he was 30 he had become the ”rude and sensitive, inarticulate but painfully aware” incarnation of all the vagrant and defiant impulses that Schickel and his peers had to discard as they marched off to adulthood. His power as a film star, in other words, lay in his cultivation of adolescent sensibilities and fantasies. As a program for life, however, they don’t seem to have done him much good. B+