The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando

Image of The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando
Release Date: 
October 15, 2019
Reviewed by: 

“The Contender is an impressive book, a must for fans of Brando and of film acting. . . . a rich sense of the inner and outer life of this complex, often troubled man.”

In The Contender, veteran Hollywood biographer William J. Man has written the definitive (so far) biography of Marlon Brando. With over 600 pages of text supplemented by copious annotation, this is an exhaustive, sometimes exhausting study that is both a recounting of the available information about Brando’s life and career and an analysis of Brando the artist.

Mann structures his book to reinforce his theses about Brando. First, that Marlon was psychically damaged as a result of his upbringing by an emotionally distant father and an alcoholic mother. He spent much of his life trying to establish some sort of relationship with his father, even allowing the man to run (badly) businesses Brando owned. Brando would often try to make career choices that would please his mother who loved basking in his reflected glory.

Mann opines that Brando’s traumatic upbringing, which also led to periods of depression and moments of uncontrollable rage, was one of the reasons that the actor was what we would now call a sex addict, unable to sustain a relationship. Brando claimed that marriage was a bourgeois institution, but his sexual activity was more compulsion than policy. Mann catalogues many of the women who were more than one-night stands. He also hints that there were male lovers, but is less forthright with specific information, which is surprising given that Mann has been a chronicler of gay Hollywood.

Finally, Mann repeatedly posits that Brando never liked acting, never took his craft seriously, perhaps because it came so easily to him. Acting was something he did for money but seldom enjoyed. He was much more passionate about the political causes he espoused. He made fun of actors who talked about their “art.” Quoting his mentor, Stella Adler, he would say that everyone acted all the time.

Brando hated the life of a stage actor in a long-running play even when it was Tennessee Williams’ classic, A Streetcar Named Desire. Being in a hit play was deadening routine, and he hated routine. Acting in films was less onerous although he had little respect for most of the directors he worked with. He loved working with Elia Kazan until they had a falling out and loved working with Francis Ford Coppola on The Godfather, the film that salvaged Brando’s waning career.

Brando had a mercuric personality. He was never happier than when he was cutting up with fellow actors, performing childish practical jokes, and making fun of pretension. He could also fall prey to dark periods of depression and had problems with substance abuse. His rages and his unreliability gained him the reputation of being difficult.

He was passionate about his political causes, particularly racial issues. He supported the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and eventually the Black Panthers and cared deeply about the terrible treatment of Native Americans, which lead to his infuriating the Hollywood establishment by sending Sasheen Littlefeather to accept his Academy Award for The Godfather and read Brando’s attack on Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans.

In middle age, Brando began to take his role as father seriously. His older children lived tragic lives. Despite Brando’s efforts, son Christian was sent to jail for killing a man who had been abusive toward his sister, Cheyenne. She later committed suicide. Brando was left with his younger family in Tahiti.

Sadly, Brando moved from being a beautiful young man, one of America’s sexiest performers, to a bloated, overweight elderly man.

Lovers of film will always cherish Brando’s brilliant performances in A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and The Godfather. To some extent, his memory is tarnished by the poor films he made for the money (over $3 million for a cameo in Superman). However, even in mediocre films, critics found touches of brilliance in Brando’s performances.

One may quibble with Mann’s frequent repetition of his theories about what made Brando tick as a man and an artist. Nonetheless, The Contender is an impressive book, a must for fans of Brando and of film acting. The book offers detailed descriptions of the making of Brando’s major films as well as a rich sense of the inner and outer life of this complex, often troubled man. Mann shows that Brando was always himself, a complex man who found living a challenge, acting a trial, and who hated his celebrity.