Marlon Brando: Anatomy of An Actor

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Release Date: 
May 21, 2013
Reviewed by: 

“. . . guarantees equal degrees of enjoyment, enlightenment, and giggling nostalgia.”

Film students and movie fans alike will all find much to admire in Florence Colobani’s contribution to the Cahiers Du Cinema series of film books with Marlon Brando: Anatomy of an Actor.

As the series has done in the past with such luminaries as Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, and the just-released volume spotlighting Al Pacino, Marlon Brando: Anatomy of an Actor considers the entirety of the actor’s career by examining the ten roles in his repertoire that might be considered the most iconic, in this case including Don Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), of course, and Stanley Kowalski in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), as well as some rather capricious choices, like Brando’s portrayal of Napoleon Bonaparte in Henry Koster’s Desiree (1954), and Rio in One-Eyed Jacks, a rather odd film that Brando himself directed in 1961.

With such a varied assortment of “iconic” roles, the reader rather wistfully misses the inclusion of Brando’s turn as a mumbling, white-wigged Jor-el, Superman’s Kryptonian father, in Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman, for which Marlon Brando pocketed a then-alarming $3,700,000 for what amounted to five minutes of screen time. Or that greatest of Brando kitsch, John Frankenheimer’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which it was indeed Brando’s island until Val Kilmer invaded it. I mean, if iconic is the chief criterion. . . . But what we get is quite wonderful, really. A beautifully bound coffee-table–sized consideration of the man, his work, and his brooding chiseled face in words and wonderful photography—all printed on paper that reminds you of how wonderful, how sensual paper could be back before words and images all converted themselves into digital blips and floated away into cyberspace.

It all serves to remind us, as our author, Florence Colombani, puts it, that “when Woody Allen lists the things that make life worth living in Manhattan (1979), he cites only one filmmaker: Marlon Brando.”

How smart to put the conclusion of his worth and merit in terms that film fans will understand, with the Woody Allen imprimatur no less.

And how wonderful to include so many sources in the narrative, like this, taken from Truman Capote’s profile of the actor that ran in a 1957 issue of The New Yorker:

“When he speak of the boy he was, the boy seems to inhabit him, as if time had done little to separate the man from the hurt, desiring child. . . . ‘But my mother was everything to me. A whole world. I tried so hard. I used to come home from school . . .’ He hesitated, as though waiting for me to picture him: Bud, books under his arm, scuffling his way down the street. ‘There wouldn’t be anybody home. Nothing in the icebox.’ More lantern slides: empty rooms, a kitchen. ‘Then the telephone would ring. Somebody calling from some bar. And they’d say, ‘We’ve got a lady down here. You better come and get her.’”

Brando, who was initially charmed by the author and came to trust him, never forgave Capote for including in his article so much private information that he had intended to have been kept in confidence.

But the inclusion of the excerpts provided is so very valuable here as a tool to understanding the man and the things that motivated him as an actor.

The author points out, for instance, the masochistic streak that runs through so many of Marlon Brando’s characters, in films such as Fugitive Kind (in which, opposite Anna Magnani and JoAnne Woodward, Brando offers one of his greatest performances as a drifter named Val who becomes entangled with Magnani—a performance worthy of inclusion here), The Chase, and Reflections in a Golden Eye.

She gives insight into the fact that both Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando respected the other to the point that each felt that it was their creative “competition” that kept them on their toes in their screen work.

And she examines in wonderful depth and detail the impact that Elia Kazan’s willing testimony in front of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee had on Marlon Brando, both as an emerging actor (for whom Kazan had served as something of a mentor) and as a man (to whom Kazan had been something like a surrogate father).

While the book concentrates on its examination of Marlon Brando as an artist—indeed, one of the seminal artists to abandon work on stage for the world created by the camera’s lens—it is equally adept it its presentation of Brando the man.

And the account of the then-faded actor striving to get the role of Don Corleone in The Godfather—to the point of being willing to audition for it and stuffing his cheeks with cotton to give himself the “bulldog” appearance that he felt was necessary for the role—is itself worthy of the price of the book. To say nothing of the description of the moment in which Brando appeared in Manila on the set of Apocalypse Now, head shaved and a hundred pounds overweight for a role written for a skeletal man beset with malaria. (Brando soon admitted that although he had until that moment insisted he had, he had never gotten around to reading the source material, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.)

For the film fan, especially those among us who believe that between Clift and Brando we have the greatest purveyors of the film art, Marlon Brando: Anatomy of an Actor represents an achievement of the sort that guarantees equal degrees of enjoyment, enlightenment, and giggling nostalgia.

There is a vibrancy, a flush to the writing as if the author were pouring a glass of some very good wine and sharing anecdotes across the dinner table.

Reading this book will make you want to immediately find out what Cahiers Du Cinema has to say about Meryl Streep, and what ten roles of Jack Nicholson’s it considers the most iconic.

The particular beauty of the thing is that Anatomy of an Actor presents itself as a coffee table picture book with the soul of a real film volume. The result is something in which words are as worthy of the pictures.

And the pictures? Glorious things. Vivid black-and-white images (the lack of color now seems as rare and unusual as the idea of paper-printed pictures themselves) that show the beauty of the man, from beast Kowalski to Buddha Kurtz, the selection and presentation of which are as loving as the tribute to the man himself.