Marlon Brando: Hollywood Rebel

Image of Marlon Brando: Hollywood Rebel
Release Date: 
April 2, 2024
Applause Theatre and Cinema Books
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“a thorough and candid assessment of a great actor’s life and enduring influence.”

Marlon Brando: Hollywood Rebel, the new book by veteran Hollywood and pop culture chronicler Burt Kearns, isn’t a biography of the late actor but rather “a study of how one man’s artistic and personal decisions affected not only those around him but all of Western society and popular culture.” That “all of” claim might seem grandiose, but Kearns makes a mostly convincing case that Marlon Brando’s “mark on the modern world has been indisputable and pervasive” ever since he “walked onstage at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theater” in 1947 to astonish audiences as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire.

Marlon Brando compared acting to a trade like plumbing and deprecated it as “lying for a living.” But he rewrote the rules of film acting with intense, visceral, and realistic performances that influenced many male actors who came after him—Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, Robert DeNiro, Robert Duvall, Morgan Freeman, Sean Penn, and Johnny Depp, to name a few.

Brando established his reputation in the 1950s, beginning with his breakthrough, The Men (1950). His classic films from that decade include the Elia Kazan-directed adaptation of Streetcar (1951), Julius Caesar (1953), On the Waterfront (1954), and Guys and Dolls (1955). In the 1960s, his films, a mix of successes and ambitious misfires, included Mutiny on the Bounty, The Ugly American, One Eyed Jacks, The Chase, Burn!, and Reflections in a Golden Eye.

By the early 1970s, Hollywood considered him a has-been. His stock was so low that he had to audition for the role of Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather, but his indelible performance won him a Best Actor Academy Award. He followed that triumph with Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1973), and in 1979, he reunited with Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola for Apocalypse Now!. During the last decades of his career (he died in 2004), he took roles in mostly bad films for the money.

Marlon Brando: Hollywood Rebel covers most of Brando’s filmography but focuses mainly on the picture that, according to Kearns, established him as a cultural force: The Wild One (1953). As Johnny Strabler, the leader of the Black Angels Motorcycle Club, Brando projected an image that warrants the overused descriptor “iconic.” That image serves as the cover photo of Kearns’ book. Brando, in a leather jacket and peaked cap, astride his Triumph Thunderbird motorcycle, gazes out at us with sensual lips parted, his ambiguous expression suggesting longing and desire but also the wariness of someone on the lookout for trouble. Brando’s Wild One look inspired a broad swath of culture-makers—Elvis Presley, the early Beatles, the 1970s disco group The Village People, punk rockers, fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, and artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, and the gay erotica illustrator Tom of Finland.

The Wild One was based on a motorcycle gang’s supposed terrorizing of a California town in 1947. Although media coverage overplayed the violence of the actual incident, biker gangs and their perceived association with “juvenile delinquency” was a hot topic in the early 1950s. Brando had hoped that the film would offer a serious treatment of a social issue, but he was disappointed with how it turned out. “Instead of finding why young people tend to bunch into groups that seek expression in violence,” he complained, “all that we did was show the violence.”

Brando’s dissatisfaction notwithstanding, The Wild One proved a cultural touchstone on several counts. Besides popularizing the leather biker look, it may have inspired the name of the most famous pop music group of the 20th century. It’s quite probable, as Kearns relates, that The Beatles, who were fans of The Wild One, named themselves after the film’s female bikers who called themselves “the beetles.”

Kearns does a deep dive into The Wild One’s connection to gay iconography and homosexuality. He cites reports that Brando “ran with L.A.’s first gay motorcycle gang” and that he had been seen in “gay-oriented shops” wearing black leather, silver chains, and a cyclist’s cap. Kearns offers a close and “queer” reading of the relationship between Johnny Strabler and Chino, the biker played by Lee Marvin. The script makes it clear that the two have a lot of history between them and that they weren’t just motorcyle-riding buddies. Kearns pinpoints the film’s homoeroticism in his analysis of the suggestive dialogue between Strabler and Chino and his reading of several scenes. When the two bikers fight, they do so as “closeted men” who express “their repressed homosexual desires by brawling, wrestling and embracing while clothed.”

Although Brando declined to call himself a Method actor, his portrayal of Johnny Strabler drew on Method techniques of emotional recall and imaginative use of self that he learned from acting teacher Stella Adler. Brando was openly bisexual—“Sex has no sex,” he liked to say—and he “brought his own sexual inclinations and abilities” to the role of Strabler. Brando’s sexual relations with men dated back to his days in military high school, and he had many male lovers. To thank John Gielgud for helping him with his dialogue during the making of Julius Caesar, Brando had sex with the great Shakespearean. “It was the least I could do,” he said. In 2018, music producer Quincy Jones revealed that Brando’s lovers included James Baldwin, Marvin Gaye, and Richard Pryor.

If Brando was the first major actor to publicly acknowledge his same-sex involvements, he also was a pioneer in other areas. He was the first “celebrity activist,” a passionate advocate of Civil Rights, anti-death penalty, antiwar, and Native American causes. Brando acknowledged having been treated by a psychiatrist for anxiety and depression, and his advocacy of psychoanalysis made a “household word” of what was seen in the 1950s as a “controversial and exotic science.”

Marlon Brando: Hollywood Rebel has a few missteps. Sometimes, Kearns overstates his case for Brando’s impact and influence. He can be hyperbolic in describing the actor’s sexual charisma: Was there really “dampness on every seat” of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre after his opening night performance in Streetcar? That’s just a cavil, though, compared to Kearns’ treatment of the most notorious scene in Last Tango in Paris, the anal rape of Maria Schneider’s character by the anguished widower played by Brando. In an interview decades later, Schneider said that neither Bertolucci nor Brando had prepared her for the scene and that she felt “humiliated” and “a little raped” by the director and actor. Kearns notes that making the film took a psychological toll on Brando, but he can’t spare a word for Schneider’s pain. It’s an unfortunate omission in an otherwise thorough and candid assessment of a great actor’s life and enduring influence.