For everything we know about Brando as a man as well as an actor and artist, he remains a fascination. What are we to make of someone whose life, both personal and professional, hit such dazzling highs and such abysmal lows? Stefan Kanfer answers this question, in the process giving us the final word on one of the most astonishing talents of the twentieth century.
Born in Nebraska in 1924, Marlon grew up unaffected by the Depression but scarred by a brutal father and fatally alcoholic mother. After a turbulent childhood, Brando made his great escape to 1940s New York and fell in love with a city bristling with postwar optimism and vibrancy. Soon New York fell in love with him, too—his stunning Broadway debut as Stanley Kowalski made him an instant star at age twenty-three.
Brando then decamped for Hollywood, and Kanfer illuminates his performances in early movies like The Men, Julius Caesar, and On the Waterfront. Starting in the late fifties and continuing throughout the sixties, though, Brando transformed from bright young star into something more complicated. By looking at such films as The Young Lions, One-Eyed Jacks—the one and only movie he ever directed—and Mutiny on the Bounty, Kanfer gives us a real understanding of Brando's breathtaking talent and sexual power while also giving us a sense of the vulnerable man behind the towering image. Through assessments of his performances in critically panned movies like Reflections in a Golden Eye, Candy, and The Appaloosa, an intricately woven portrait emerges—showing not only Brando’s genius, but also his self-destructiveness, womanizing, constant dissembling, and evolving ambivalence toward his fame and his craft.
With the role of Don Corleone, Brando pulled himself out of his slump for his career’s third and perhaps most interesting act; Kanfer turns his critical eye on The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and Last Tango in Paris, the last arguably Brando’s most intimate and disturbing appearance onscreen. After these, it was once again a downhill slalom for Brando, both professionally (the movies he made in the last fifteen years of his life were hardly worthy of him) and personally, as he lived out his finale in the shadow of horrific family tragedies.
With the surest of hands, Kanfer gives us the first truly comprehensive examination, not only of a life and a career, but of how the two came together to create the icon we know as Brando.