Marlon Brando, pictured in the 1950s
A life-long horror of convention and commitment: Marlon Brando, pictured in the 1950s © Getty

Marlon Brando, 1924-2004. Actor, expert make-up artist, bisexual sex addict, kook. Only son of two drunks, with a bohemian mother so volatile he learnt young to perfect impressions of not just animals and people but machines and inanimate objects in order to soothe her – his “cash register” was, by all accounts, irresistible. Sympathetic Boston English professor Susan Mizruchi is keen to add “intellectual” to the list in this new biography. “Brando has been a victim of sexism,” she writes. “Because he was so charming and physically appealing, his equally energetic mind has tended to be negated.”

In fact, the actor did poorly at school and was expelled from military academy. But in his early twenties he fell in with a radical drama teacher, Stella Adler, in New York – he did not, as many assume, study the Method at the Actors Studio under Lee Strasberg – who believed that actors were essentially a breed of undercover agent, trained to notice everything. By the early 1950s, first on stage and then in movies such as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Wild One, the thrill that came off him had audiences clutching at their faces, blushing like plums, not just because of his outrageous sex appeal but the unusual way in which he gave working men “classical gestures, size and stature”. Elia Kazan’s first impression was that the actor was “subtly humorous, catlike, lazy, not easy to frighten or rush”. Kazan, who went on to direct Brando in the monumental On the Waterfront in 1954, learnt never to superimpose any will on him, just to wait quietly as Brando worked out a part, confident “a miracle” would come (Brando won the Oscar for best actor).

A night owl who rarely got up before the afternoon and who collected raccoons and pigs, Brando was doggedly resistant to convention all his life, and is frequently described as “unquestionably odd” and “very strange”. Ever nervous about his academic knowledge, he was a classic autodidact with a whole archipelago of studies and subjects, from Jung to black holes, maps, wildlife, Judaism, the Native American, Shakespeare.

For the first time among his biographers, Mizruchi had access to Brando’s library of more than 4,000 books complete with his personal annotations. His bad spelling is spectacular (“entrieging”) and his jottings in the margins endearingly keen and wry. “RIDICULOUS”, “GREAT GOD!” And “GET” next to anything that might inspire him to further reading. In his copy of The Brothers Karamazov he underlines every unfamiliar word.

The received wisdom is that Brando rarely put any effort into his roles post-1960, retreating between bloated paychecks to his Tahitian atoll, his great belly an emblem of self-destructiveness, terrible visual proof of the burden of his prodigy. But delightfully – and this is the central revelation of the book – the stack of note-encrusted scripts Mizruchi examines (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1962, Last Tango in Paris, 1972, Apocalypse Now, 1979, and many others) prove how continually interested in the process of acting Brando was. Always a careful reader and reviser, he liked to pare his speeches back, and then back again, rephrasing, deepening. His ear was impeccable. So, where Mario Puzo’s script had the Don say to the Undertaker at the start of The Godfather (1972): “Why are you afraid to give your first allegiance to me?” Brando amends to: “Bonasera, Bonasera, what have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?” There is no doubt which is the better line.

Mizruchi makes a great deal of this sort of thing – as she should – and her research is burningly proud and serious. And yet, though Brando doubtless had a talent for coining memorable epithets and was extremely widely read, in truth his powers of concentration were finite. Incontrovertibly smart, yes, capable of clever gestures and ever-instinctive and whimsical, but his life-long horror of convention and commitment – to women, to anything – meant he would binge on a project and then suddenly lift off, sated, like a blood-slowed mosquito. There is little mention here of his troubling use of dialogue assistance: cue cards, lines written on the back of shirts or propped ludicrously against walls. Doubtless Mizruchi feels that to go into this would destabilise her argument that he cared deeply about his work – though she could have very easily argued that this much-mocked trait of Brando’s was not necessarily laziness or arrogance but a further expression of his wilful defiance, a flat rejection of any existing order.

Of all actors it is easy to believe something near-mystical of Brando. Even in photographs of him as a small child in Omaha, smiling in dressing-up-box cowboy chaps, his tousled hair still tipped a toddler’s blonde, the face is experienced, moving. Those strange folds over the corners of his eyes as if some force is pressing down on him – as though something powerful has touched him. And the eyes themselves, that so mysteriously seem for all the world to be brown – even when you’ve just watched the 1955 musical Guys and Dolls (again) in Technicolor – but that were, in fact, a sea-pouring grey.

Possibly a little too often in these pages he is presented as the possessor of an extra sense, able to read others with a shamanic intensity. And yet you only have to flick through Richard Burton’s diaries to learn how Brando’s first wife Anna Kashfi “firmly convinced Marlon that she was Indian when it turned out – to Marlon’s fury and immediate divorce – that she was Cardiff Welsh.”

So, in many ways, this book presents a gorgeous dream of Brando – the telekinetic scholar, bent sweat-damp over his studies (there’s even a photograph here of him doing this). Still, I wonder at the urge to reframe him at all. Why must we require great intellect in him? Can’t we leave him as he was: a beautiful maelstrom of dissembling?

And yet this always interesting, addictive book (I didn’t move for two days) does repeatedly demonstrate how brilliantly Brando dreamt himself up. Right at the end, for example, just when you least expect it, after 357 pages rather primly uninterested in his zillion flings, bad marriages and affairs – from a teenager he was seriously into serial sex and was happy to admit to encounters with men – suddenly a precious page on his relationship with an anonymous Pakistani woman, 19 to his 39 (around the time of Mutiny on the Bounty). The girl noted that he liked “coffee with a cinnamon stick, steak medium rare, with salad” and Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. So far, so hipster. But also, that he was teetotal, never swore, rarely laughed and yet once dressed up as a Western Union man with packages to make her smile.

Reading this, the actor suddenly sprang into full life for me, and never more than when the girl adds that she always suspected that all this was, for him, a form of role-playing of the highest order, that he was as mesmerised with this super-sincere version of himself as she was. But, after a few months, he made his excuses, suddenly cruel and withdrawn, like the ghost he really was, ever-concealing some great interior emptiness, moving on to some other lover, some other film, some other self-designated role.

Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought and Work, by Susan L Mizruchi, WW Norton, RRP£18.99/$27.99, 512 pages

Antonia Quirke is an FT film critic

Photograph: Getty Images

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