BOOK REVIEW / Method acting through a two-way radio: Songs my mother taught me - Marlon Brando with Robert Lindsey: Century, pounds 17.99

I WANTED to read Brando's autobiography for two reasons. First, because he agreed to do it only on condition that the receipt of several million dollars from his publisher would not oblige him to mention either his several wives or his many children (the details of their lives are of no interest to me, and I liked the idea of saving time by not having to listen to the usual half-truths and emotional self-justifications). Second, because it was unashamedly ghost-written, a once discredited process by which some of the most interesting documentation of pop culture is currently emerging.

Some performers - Dirk Bogarde, Louise Brooks - were born to write, too. Most, however, were born to act, or sing, or play; which is not to say that they should be denied the chance to tell their stories in the first person. Nowhere in its 468 pages does Songs My Mother Taught Me approach the condition of literature. But Robert Lindsey is an expert ventriloquist, able to elicit a taped narrative and then, by skilful filtering and reconstruction, render the voice on the page. Having faithfully reflected, in An American Life, the 40-watt radiance of Ronald Reagan's intellect, here he achieves a tone that convinces us we are in touch with the real Marlon Brando: clever, lazy, self-pitying, self-deriding, self-indulgent.

This is not a book to make actors feel much better about themselves. 'To me,' Brando writes, 'acting has always been a means to an end, a source of money for which I didn't have to work very hard.' Hollywood, he tells the reader, 'stands for avarice, phoniness, greed, crassness and bad taste, but when you act in a movie, you only have to work three months a year, then you can do as you please for the rest.' Typical is the dismissal of his own attempt to help Francis Coppola pull Apocalypse Now back into some sort of narrative coherence: 'I was good at bullshitting Francis . . . but what I'd really wanted from the beginning was to find a way to make my part smaller so that I wouldn't have to work as hard.'

So that's what it took to create some of the greatest roles in post-war cinema: Stanley Kowalski, Terry Malloy, Sky Masterson, Vito Corleone. But occasionally, in the book's best passages, he drops the boorish scorn to give the reader an idea of the means by which the characters were brought to life. On the technique of Elia Kazan, who directed him in A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata] and On the Waterfront, he matches Brooks on Pabst: in negotiation with the actor, Brando writes, Kazan 'had the sense to remove his ego from the conversation'. His reconstruction of the process by which he built up the character of Vito Corleone, underplaying against the gangster stereotype, will enrich anyone's enjoyment of a great performance: 'Don Corleone was part of the wave of immigrants who came to this country around the turn of the century and had to swim upstream to survive as best they could. He had the same ambitions for his sons that Joseph P Kennedy had for his. I saw him as a man of substance, tradition, dignity, refinement . . .'

More generally, the explanation of his characteristic mumble is a lucid and persuasive summary of lessons learnt from Stella Adler, Stanislavsky's pupil: 'In ordinary life people seldom know what they're going to say when they open their mouths and start to express a thought. They're still thinking, and the fact that they are looking for words shows on their faces. They pause for an instant to find the right word, search their minds to compose a sentence, then express it.' But it's only a trick, he suggests. There's no truth to it. Nowadays, working only when he needs to pay legal bills or to repair typhoon damage to his Tahitian home, Brando finds it more expedient to achieve the illusion by wearing the earpiece of a two-way radio, through which his assistant reads his script on cue: 'When I repeat the lines simultaneously, the effect is one of spontaneity.' Exactly]

This is the good stuff, interrupted by pages and pages of a bucolic but disturbed childhood (both parents were alcoholics), of well-meaning engagement with oppressed minorities, of long-term psychotherapy, and, ultimately, an ostensibly blissful semi-retirement in the South Seas, contemplating a future in which he believes genetic engineering will eliminate mankind's propensity for evil.

Yet prurience is not wholly eliminated. In particular, the widely publicised discretion with which he treats his wives evaporates in the case of deceased older women who momentarily fancied him. Tallulah Bankhead's proclivities have never been so luridly evoked: '. . . her eyes at half-mast, her lips lurking around the fracture of a smile . . . her tongue . . . like an eel trying to slide backward into a hole.' And the humiliation of Anna Magnani is operatic: 'With her teeth gnawing at my lower lip . . . we rocked back and forth as she tried to lead me to the bed. As I looked at her eyeball-to-eyeball I saw that she was in a frenzy, Attila the Hun in full attack. Finally the pain got so intense that I grabbed her nose and squeezed it as hard as I could.' Given the book's tone, the reader can only conclude that this is less to do with Bankhead and Magnani than a baroque form of revenge on the author's mother.

(Photograph omitted)