Profile: Excess after success: Marlon Brando - He squandered his talents, but don't expect his book to tell you why, says David Thomson

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FOR MORE than two decades he has worked fleetingly in foolish or misguided projects; he has seemed intent on banking the maximum money for the least but most insolent effort; he has gathered in nets full of squalid press about acrimonious divorces, melodramatic love affairs and the disasters that have befallen his children. He has mocked and defaced his own reputation and the very idea of being a movie star. He has also, in his 71st year, grown famously fat - larger than Orson Welles, some say.

Yet most people would still award Marlon Brando a high place on the shortlist of greatest living actors. The few people left who remember his last big stage performance - as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, in 1947 - lament the loss of one of the best endowed actors of the century. What happened to Marlon Bran do? Why has he denied himself?

Now we have some gesture towards an answer from the 'wreck' himself. His son was charged in 1990 with killing the lover who was beating his half-sister, Cheyenne. The stricken Marlon needed money for lawyers in a hurry. So he said he would write his autobiography, and eventually (for not everyone took his earnest literary intentions on trust) he got Harry Evans, publisher-in-chief of Random House, to put up serious money.

Time passed, and apparently not much writing was done. Then he found a helper, Robert Lindsey (who had collaborated with Ronald Reagan on his autobiography), and he talked for many hours into a tape recorder. The edited result, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, is just being published in America. It includes a passage where the chronically surly and provocative Brando surmises that he and Random House are just different kinds of hooker - 'I've made stupid movies because I wanted the money. I'm writing this book for money because Harry Evans of Random House offered it to me'. So, screw us, if we feel like reading it.

The book is not very good, and it is outrageously incomplete: Brando omits wives and children, and his many lovers are given pseudonyms if they are still alive. And the people who have been appalled over the years at Brando's ways of working might find his account of some productions hilariously serene. But that joke at his publisher's expense gives a clue to Brando's nature: he is rebellious way beyond the point of destruction, and there are few things for which he has more mixed feelings than acting. His glory has been his curse.

MARLON BRANDO was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on 3 April 1924. The name may sound Latin, but the ancestry was mainly Irish. The father, Marlon Brando Snr, a successful agricultural feed dealer, was an aggressive, mean-spirited womaniser; the mother, Dorothy, was a would-be actress, too weak to make her way or to decide on giving up her husband. Both were drunks. Brando's account of his childhood is by far the best part of his book, filled with pain and cocky defiance. It is a plausible case-

history of a youth who grew up feeling unloved, desperate to challenge any strong man, and to exploit every woman drawn to him. That may be amateur psychology, but it is the level at which Brando thinks; he has had years of analysis, and was raised in the Stella Adler acting school (a part of the famous Method) that believed in the actor using a role to explore his own experience of life.

This may have been the worst training Brando could have had, for it played into his weaknesses. The book makes clear something long hinted at by interviewers: that the very instinctive Brando, the expert, teasing joker, and the magical actor, is also none too bright. He did poorly at school; he says he had a form of dyslexia. But he has a weakness for empty philosophising, for pretentious theory dressed up as self-serving truth.

His success was rapid. By the age of 20 he was in New York, a reject from military academy. Instead, he chose acting, the profession closest to his lifelong habit of practical joking. His success in Streetcar came after just three years on Broadway. He was extraordinary-looking. Has any other American actor so combined the force of will in eyes, jaw and imperious upper lip with such tender, angelic beauty? And more than any other actor of his age, he had the daring or the ill manners just to exist, to be there, seething, challenging anyone to speak or move. His notorious hesitations made other actors pause, waiting for him. His Stanley Kowalski - on stage first, and then on film - was an intriguing perversion of Tennessee Williams' original concept. For the playwright, Streetcar was Blanche Du Bois, who was a surrogate homosexual figure. But the director Elia Kazan - the last man's man director Brando obeyed - needed someone to identify with, so he (through Brando) turned Stanley into one of the most charismatic louts America had ever seen. Streetcar was a sensation in great part because of the urgency with which Brando conveyed rough male heat. The actor's cult, to this day, has a core of elderly ladies who will never forget the marauding, sweating Brando on stage.

Then the camera loved him, and he made a series of films, starting with The Men. They were of mixed worth, but all helped to create a violent, gorgeous male icon - the moody biker in The Wild One and the punchy boxer in On the Waterfront, for example.

If Brando had died then, in 1955 (instead of James Dean), his temple would be intact. He had his Oscar for Waterfront, the last of four nominations in a row. He had created the mythic archetype of inarticulate solitude capitalised on by Dean, and just about every rock singer to come. He was beautiful, still, and uncompromising. What couldn't he do? When they made Julius Caesar together, John Gielgud asked Brando to join him in a season of classical theatre in Britain. If only.

Brando stayed in the Hollywood he despised. He has never gone back on stage. Though he said movies were junk, he could find no alternative to being in them and almost sneering at the camera. His pictures became more varied and far less pungent. This was the period of, for example, Desiree, Guys and Dolls, Mutiny on the Bounty and The Chase (an Arthur Penn film where he rose to the challenge).

These were years of mortification, for his admirers, but for him, too - and something in Brando revelled in the waste. It confirmed his contempt for a world ready to celebrate him. He commanded high fees and he was free to do what he wanted, but he was not the kind of actor eager to become a producer. He had become lazy, arrogant, a man who intimidated directors, got them fired or ordered them off the set. As he passed 40, he began to look smug or grumpy.

He took up causes - Tahiti and the Native American, most notably - and he appeared at demonstrations, marches and sit- ins. But his speeches rambled, and his entire career of protest hardly matches the lucid critique of America in The Chase.

There had been marriages - to Anna Kashfi (an Anglo-Indian), Movita Castenada (Mexican) and Tarita (Tahitian) - and affairs with many women, including Shelley Winters, Marilyn Monroe and Rita Moreno. He was sexually voracious: he had a taste for married women - he liked to humiliate the husbands - and at least nine children claim him as their father. There is another book coming, a compilation of interviews by Peter Manso, which may expose how steadily Brando has seduced, dropped and reclaimed women. It is not a pretty story; Bertolucci subtly drew upon it in casting Brando in Last Tango in Paris. But it surely speaks to his murderous charm and his feminine awareness that he has enthralled so many women for so long.

Just as early demise could have enshrined him, so we might have written him off long ago but for the startling revival of the early Seventies. Not that Brando used his power to make The Godfather and Last Tango - he just accepted the offers, made the gangster monster endearing and found a Bacon-like rawness in the man in an empty apartment for Bertolucci. No matter that Brando attacks actors like Olivier for putting on make-up, an accent and the mere gloss of a character. Brando put tissue paper in his cheeks, found a hoarse sing- song for Vito Corleone and was the Don. He isn't the heart of The Godfather - it is more a film about Al Pacino's Michael - but he got a second Oscar as best actor and made mafiosi everywhere proud. (He says he has not been allowed to pay the bill in an Italian restaurant since.) His Vito believed in sons and grandsons; he was for honour, against drugs; he was as riveting with a cat in his lap as Casals with a cello. How could Brando not see he was made to be an actor? Why did he not do half a dozen roles a year to catch up?

As for Last Tango, if it was overrated once as a picture, still it is clearer now as the last sombre glimpse of Brando's beauty, darkened by dread of the world and bitter loathing for himself. He says he still does not know what that film was about. But actors do not need those answers. It is enough if they go through the motions so that we are moved to pity and terror, along with a little delight. Granted his genius, Brando has done that too seldom for us to be anything but aggrieved.

After Tango came years of too much eating - he is an ice-cream man, consuming a gallon at a time. Then the comic variants of Missouri Breaks (inspired again by disdain for what he was doing, but a sign of how wild a clown he can be), and the grotesque, washed-up wrecks of Superman and Apocalypse Now, where he abetted Francis Coppola in a film that lost story, meaning and faith. But who was satisfied?

Is there another career so broken by vanity, incoherence and bad company that leaves us so moved? Not among actors. There is small hope that Brando will do great work again. But his very American tragedy is that of talent and an authentic, dangerous nature that were always likely to be ruined by his own failures of belief. Do not be simply sorry for him. He has spread damage around in life. He has had a liberty of opportunity unknown to most actors. But he turned from it and gave way instead to the urge to defecate on his own chocolate cake.

(Photograph omitted)

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