Susan L. Mizruchi’s Brando’s Smile has less to do with Marlon Brando’s physical display of happiness than it does with dispelling the myths that made him a cultural icon. “As the first biographer to have reviewed Brando’s archives,” Mizruchi offers a fuller understanding of the man, “the Brando that was not visible to the world in order to understand the one that was.” Her main purpose, though, which she explicitly identifies in the introduction, isn’t only to question Brando’s legend (the womanizing, the lost interest in acting, his publicity-driven politics), but to argue that his motivations ran deeper than has previously been asserted.
Mizruchi, an English professor at Boston University and a prominent cultural historian, focuses much of her attention on Brando’s library and the books he read, sharing his varied annotations and how his often neglected intellect and eclectic passions in history, literature, and social causes informed much of his acting and the films he decided to pursue. As expected, the biography traces Brando’s life in chronological order: growing-up in Omaha with an abusive father and an alcoholic mother; moving to Manhattan and learning from Stella Adler and those at the New School; and finally, deciding to leave the stage and pursue acting in Hollywood.
The characterization of Brando, here, is rich with deft and thorough analyses of his films, showing his wide ranging interests, and revealing how his revisions (mostly extensive trims) improved both his character and the work as a whole. In an interesting anecdote, Mizruchi writes, too, that Brando’s ideas weren’t limited to dialogue and movements: His intuition to speed up the camera, “to create the effect of slow motion,” predates the use of the technique in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, which has famously been credited with the innovation.
Mizruchi also lingers on Brando’s use of objects and physical movements, noting that, for him, words were less important than what the audience saw and perceived. Mizruchi’s chapters—among them, “The Epic Mode, 1960-1963,” “Political Films, 1963-1969,” and “Villains and Superheroes”—center on why Brando initially decided to pursue a specific film and how he went about preparing for each role. His reasons for wanting to work with a certain director, wishing to play a particular historical figure, or delving into a script that reflected his activism with Native Americans, civil rights, and humanitarian aid abroad are all taken into account, culminating, in the final section, in how he used his celebrity to fight these issues.
Although Mizruchi freely explains that her love for Brando dates back to her childhood (she thanks her parents, in the acknowledgments, for accepting her “inexhaustible curiosity” and “teenage obsession”), it’d be a mistake not to consider that as much as she succeeds in redefining the actor and debunking many of the negative criticisms, she provides an analysis that’s offered a bit too much as objective fact. One of her biggest oversights concerns Brando’s desire for money toward the end of his life. Her discussion about his poor performance in Christopher Columbus: The Discovery undermines Brando’s financial needs, as he requires money for his son, Christian, and the young man’s murder trial. Though Mizruchi acknowledges this necessity, she attempts to qualify what Native Americans saw as Brando’s blatant disloyalty—he was always an ardent supporter of the rights of indigenous people, and this film didn’t align with his sympathetic views—with his probable idealism: “...Brando hoped that intellectual honesty could be reconciled with commercial success.” However, his deficient acting in the movie, Mizruchi thinks, was likely sabotage out of “loyalty—to his friends as well as to historical truth.” But, she considers, it also probably had much to do with “anger” and “depression,” while providing no further elaboration. This failure to consider the Brando she has, in a sense, romanticized herself runs throughout her research. One need only count the “may’s” and “might’s”—“Brando never produced a screenplay or fiction that was on par with his standard of performance, which may explain why he didn’t pursue them wholeheartedly”—to question whether Mizruchi presents an accurate portrait, or if she’s too preoccupied with quelling Brando’s myth that she may have mythologized him in her own way.
Despite this flaw, Mizruchi’s study of Brando should be labeled as a great achievement, as she goes beyond the celebrity culture that’s so consumed his legacy. Brando’s view on acting—he saw it as a business and social necessity of which everyone partakes—would suggest, too, that Mizruchi, and any other biographer, can never actually settle on one version of him, as he had, he admitted, so many different versions of himself. So many different, one might say, smiles.
Susan L. Mizruchi’s Brando’s Smile is available now from W.W. Norton & Company; to purchase it, click here.