Stefan Kanfer's Somebody a valuable portrait of Marlon Brando
By Stefan Kanfer. Knopf, 368 pp, $32, hardcover
In Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando, New York–based biographer Stefan Kanfer provides a thoughtful and well-balanced look at the man who changed film acting forever. Often compared to Montgomery Clift and James Dean, the young Brando was more dangerous, more sensual, and more willing to risk looking foolish in search of the truth. His fearless performances in The Men, A Streetcar Named Desire, and On the Waterfront showcase the kind of electrifying vulnerability that simply didn’t exist before he arrived on the scene.
Raised by an alcoholic mother and a remote father, Brando grew up plagued by low self-esteem. The same self-doubt that made him such a great actor led to a tumultuous personal life. He likened his Hollywood existence to “sitting on a pile of candy gathering thick layers of crust”. But no protective crust could block out the consequences of his ravenous self-indulgence. Besides Brando’s massive weight gain, dozens of failed relationships, and a few botched flirtations with social activism, two of his children became tragically enmeshed in a scandal that involved drugs, murder, and suicide.
A former film critic for Time, Kanfer respectfully asserts that Brando was his own worst enemy. Prior to his astounding comeback in The Godfather, the actor turned down title roles in such classics as Lawrence of Arabia and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He spent the ’60s defiantly churning out oddball parts in a string of box-office duds. While Brando regained a just measure of acclaim in the twilight of his career, he never stopped heaping scorn on his profession.
Ultimately, Somebody offers a valuable portrait of a man who paid a high price for what Kanfer describes as working without a mask. Brando’s only consolation? Despite a roller-coaster career, he remained relentlessly watchable for all the right reasons. As his Waterfront costar Karl Malden once observed: “I don’t care if you are five hundred pounds or fifty pounds. You are a fucking genius.”