A review of the Marlon Brando bio “Somebody” by Stefan Kanfer
by Richard Seff
Once again veering slightly off the course of New York Theatre Buzz, I’d like to acquaint you with a new biography of Marlon Brando, titled “Somebody.” Alfred A. Knopf has just published it, it’s by Stefan Kanfer, who’s done great justice to Groucho Marx, Lucille Ball and the entire Yiddish Theatre in previous bios he’s penned. There have been a dozen books on Brando since this challenging and controversial star left us in 2004 at the age of eighty. But this one tops them all, for it avoids the gossip, the ‘inside story of the love affairs’, the “and then he made the film ..”. No, “Somebody” probes and pokes into the formative years, the years that shaped this enigmatic genius who spent his life denigrating his talent, loathing the paraphernalia of his enormous success, craving responsibility and family life, but doing everything in his power to fail at achieving either. According to this carefully researched and extremely readable tome, Brando’s was one of the longest suicide journeys in Hollywood history.
Living as a youngster in the same dysfunctional home as his two sisters, it was ‘Brother’ who was left most scarred. An abusive, cruel father, who constantly dismissed him as a failure, who treated his mother so badly she became an alcoholic for whom Marlon became caregiver, left him in need of a lifetime of lashing out at anyone who praised his work, for he took no pride in it, always felt the kudos were unearned and undeserved. One of his early lovers, Elaine Stritch, once said of him: “There was never anyone remotely like Marlon Brando. Thank God.”
He was always attracted to the underdog, for he felt he deserved to be one. There was a time when he was deeply involved with the black community, particularly with the Black Panthers, but he was never truly accepted by them and he drifted away. He next took up with the American Indians, and to them he devoted much of himself for the rest of his life. They became “the focus of his compassion, the antitoxin to his contaminated celebrity.”
This is a wise and incisive biography, but it’s also deliciously full of conversations with the principals who shared some thirty five films and five Broadway plays with its subject. The book covers his life, his early years in Nebraska, his New York beginnings with small roles on stage in I Remember Mama and Truckline Café, his short runs in Candida and A Flag Is Born, his triumph in A Streetcar Named Desire. Unlike so many of his contemporaries who scored big on Broadway and went to Hollywood, he never returned to the stage. Paul Newman did, Ben Gazzara did, Henry Fonda did, Joanne Woodward and Julie Andrews did, Anthony Perkins did, but except for a brief tour in summer stock, Brando had no interest in acting onstage again. He had no interest in acting anywhere, but his life style, three wives and seven children required lots of money, and he learned early on that, difficult or not, he could demand top dollar for his work in film and this kept him onscreen from 1950 for 56 years until a posthumous appearance in Superman Returns in 2006.
“Somebody” is an incredible journey, a fine and nourishing read from a master story teller who’s written a biography that will be of interest to anyone who enjoys filling in the blanks, finding answers to the unanswered questions relating to a fascinating creature who gave us so much more pleasure than he derived from his sixty years in the limelight.
Lovers of NY theatre past and present may also want to look for Mr Kanfer’s earlier books. “Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy and Meshugas of the Yiddish Theater in America” and “The Voodoo that They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.” Don’t let the length of the titles put you off. They both read like lightning and will keep you warm in the winter months ahead.
Richard Seff is author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
DCTS Podcasts featuring Richard Seff:
- Interviews with and about Chita Rivera, Love and Love Alone
- Interviews with and about John Kander, With Complete Kander
- Richard Seff: A Lifetime on Broadway
- Inside Broadway: A Return Visit with Richard Seff
Steven McKnight says
My main Christmas vacation reading was this new Brando bio and it was a real treat. Literate yet readable, the bio helps you fully appreciate Brando’s roots and how he changed acting in America. It provides candid and considered assessments of his work and provides just enough of the personal drama to provide context for Brando’s often self-destructive activities. Kanfer has written an outstanding work, one of the best entertainment biographies that I have ever read.