Saturday, April 10, 2010

Book Review: Somebody, The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando

By: Stefan Kanfer

"To the end of his life, Marlon Brando insisted that he had done nothing special. In his view acting was a trade like plumbing or baking. The only difference was that he played characters instead of unclogging drains or kneading loaves of bread. This was not false modesty; he believed what he said. But what he believed was untrue."
~Stefan Kanfer (opening passage from "Somebody")

Film historian Molly Haskell once wrote, "there is only one Brando." In his 2008 biography on the late actor, Kanfer goes above and beyond in proving Haskell's observation. In only 323 pages, Kanfer manages to do what few other Brando biographers have done; portray the man as he really was, without including empty rumours or petty gossip and speculation. Kanfer portrays Brando as a flawed, complex human being with an incredible talent.

Kanfer provides context to the life of Brando, from his early childhood in Omaha to his death in 2004, by setting the stage with issues that were going on in the world at the time. When Brando was born in April of 1924, two youths kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old boy in a Chicago suburb. It was the time of Prohibition. Since the Great War, the area where young Marlon grew up saw a rise in its black population, causing resentment and racial strife. Not only do you learn about Marlon Brando, but Kanfer makes sure his readers are aware of the America in which the actor was growing up.

It becomes a historical text in so many ways. Kanfer discusses America, classic Hollywood and the sex, drugs and rock n'roll culture which Brando witnessed. It helps the reader to better understand why Brando did what he did and why certain causes were closer to his heart than others.

The book is full of interesting anecdotes that Kanfer dug up through his extensive research, including the fact that young Marlon was always drawn to those who were seen as social outcasts. As a child he befriended the only black boy in one of his classes and took a female classmate, who had issues with her vision because her eyes were crossed, to the school dance. Later in life, this could still be seen in his friendship to Michael Jackson, even when the King of Pop was on trial for child molestation charges, and in his dedication to the plight of Native Americans.

Despite these good deeds and his loyalty to those friends who stood by him, Brando had a quick temper and always had volatile relationships with the women in his life. Interesting fact: actress Rita Moreno once attempted suicide after Brando broke up with her. Their relationship, both personal and professional, always remained rocky from then on. Brando was father to ten children, although there are at least two others who claim they are his as well. He never connected on an emotional level with any of his three wives and would often go months, even years, without seeing some of his own children.

However, Brando often considered himself an activist, first and foremost. He battled against racial segregation, he fought to help establish a Jewish state and took up the cause of Native Americans. After the 1968 murder of Martin Luther King Jr., Brando made it his mission to help further the works of the late King Jr. in the public eye.

Kanfer details Brando's time in Tahiti, his love/hate relationship with his acting profession and the Hollywood friendships and enemies (such as his nemesis, Frank Sinatra) he made along the way. Kanfer believes Brando was happiest in Tahiti, although the actor often left for Hollywood for long stretches of time. It seemed that even though Brando hated what Hollywood represented, he was always drawn to film.

Brando often claimed he made films because of the large paycheques (which would help him when it came time to pay what he owed in his divorce settlements and child custody disputes). However, his comments on acting make for some of the best moments in Kanfer's account. Despite his flippant attitude towards his profession, Brando was a master of his craft and, without ever admitting it, seemed to be aware of that fact. One of his most famous interviews took place in his house in 1994. The infamous hour-long Larry King interview truly captures the persona of Marlon Brando, and Kanfer's novel manages to do that as well.

Brando never abused drugs. He drank very little. His vices? Sex and food. Even though he remained married to his third wife, Tarita, until his death, Brando had three children by his housekeeper and ate so much that his weight ballooned in a short span of time.

Kanfer's engaging prose and film knowledge go a long way towards making this one of the best and most unbiased celebrity biographies out there. Regardless of whether or not you are a fan of Marlon Brando, his life and unique personality make for a compelling read.


-Born on April 3, 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska
-Nickname: Bud
-Parents: Marlon Brando Sr. and Dorothy "Dodie" Pennebaker Brando
-Siblings: Two older sisters, Frances and Jocelyn
-His mother became a depressed alcoholic, his father was a traveling salesman who slept with other women
-Pupil of legendary acting teacher, Stella Adler
-Revolutionized film acting, used the Method Approach in his performances
-Tennessee Williams re-wrote the character of Stanley Kowalski (A Streetcar Named Desire) to suit Brando's Broadway portrayal of the character
-First screen role: as a paraplegic in 1950's The Men
-Most famous roles: A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, On the Waterfront (for which he won his first Oscar in 1954), The Godfather (for which he won his second Oscar in 1972) and Last Tango in Paris
-In 1990, son Christian Brando shot and murdered Dag Drollet in Marlon's own house; Marlon attended Christian's trial and even testified in court
-Penned his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me in 1994
-Lived next door to close friends Jack Nicholson and Michael Jackson
-Brando's son, Miko, was Michael Jackson's bodyguard
-In 1995, daughter Cheyenne committed suicide at the age of 25
-Married three times: #1 Anna Kashfi (one son, Christian), #2 Movita Castaneda (two children: son, Miko and daughter, Rebecca), #3 Tarita Teriipaia (two children: son, Simon Teihotu and daughter, Cheyenne)
-Children with his longtime mistress and housekeeper, Maria Christina Ruiz: Ninna, Myles and Timothy
-Other children: Stefano Brando (mother unknown) and one child he adopted on his own, Petra Barrett Brando
-Two others claim they are Marlon's children: Maimiti Brando and Raiatua Brando
-Final film: The Score (2001) with Robert DeNiro and Edward Norton
-Gave acting lessons at his house in L.A. during the last two years of his life: Leonardo DiCaprio, Sean Penn and Edward Norton are among those who attended group acting sessions with Brando
-Died on July 1, 2004 in Los Angeles at the age of 80 of complications from pneumonia, diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis
-Considered the greatest screen actor of all time


  1. Sounds like he really does give an insight into Brando's context as both an actor and an American. You have to wonder his motive for writing such an honest account, if at all honest.

  2. I guess everyone has a motive when they set themselves to writing a biography. There's always going to be a bias or a purpose that will be seen in your writing. Most Brando biographers tend to focus more on petty, unfounded gossip. Kanfer addressed these issues in his biography but never made them the focus/centrepiece.

  3. Sounds like a compelling read. I will definitely keep it in mind. Thank you for mentioning it, and for giving a short insight into Brando's life.

  4. I really enjoyed it because, unlike some other Brando biographies, the author wasn't out to "get" Brando by writing about gossip, etc.

  5. do you know if christian have a son named michael brando

  6. I've just read it and found it totally derivative of other biographies, without ackowledgement, disgraceful lifting of whole passages of Carlo Fiore's book, among others. Promises a lot.. to interpret Brando psychologically, his inner torture.. but apart from a perfunctory little blurb about 'children of alocholics', it skates over the surface and provides no new insights. Very disappointing.. and your blog was one reason for me buying it.