Marlon Brando studying the script for “Desiree” at his Hollywood, Calif., home on Aug. 3, 1954. (AP/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Brando’s Smile
His Life, Thought, and Work

By Susan L. Mizruchi

Norton. 469 pp. $27.95

“How the hell can an actor like that come from Omaha, Nebraska?” said stage and film legend Paul Muni after appearing with 22-year-old Marlon Brando in the Broadway production of “A Flag is Born” in 1946.

The answer, as Boston University English professor Susan L. Mizruchi says in this smooth-reading and informative portrait, is that Omaha started him on the path to his eventual success. There, with plenty of time on his hands and free from the distractions of big-city life, Brando learned how to observe people and combine their language and gestures into an astonishing range of roles, from thuggish, sexy Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (both the play and the 1951 film) to the aristocratic Mafia don in “The Godfather” (1972) and, in between, a repressed gay Army officer, a Japanese interpreter, a Mexican revolutionary, a Roman dictator and, for good measure, the singing, dancing gambler Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls”(1955).

Farmhand, salesman, banker, secretary: These ordinary Nebraskans “revealed themselves in the slightest movements” as they presented themselves to the world, says Mizruchi, and the young Brando sponged up their mannerisms, preparing himself to be an actor before he even knew that would be his profession.

"Brando's Smile: His Life, Thought, and Work" by Susan L. Mizruchi (W. W. Norton/W. W. Norton)

Nothing human was off limits to him. His father was violent and disapproving, and once Brando said in an interview, “If I have a scene to play and I have to be angry, I can remember my father hitting me.” When asked if he was proud of his son for winning the Oscar for his role in “On the Waterfront” (1954), Marlon Brando Sr. replied, “As an actor, not too proud, as a man, well, quite proud.” This was a moment when technique failed him, says Mizruchi: “The highly controlled actor could not conceal a wince.”

Seeing someone as familiar as Brando with fresh eyes is as difficult as gazing anew at the Mona Lisa or the Eiffel Tower. If Mizruchi doesn’t tell us everything about this troubled, brilliant artist, it’s because she can’t. Impossible to capture in prose, Brando is revealed only in his acting; he is a monster of art like Van Gogh or Bob Dylan.

This isn’t the first attempt to lasso the elusive actor and demystify his genius, and it probably won’t be the last. In Brando’s lifetime, Peter Manso wrote a biography of 1,000-plus-pages that piled on the detail, even if the larger portrait remained fuzzy. Patricia Bosworth’s measured and perceptive book followed a few years later, though if Manso’s account is too long, Bosworth’s is disappointingly brief. The best overall biography may be Stefan Kanfer’s 2008 effort, the first serious book about Brando to appear after his death in 2004. Then, of course, there’s “Songs My Mother Taugh Me,” the sly, lurid autobiography that appeared just before Manso’s book in what appeared to be an attempt to steal that author’s thunder.

Besides describing Brando’s powers of observation, Mizruchi makes two more points that add to our knowledge of the great actor’s technique. First, she details how he used his omnivorous appetite for books (he had some 4,000 in his personal library) to complicate and flesh out the characters he portrayed. Preparing to play World War II German officer Christian Diestl in “The Young Lions” (1958) as sympathetic, for example, he read a number of psychological studies and annotated his edition of Wilhelm Reich’s “The Mass Psychology of Fascism,” which argues that right-wing nationalist ideology is hardly the province of Germany alone. And he acquired more than a hundred books on Polynesia and related topics as he got ready to play Fletcher Christian in “Mutiny on the Bounty.”

But Brando didn’t just rely on reading to help him establish his characters and place them in believable contexts. He also rewrote the scripts for most of his films. Mizruchi often places the original passages against Brando’s rewrites, and the differences can be astounding. For example, in the opening scene of “The Godfather,” where the undertaker Bonasera offers to pay for the killing of two men who beat his daughter savagely after she refused to have sex with them, the Don’s reply is stilted and evasive in the original screenplay. It begins:

“Why are you afraid to give your first allegiance to me? You go to the law courts and wait for months. You spend money on lawyers who know you’re to be made a fool of.”

Brando’s rewrite is eloquent and visceral:

“Bonasera, Bonasera, what have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you had come to me in friendship, then the scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day.”

Close observer, tireless reader and writer: This tells us more, yes, but not all. When Francis Ford Coppola met with Brando to plan for the actor’s last great movie, “Apocalypse Now” (1979), the director was disappointed. Perhaps Coppola was expecting the “real” Marlon Brando, someone who, by that time, no longer existed. We’re still looking for him today.

Kirby teaches English at Florida State University.