By John H. Foote
Every major actor working today – film, stage or television, professional or otherwise – owes a debt to Marlon Brando, arguably the greatest actor in the history of the art form.
Do I believe he has been surpassed as our greatest actor? I do, but his impact and staggering domination of the art through the fifties and seventies remains untouched. It is terribly sad so few young actors today, or actors studying the craft of acting, might know Brando only as the white-faced fat man in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) as opposed to the dark, impossibly good looking muscular actor of the fifties who forever altered the art form with his stunning realism.
In “The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando” I had hoped the author, William J. Mann, might venture was into the hundreds of reel to reel tapes discovered in 2015 that Brando left behind. Those extraordinary tapes make clear the actor never lost his hunger for creating a character, as was often rumoured, but he had a distinct distaste for the greed that so dominates the business. Much of this was explored in the illuminating documentary Listen to Me Marlon (2017) leaving me curious why Mann did not get his hands on the tapes and dissect every word.
Much of what is in the thick book was already known to me, his love of dark-skinned women, his dalliances with men, his friendships with Montgomery Clift and James Dean, his intense dislike of self-appointed Method Acting guru Lee Strasberg, his dislike of anyone intimidated by him, and his late in life friendships with Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn and Robert De Niro. The book details his daughter’s death, his son’s disintegration into drugs, his personal failures as a father, and gradual acceptance of fame.
Well researched, Mann has written an entertaining book, but not a very exciting or illuminating one.
I learned nothing, not a single thing. It felt as though the author had used all the other books written about Brando for his own research … and nothing else. Watch his films, they tell you everything you need to know about Brando.
If you know little about the actor, the book is a great read, but for we who studied him, no, there is nothing really new or exciting. Too bad, because the subject is the most exciting actor to have lived. His performances in the fifties and seventies caused a seismic shift in the art of film acting. Overall, a good read, but not a great one
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.