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
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”