Sunday, January 25, 2009

Marlon Brando

Richard Burton said of Brando: "He surprises me.  He's the only one who does."
The new biography, SOMEBODY (Knopf, 2008), by Stefan Kanfer is quite readable, and a good riposte to Peter Manso's 1000 page resentful hatchet-job which Kanfer calls "wearisome and creepy" but as in any biography there are a few things which need correction.
First, and most importantly, Kanfer foolishly characterizes Tarita Teripaia, Brando's third wife, mother of three of his children, the female lead of MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, as an "empty-headed 19 year old hotel worker" which is not only surprisingly nasty but is also untrue.  In addition to her other obvious charms, Tarita Teripaia was one of the best tamure dancers in Tahiti, and although I have yet to read her book, MARLON - MY LOVE & MY TORMENT, I don't see why Kanfer goes out of his way to denigrate her.  Probably she refused to co-operate in the writing of the biography. 
Brando, despite his clear and controversial stands against racism in America and the work he did and the commitments he made on behalf of American Indians, never, to the best of my knowledge, spoke out against French nuclear testing in the Pacific, a fact which Kanfer omits.  I never met Brando, so I cannot say for sure, but I surmise it must have been part of the deal he cut with the French which allowed him to buy the Tetiaroa atolls.  Kanfer says Tetiaroa cost him only $70,000.  I was given to understand it was $700,000, but I may be wrong.   
As Brando's old friend Karl Malden had written in a letter to him: "I went to see A DRY WHITE SEASON and I don't care if you are five hundred pounds or fifty pounds.  You are a fucking genius."  Having met one of Brando's cooks while on Moorea ("time held me green and dying though I sang in my chains like the sea"), I was told that he began to put on really serious and exceptional weight due to his continually eating melting chocolate ice-cream which he couldn't get enough of.  Tubs of it arrived every day on Tetiaroa.  At least that is what his cook said.
Except of course for the Drollet family and their ohana, everyone on Tahiti and Moorea spoke highly of Brando.  But I suppose that Tarita and Brando's surviving offspring there do have the last word on this. The tragic death of Cheyenne was mourned by all who knew her.  Personally, I believe that there was a form of sexual jealousy involved in Dag Drollet's murder by Cheyenne's half-brother, Christian, but Kanfer does not go into this, and, finally, it is none of my business and is perhaps over-analytical speculation. 
Having visited Tetiaroa I can attest to its other-worldly and dreamlike beauty, and despite what Kanfer says, it remains not just undeveloped but, due to frequent cyclones, and its distance from Tahiti, and anywhere else for that matter, 4-5 hours by fast catamaran, undevelopable, thank God.  In short its amazing natural loveliness ("le bleu qui fait mal aux yeux") remains by-and-large intact.  Which is how Mr. Brando wanted it to be. 
It is of course sadly understandable that after Cheyenne's suicide "the South Seas lost their power of enchantment" for Brando as Kanfer writes. Perhaps. But had he continued to return there (as he once secretly did) he would have been subject to arrest by the French authorities as a material witness in the murder of Dag Drollet and subject to civil suit, just as Cheyenne herself, had she not returned to Tahiti, would have been called to testify in Los Angeles. 
Kanfer ends respectfully and properly and rightly: "Will Marlon retain his iconic status in the years to come?....Skeptics who think the man's impact is exaggerated can find the truth easily enough.  All they have to do is compare the leading male performances before his debut with those afterward.  Once observed, these astonishing performances cannot be unseen....By taking chances, by jumping without a net in film after film for more than fifty years, Marlon Brando rewrote the conventions of screen acting."