When people think about Marlon Brando, they think of the movie star, the hunk, the scandals. In Brando’s Smile, Susan L. Mizruchi reveals the Brando others have missed: the man who collected four thousand books; the man who rewrote scripts, trimming his lines to make them sharper; the man who consciously used his body and employed the objects around him to create believable characters; the man who loved Emily Dickinson’s poetry.
To write this biography, Mizruchi gained unprecedented access to a vast number of annotated books from Brando’s library, hand-edited copies of screenplays, private letters, and recorded interviews that have never before been quoted in a biography. Original interviews with some of the still-living players from Brando’s life, including Ellen Adler, his one-time girlfriend and the daughter of his acting teacher Stella Adler, provide even deeper insight into the complex person whose intelligence belied the high-school dropout.
Mizruchi shows how Brando’s embrace of foreign cultures and social outsiders led to his brilliant performances in unusual roles—a gay man, an Asian, a German soldier—to test himself and to foster empathy on a global scale. We also meet the political Brando: the civil rights activist, the close friend of James Baldwin, the actor who declined his Oscar to support Indian rights.
More than seventy stunning—and many rare—photographs of Marlon Brando illuminate this portrait of the man who has left an astounding cultural legacy.Excerpted from Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought, and Work, published by W.W. Norton & Company. Copyright © 2014, 2015 by Susan L. Mizruchi. You can purchase Brando Smiles at your local bookshop or through our affiliate links with IndieBound and Amazon.THE DON
On January 23, 1970, Mario Puzo sent Brando a copy of his bestselling novel with a note urging that he pursue the lead in the film version: “I think you’re the only actor who can play the Godfather with that quiet force and irony the part requires. I hope you’ll read the book and like it well enough to use whatever power you can to get the role... I really think you’d be tremendous. Needless to say I’ve been an admirer of your art.” Brando was not convinced he could play an Italian Mafia head, and he thanked Puzo without reading the book. But Puzo persisted, sending the actor another copy of the book a few months later, along with the screenplay he had adapted from it. Brando read both and decided that he wanted the role.
Hollywood lore has several versions of the famed recording made of Brando’s test for studio heads. According to those who were there, director Francis Ford Coppola and producer Al Ruddy arrived at Brando’s Mulholland Drive home with camera equipment on a December morning in 1970. When he got up, Brando took out the makeup case he had drawn on for years, blackening his hair, adding a thin mustache, and stuffing Kleenex in his cheeks for jowls. Wordlessly, with an occasional grimace, a cup of espresso in hand, he became the Don.
Henceforth Brando relied on his understanding of the Don and his instincts. “I threw out a lot of what was in the script and created the role as I thought it should be,” he said, referring to his reliance on the novel over the screenplay Puzo had adapted with Coppola. “The part of Don Corleone lent itself perfectly to underplaying. Rather than portraying him as a big shot, I thought it would be more effective to play him as a modest quiet man, the way he was in the book.” This would be a new take on the gangster: “Because he had so much power and unquestioned authority, I thought it would be an interesting contrast to play him as a gentleman. I saw him as a man of substance, tradition, dignity, refinement … who just happened to live in a violent world and who had to protect himself and his family in this environment.” Brando’s respect for the character never clouded his perception of the Don’s capacity for ruthlessness. It was Brando’s choice to give him a raspy, “high voice” that came “through the -nose”—-“a nose broken early in youth,” the actor explained in his notes on the script.
Brando’s characterization provides a lesson in dominance. The Godfather, introduced listening to a supplicant’s request, is distinguished gradually from the enveloping darkness. A similar emergence would come in Apocalypse Now. Only the Don’s hand moves, supporting his chin, a slight wave summoning a drink for the weeping undertaker, Amerigo Bonasera. Brando understood that in a world as perilous as The Godfather’s, a boss’s slightest gesture was consequential. When he points at Bonasera, the undertaker freezes, kissing the hand that he now knows must feed him, just as the Don’s godson submits humbly to the booming command (accompanied by a slap and a shaking) that he “Act like a man!”
The Don became iconic because he embodied cultural commonplaces, many of them congenial to Brando. The Don was a natural observer, someone whose curiosity about the world and its inhabitants ensured that he was always learning. Uneducated, but with a subtle intelligence, he could be underestimated, which he ably exploited. He was a rebel of the classic American type who insisted on testing those in control. Deeply self-reliant, he dispensed favors and punishment with an unerring faith in his own judgment. He could accept an occasional mistake, and admit his own, but he found “carelessness” intolerable. And he observed, as a traditional patriarch, an absolute divide between the sexes. His faith in reason (which meant accepting the reality of his power), and his resort to violence when reason failed, could appear unobjectionable to Americans accustomed to Western heroes who settled disputes with guns.
Brando empathized greatly with the value of family and kinship that was a central theme of The Godfather. It seems somehow appropriate that someone whose own family had been fractured should play a significant role in constructing what would remain a central familial ideal. Brando’s was in many ways an ordinary Anglo-Saxon Protestant childhood of the 1920s and ’30s, a story of Midwestern middle-class survival in a time of economic hardship. Institutionalized religion exerted little pull, and less orthodox values—Christian Science and alternative spirituality, bohemianism, intellectualism—failed to fill the vacuum created by its absence and by the parental weaknesses of adultery and alcoholism. With the exception of alcohol, which he avoided abusing because of the family propensity, Brando often pursued the bohemian-indulgent paths supported and exaggerated by Hollywood success. But he was drawn to fatherhood, and, his notorious womanizing aside, took seriously the responsibility for his children. His attentions were loving but sporadic, though he devoted most to the most troubled children: son Christian and daughter Cheyenne (b. 1970).
Brando had twelve children—only half of them his biological offspring—-whom he supported and whose educations he financed. In some cases, he was deceived into believing that children were his by mothers seeking financial support, but he ended up caring for the children despite this. In others, he assumed financial responsibility for children he became fond of, whether those of assistants or even of ex-wives. He sent his children in Los Angeles to a French school, because he valued the bilingual curriculum and hoped they would be able to converse with their Tahitian siblings. He also made certain that they would be technologically literate. Miko and Rebecca recalled being the first in their school to have personal computers. While none of the children lived with Brando, except for Christian on occasion, they all visited frequently, and he took a keen pleasure in them, especially when they were young. Whatever his intentions, however, Brando was a part-time father at best. His children lived on different continents, and he was always distracted by his work, his causes, and his endless love affairs.
Brando enjoyed some aspects of tradition, such as presiding over a big family dinner. He also prized loyalty and would spurn lovers or friends who breached confidences. But, like many Americans who luxuriated in the tribalism of The Godfather, such solidarity eluded him. In adulthood, this was largely for reasons of his own making. Brando was unapologetic about his resistance to bourgeois convention and his profligacy with women, but its deleterious impact on his children grew ever more apparent. Still, performers and filmgoers excluded from domestic unity could take solace in its price. The Corleone Empire was built with blood. The insistence that it was rarely drawn from innocents mattered little, for the film also highlights the interdependence between strong and weak, criminal and spiritual, lawless and law-abiding. Anyone who benefits from crime is implicated in it.
In the world of The Godfather, men cook spaghetti sauce from scratch between murders, which can occur in bedrooms, on massage tables, and near yards where children play, as readily as on city streets. Though the Don and his henchmen have offices, they often work at home. While this might appear a means of self-protection or concealment, it also expresses the continuity between business and family. It further highlights the modernity of these Mafiosi: For successful capitalists in the postwar era, the boundaries between labor and leisure were increasingly fluid. These men never relax, even alone, with a drink and a cigarette. The same values and constraints apply everywhere: Sonny Corleone’s (James Caan) compulsive affair with a young woman foreshadows how he mishandles enemies as family head after the Don is shot. Ignoring his father’s warning about the inseparability of public and private proves fatal.
Mario Puzo was surprised by charges that he had idealized the Mafia, since he shows the connection between the Mafiosi and those who gain benefit, between the Mafiosi as businessmen and them as family men. The novel condemns those who kill: however seemingly goodhearted, they deserve to be gunned down or garroted by enemies. And it also denies absolution to the wives and children. This is suggested by the conclusion of the novel (and early scripts), where Kay Corleone becomes a Catholic, to the dismay of her husband Michael, the new Don, who would have preferred that she remain Protestant, raising their children in the national religion. Kay’s daily prayers for her husband (like her mother-in-law’s for Don Vito) require that she be “washed clean of sin.” Clearly she feels the need for Catholicism’s broad presumption of sin and equally broad rewarding of absolution, which is consistent with Coppola’s efforts to collapse distinctions between Mafia and mainstream beliefs.
The novel’s epigraph from Honoré de Balzac — “Behind every great fortune there is a crime” — foreshadows a primary theme. When he proposes marriage to Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), Michael Corleone (Al Pacino in black coat and fedora, looking, producers worried, “more like a rabbi than a Mafia Don”) explains that his father kills only on principle, from absolute necessity, comparing him to a political leader or “any man who’s responsible for other people.” She accuses him of being naïve—“Senators and presidents don’t have men killed”—to which he deadpans, “Who is being naïve, Kay?” Brando was especially drawn to the film’s thesis: that the Mafia is a diabolic mirror for established institutions. “I felt the picture made a useful commentary on corporate thinking in this country,” he observed in a Life interview. “If Cosa Nostra had been black or socialist, Corleone would have been dead or in jail. But because the Mafia patterned itself so closely on the corporation, and dealt in a hard-nosed way with money, and with politics, it prospered.” Pauline Kael echoed his points in The New Yorker, noting that the film portrays “organized crime as an obscene symbolic extension of free enterprise and government policy … not a rejection of Americanism” but “what we fear Americanism to be.”
The Godfather was widely admired because it accommodated so many fantasies and fears. For those troubled by the radical challenges of popular movements (civil rights, feminism, Vietnam protests, student activism), it offered an image of women at home with children, supported by successful men. The Italian Corleones (and the concerns about Michael’s rabbinical aspect missed the advantage of occasional ambiguity) sanctioned the ethos of American opportunity and confirmed cherished conventions. In the first Godfather film, the Corleones were comfortable but not extravagant (despite the big wedding at the film’s opening), the family compound on Long Island enabling the domestic proximity of parents and grown children. Their lifestyle evoked a late-1940s setting in which materialism and nationalism were especially harmonious; in the aftermath of a war against Fascism, consumption was patriotic. By depicting its protagonists negotiating threatening transitions—the infiltration of drugs, the changing nature of work in the postwar era—the film affirmed male authority in an era when it was under siege. The aggression of the Godfather men was tempered by warmth, their violence a form of passion, their blood rivalry idealistic. In this way, they could not have been less like the sober heroes of Westerns, but their ambition and independence marked them as irrefutably American.
Brando’s grasp of these complex tensions was evident in changes he made on The Godfather script, and from script to screen. True to habit, his comments were not confined to his own role. He criticized the general use of dialogue to advance plot, recommending, for example, that exchanges between Michael and Kay at the wedding be less “expository … there is no apparent subtext in this scene,” and identifying better opportunities for plot and character development. Brando complained too that in the violent scene where hit man Luca Brasi is garroted, Brasi’s line here (he’d switch Mafia families “if the money is good enough”) is “too bold … too neat.” The line was changed in the film to “What’s in it for me?”
The bulk of Brando’s revisions on his own part are cuts. Portraying power required more than the usual emphasis on “less is more.” Thus he reduced the Don’s scripted dialogues by half and introduced changes to preserve his authenticity and dignity. He translates pezzanovanto as “big shot”; inserts a quietly ironic line at the scene’s end (after “Is there anything else?”), “I’d like to go to my daughter’s wedding”; deletes a crass reference to Luca’s gift (“I’m sure it’s the most generous gift today”); delegates—“let Tom say -it”—a line of the Don’s (“But an act of Congress doesn’t come cheap”); and excises (with an “Ugh”) a melodramatic phrase (“weeping bitter tears”). In the margin of the Don’s question to his adviser Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), “what time do I have to meet this infidel on Friday?” Brando writes: “Where does he learn to say this [‘infidel’] and cannot instead of can’t?”
Brando’s changes in the opening dialogue with the undertaker recall his revisions in On The Waterfront, where he shifts and substitutes words, sharpening diction, clarifying ideas, and improving rhythm. Here is the original:
You never armed yourself with true friends. You thought it was enough to be an American. After all, the Police guarded you, there were courts of Law. You could come to no harm, you had no need for friends like me. But now, you come to me and say, “Don Corleone, give me Justice.” And you do not ask with respect; you do not call me Godfather … You come into my house on the wedding day of my daughter and you ask me to do murder and you say “How much shall I pay you” … America has ruled; the Judge has ruled! Bring your daughter flowers and a box of candy when you visit her. Forget this madness, it is not American.
Here is Brando’s version from the film:
But let’s be frank here, you never wanted my friendship. And you were afraid to be in my debt. I understand. You found paradise in America, had a good trade, you made a good living, the police protected you, and there were courts of law. You didn’t need a friend like me. But, uh, now you come to me and you say, “Don Corleone, give me justice,” but you don’t ask with respect. You don’t offer friendship. You don’t even think to call me Godfather. Instead, you come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married and you ask me to do murder for money.
Discussing the importance of Brando’s performance for the accompanying cast and actors in general, James Caan highlighted the effectiveness of Brando’s use of the cat. Any other actor, Caan pointed out, would have made a fuss over the creature, but Brando integrated it naturally into the scene with a few notable gestures. The speech is reinforced by his handling of the cat, his anger at the perceived insult controlled through stroking of the animal. The change of tone is obvious when he stands and dumps the cat on the desk, not harshly but with enough vehemence to support an audible thud.
Corleone’s subsequent speech to the undertaker similarly benefits from Brando’s revisions. Here is the original:
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. You take judgment from a Judge who sells himself like the worst whore on the street. But, if you had come to me as a friend, those scum who ruined your daughter would be weeping bitter tears this day. If by some misfortune an honest man like yourself made enemies, they would become my enemies, and then … believe me, they would fear you.
Here is Brando’s revised version:
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. And if by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies then they would become my enemies, and then they would fear you.
The speech is cut in half, the language pared to simple eloquence. The face and body do the rest; downcast eyes, shrugging shoulders, raised eyebrows, and jutting chin show how hard it is for a proud man to overcome such slights. When the undertaker leaves, Brando ad-libs one of his most renowned moments on film. The smile vanishes, he scratches his head, rubs his mouth and turns to Tom Hagen: “Give this to uh … Clemenza. I want reliable people, people that aren’t going to be carried away. We’re not murderers, in spite of what this … undertaker says.” He drops his chin as he concludes, lifting the lapel with the red rose pinned to it, and inhales.
The blood-red rose corresponds to the bloody acts he has spent his daughter’s wedding day authorizing while in his crisp white shirt and immaculate tuxedo. Still, this is a man who is drawn to the sensual and uncompromised, enough to appreciate the scent of an elegant flower. The gesture unites the film’s beginning—in a chair, a cat on his lap; middle—feeding fish at a meeting in his office where Michael presides; and end—in the garden with his grandson. The man who notices flowers will die of a heart attack among his tomato plants, delighting a child as he did a cat.
One of the few aspects of Brando’s performance as Corleone that is underappreciated is the way he ages. He is introduced as a relatively vital man in his sixties. Masculine and physically imposing—“an old bulldog,” as Brando conceived him, with a growling voice—and looking so fine in his wedding “tux that an inexperienced observer might easily have thought the Don himself was the lucky groom.” At his olive-oil company office, just after the wedding, the Don is forceful as he rejects the proposal of Sollozzo, the enterprising gangster who wants him to invest in the new drug market, scolding Sonny for divulging his enthusiasm for the deal, giving instructions to Luca Brasi. When he is shot a few scenes later, by thugs sent by Sollozzo, hoping to eliminate a key barrier to his plans, the Don shrewdly anticipates the gunmen’s attack, protecting his body as best he can, the muscular frame exposed as he sprawls against his car. In the next major scene, with Bonasera again, before an embalming table, the Don remains a man of consequence. But the skin is gray, the jowls seem looser, the hair thinner. Grieving the death of his firstborn son intensifies an aging process already accelerated by bullets. Here, too, Brando’s improvisations are pivotal. The script: “I want you to use all your powers, all your skill, as you love me. I do not want his mother to see him as he is.” On screen: “I want you to use all your powers and all your skills. I don’t want his mother to see him this way … [lifting the blanket to reveal Sonny’s mutilated frame] Look how they massacred my boy!”
The Don then hosts a boardroom colloquy for Mafiosi from around the country. Here he summons much of his original authority, appearing older than at the wedding but reinvigorated. In the script, the Don is to address them: “Ah well, let’s get down to business. We are all honorable men here, we don’t have to give assurances as if we were lawyers … Well, no matter, a lot of foolishness has come to pass.” Instead, he does not flatter them as being “honorable,” perhaps also recalling Antony’s subversion of the word in his speech in Julius Caesar. He is far more straightforward when Brando changes the lines to: “How did things ever get so far? I don’t know. It was so unfortunate, so unnecessary.” Nor does Brando envision the Don as an equivocator or one to dishonor his dead. He cuts: “Perhaps my son was too rash, too headstrong, I don’t say no to that,” opting for the crisp “Tattaglia lost a son; and I lost a son….” He ignores the script’s directive that “he gesture expressively, submissively, with his hands,” because the Don is sparing with gestures as well as words and would never behave “submissively.” Brando then trims two-thirds of the Don’s summarizing speech, keeping and embellishing the plea on behalf of his youngest son: “But I am a superstitious man, and if some unlucky accident should befall him … then I’m going to blame some of the people in this room. And that I do not forgive. But that aside, let me say that I swear, on the souls of my grandchildren, that I will not be the one to break the peace we’ve made here today.” (Italics indicate words stressed by Brando.)
Brando’s part ends with two extraordinary scenes in the Don’s garden. Both are set in 1955; it is ten years since Connie’s wedding, and the patriarch has aged. Robert Towne wrote the scene with his son Michael after Brando requested that the Don, for once, articulate his feelings. The conversation focuses on business, but the successor, sensing his father’s dissatisfaction, provides an opening. The Don rises and sits closer to his favorite son, their heads nearly touching: “I never wanted this for you …. I worked my whole life, I don’t apologize, to take care of my family, and I refused to be a fool, dancing on a string held by all those big shots … but I thought that when it was your time that you would be the one to hold the strings … Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone, Something … Just wasn’t enough time, Michael, wasn’t enough time.” He sighs, taking his adult son’s face in his hands for a kiss. It was this kind of self-possession that endeared audiences to the Don: a man who could be this physically familiar with a grown son and equally prepared to kill on his behalf.
The Godfather is a novelty in Brando’s career as the first in which he played a father. Indeed, the Don’s death scene was the only time that he ever acted with a child. In contrast to the previous scene with Michael, this one was mostly unscripted. Coppola recalled that the producers considered it unessential, so it was shot while the cast and crew were at lunch. But Brando set aside time to play with four-year-old actor Anthony Gounaris before the cameras were rolling, a preparation richly rewarded. In the scene, which may be only a day later than the prior one with Michael, the Don seems weaker, the body bulkier, the mouth more sunken, as he wipes sweat from his brow and wearily directs the little boy with the watering can. The Don’s fondness for children energizes a moment of invention as he summons the boy for a game. He uses an orange peel to make himself into a jagged-fanged monster, arousing genuine fear in the child actor, who appears to be feeling fear, rather than performing it. The monster-Don placates him with a chuckle and picks up the boy. Then the Don institutes a chase, which results in his heart attack. He falls dying in the tomato patch. The border between movie and reality, unsettled by the child actor’s fear, is further shaken by his guffaw at the Don’s death throes, which he views as theater. Truly frightened before by the orange-peel monster, the child is now entertained by Brando’s acting of the death scene. Whether or not the child is acting, his wisdom is irrefutable: Brando’s death scene is masterful, and Anthony Vito Corleone’s lovable grandfather is a scary monster.
Our attachment to the Don makes us conflicted about him, despite what he does for a living. Still, the fear he arouses makes him an even more compelling character. Of all Brando’s roles, Don Corleone has most in common with Stanley Kowalski. Both are in significant ways conventional: men among men who take pride in their families. But both are dangerous, and they force audiences to confront their attraction to men who ruthlessly pursue their ambitions and desires. By foregrounding the inseparability of their violence and seductiveness, Brando highlighted the contradictions in American norms of masculinity. While cultural mythology aligned male success with virtue, experience often suggested the opposite—that it signaled a susceptibility to corruption. The Hollywood establishment was so pleased to have Brando back on top that it overlooked what he considered the caustic appraisal of American culture that was The Godfather’s message. Cover stories in major magazines about Brando’s redemption after years of wandering in the wilderness typically offered a sampling of his opinions and then dwelled on the professional fairy tale. This was not the case with Shana Alexander’s profile in Life, which linked Brando’s ambivalence toward acting and American institutions in general to his understanding of the film’s messages. Brando observed, “The Mafia is so … AMERICAN! To me, a key phrase in [The Godfather] is that whenever they wanted to kill somebody it was always a matter of policy. Before pulling the trigger, they told him: ‘Just business. Nothing personal.’ When I read that, McNamara, Johnson and Rusk flashed before my eyes.” Alexander’s summary of Brando’s performance is equally telling: “The picture is as full of life as a Brueghel painting and as full of death as a slaughterhouse. Any actor can die, actorlike, of gunshot or garrote or knife; and in The Godfather, dozens do. Amid this wall-to-wall blood, one is stunned by the great power of the actor who can move us by falling dead of natural causes in a vegetable garden, as Brando does … In dying the way we all expect to die—unexpectedly—he teaches the difference between death as titillation and death as terror.”
Also in issue 68 of EatDrinkFilms: Susan L. Mizruchi reviews the documentary Listen to Me Marlon and Ryan Lattanzio interviews the director, Stevan Riley.Susan L. Mizruchi is Professor of English Literature at Boston University. She received B.A.’s in English and in History from Washington University in 1981 and her Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1985. Professor Mizruchi’s specialties are nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature; religion and culture; literary and social theory; literary history; and history of the social sciences. She has taught courses in literature, gender, and film at Boston University for twenty-five years. Publications include: The Rise of Multicultural America (North Carolina UP, 2008); The Science of Sacrifice: American Literature and Modern Social Theory (Princeton UP, 1998); The Power of Historical Knowledge: Narrating the Past in Hawthorne, James, & Dreiser (Princeton, 1988); and as editor, Religion and Cultural Studies (Princeton UP, 2001). She is the recipient of many academic honors, including year-long fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Huntington Library, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.