Q and A with author Aubrey Malone, author of Brando – The Fun Side

Q and A with author Aubrey Malone, author of Brando – The Fun Side

Q. Tell us about your book “Brando – The Fun Side.”
A. I started it a number of years ago. I grew up on Brando as “the” actor of his time. Every film he made in the fifties became a must-see one. It was an event, the same way a Robert De Niro film became an event a few decades on. When he died in 2004 I was surprised that there wasn’t more talk about him.

Q. Why do I think that was?
A. Probably because of his age – he was eighty. And of course he hadn’t been doing anything of note for many years up to that. When James Dean – that other iconic figure of the fifties - died in 1955 it was like a national tragedy. We were told people were killing themselves in their grief they way they did after Rudolph Valentino died in 1929. That’s because he was young and beautiful. The same thing happened with Marilyn Monroe even though she was in her thirties when she died. We had all those conspiracy theories about her being murdered to add to the drama.

Q. How does Dean fit into the picture with you vis-à-vis Brando.
A. Brando was a planet, Dean a satellite. His output was too small at the time he died for us to make any realistic appraisal of his talent. He adored Brando but the feeling wasn’t mutual. Maybe Brando was threatened by him, though I think he was more threatened by Montgomery Clift.

Q. Where does Elvis – the fourth icon of the fifties – fit into this matrix?
A. Elvis had it over Brando, Dean and Marilyn in that he died in his home town, as it were, of Memphis. Well he grew up in Tupelo but his main home was Graceland. Someone once described Graceland as a cross between Lourdes and Disneyland. It gave people somewhere to grieve. Graceland became a shrine in 1977. In a sense it still is one. Brando has no shrine. Jack Nicholson bought his home on Mulholland Drive after he died and pulled it asunder. They were neighbors for years beforehand. I don’t think Brando was too happy about that. He liked Jack but didn’t think he was in the same league as De Niro.

Q. Getting back to your book, why did you choose Brando’s funny side as your theme?
A. I wanted to write a book about him but baulked at the idea of going down the same road as all his other biographers. They all wrote very good books about him but I didn’t feel any of them were breaking new ground. Even a recent one that came out on him, “The Contender,” uses the same title as Gary Carey’s book from the seventies. I thought: Has nobody anything new to say about such an interesting man?

Q. So you focused on the humor.
A. It was almost impossible not to. It was screaming out at me from almost every page of these books but the biographers casually skated across it. It was as if they felt it was just a sideline to his personality. I wanted to emphasize the fact that it was an endemic part of it. Brando was a farm boy, an earthy spirit. I don’t think he’d have become an actor if his mother and sister weren’t involved in acting. Did you know his mother taught Henry Fonda?

Q. No. She had a drink problem, didn’t she?
A. Yes, and so had his father. Brando loved his mother but the drink got in the way. He had no time at all for his father. He was on the road a lot in his job and seemed to pick up women in every town he went to.

Q. Not that Brando himself was any saint in that department!
A. Agreed. But he had so much more charisma than his father. And women more or less knew what they were dealing with when they dated him, or even married him. I don’t make any claims for sainthood for Brando in the book. Writers should never judge their subjects. One person who read my book said to me, “You’re condoning juvenile delinquency.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was after they’d read the early chapters about him getting up to mischievous japes in school. I said, “I’m only reporting the facts.” I used to be a teacher myself once. Brando would have been a nightmare as a pupil. I had many of such nightmares myself but after the bell went for the end of the day they were usually my favourite pupils. The war was over – at least for another 24 hours.

Q. So his prankish side began early.
A. Almost from the cradle. Because of his dysfunctional relationship with his parents he made his life with his sisters, Jocelyn and Frances, both of whom he was very close to. They indulged his impish side in a way his parents couldn’t have. He rebelled against his father, which became symbolic of the way he subsequently rebelled against studio bosses and other father figures he met in his life. Such a stand-off was also a plotline or motif of many of his movies.

Q. I imagine you don’t spill too much ink on this in your book.
A. No, unless it ties in with my theme. Such material has been covered ad nauseam by the other biographers. I collected as many anecdotes as I could find that testified to him as “The Wild One” – someone who liked pulling people down from their perches in the most hilarious ways.

Q. What kind of a sense of humor did he have?
A. It was always original, sometimes cruel, sometimes scatological, sometimes resulting in the ending of friendships. You had to love Brando a lot to understand or forgive it or not to fall out with him as a result of it. He drove people away and pulled them back repeatedly in his life, often for reasons that didn’t even seem clear to himself. He was a chameleon and we see that in the number of guises he took on in his performances.

Q. Was he the most versatile perform of his time?
A. I don’t think you can point to any other actor from any era who played as many nationalities as he did. He was also a brilliant mimic. He could imitate someone to the nth degree five minutes after meeting them. This came in handy when he became a ham radio guru, connecting with people all over the world in another identity.

Q. Do you have many anecdotes in your book about this aspect of him?
A. One that stands out is when he imitated a man from my own country, Ireland. Eoghan Harris, a Cork-born journalist, went to L.A. once to work on a script for Brando. After their meeting was over he rang room service and said in a Cork voice, “This is Eoghan Harris and I want a call girl sent up to my room!” Eoghan was mortified.

Q. Was Brando trick-acting all the time or was it a cover for his deeper side? Was he a Pagliacci figure in any sense?
A. You mean like the sad clown?

Q. Yes.
A. He had times of depression without a doubt. Why else would he have submitted himself to so many psychiatrists over the years?

Q. Did he get anything out of them?
A. Not much. After forty years of counselling he concluded, “They were nuttier than I was!”

Q. The arrest of his son Christian on a murder charge in 1990 must have fortified any tendency towards depression. How did that sit with your humor theme?
A. There was no way to avoid it. That chapter of my book probably clashes a bit with the other ones for this reason. I wasn’t trying to say his life was a laugh a minute all the time. Whose life could be? But there were even moments during that dark time when he found laughter as the best medicine to get him through it.

Q. Did most of his co-stars “get” his humor?
A. No. As I said, sometimes we didn’t even get it himself. Often he used it to test friendships. You were always on trial with Brando if you were a director, a friend, or a co-star.

Q. Were there any co-stars in particular he clashed with?
A. How long have you got?

Q. Give me an example.
A. Let me see, there are so many. One that sticks out in my mind is Glenn Ford on the set of “Teahouse of the August Moon.” They behaved like two children. He felt Brando was upstaging him. Jessica Tandy had felt the same thing in the stage version of “A Streetcar Named Desire” when he chewed gum during her big speeches. He argued with all three of his co-stars in “The Fugitive Kind.” Sometimes his arguments were Method-based. If he was in a battle with them in the plot, like, say, Trevor Howard in “Mutiny of the Bounty” he might carry that into his personal relationship with him to “help” his performance. Other times the sparring was more adolescent. In his early years on Broadway he was capable of picking his nose on stage to distract attention from someone if he didn’t like them.

Q. Most of us who don’t know Brando in any detail tend to go with the “moody Marlon” image of him. Is there any part of your book where this might contradict your emphasis?
A. Sometimes they were both in evidence at the same time. Shirley Jones called around to his house one night for dinner when she was making “Bedtime Story” with him. Brando stayed under a table for her entire visit. She said to the other guests, “What’s wrong with Marlon?” They told her something was going on with Christian, that he was upset with him.” She just said, “Oh.” With Brando you had to accept such things. I think he may have waved goodnight to her at the end of the evening – from under the tablecloth.

Q. Did she like him?
A. Not really. Like a lot of stars, she had to put up with his penchant for endless retakes of scenes. That drove so many people crazy. They knew directors would print the take Brando was best in, not the one where they did best. Some people felt he deliberately did umpteen takes to exhaust his co-stars so they’d have nothing left in the tank when he was ready to turn his genius on.
Q. Was this done deliberately?

A. I don’t think so. Brando wasn’t contrived. He always went with the flow during his life. That’s what makes it so fascinating. Often he didn’t know what he was going to do next in a scene himself, never mind his co-stars. You may have heard he wore a listening device in his ear in his later career so lines could be fed to him through it. He didn’t want to know what his lines were until the actual moment he was going to say them. His logic was that this is the way things are in life. We never know what we’re going to say in life so why should we in movies? It makes perfect sense but obviously it isn’t very practical. It made directors’ lives very difficult when they were working with him.

Q. He changed lines a lot too, didn’t he?
A. Nearly all the time. The only two writers he wouldn’t adapt, he said, were Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams.

Q. His idea of spontaneous delivery through a device sounds very intriguing.
A. He once told Anthony Quinn he only wore it to save himself the hassle of learning lines.

Q. Do you believe that/
A. With Brando you never know what to believe. He liked sending himself up. The only time he rose to his defense was when other people sent him up, or when they told him he was washed up.

Q. Do you think he became something of a self parody in his later years?
A. Unquestionably. He’d been debunking the profession of acting as “a bum’s life” almost from the start. As the years progressed and he became more and more cynical about Hollywood as a “cultural boneyard,” as he put it, he cared less and less about the quality of his performances. At a certain point he just kept acting for the money. With growing families and an island in Hawaii to keep going, such concerns became paramount for him. “If they paid me $1 million a year just to sweep the studio floor,” he said once, “I’d happily do that.”

Q. That was sad, wasn’t it?
A. I don’t think so. He’d done it all. He was entitled to pull down the pillars, like Samson. The fact that he did it with a smile on his face was the icing on the cake.

Q. I think this is where we came in. Good luck with your book.
A. Thank you.

Older Post Newer Post

Leave a comment