Book review: Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando

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By Stefan Kanfer Faber and Faber, £20 Review: Siobhan Synnot

HOW important is a man who made far more bad movies than good ones? Marlon Brando had one of the most compelling but also one of the most wasteful careers of any actor, exerting a push-pull fascination that even captivated Truman Capote, who exclaimed: "Marlon Brando is an absolutely marvellous actor. He has incredible instincts. He's got such extraordinary taste and judgment, but he's so dumb it makes your skin crawl!"

By the time he died aged 80 in 2004, Brando's grasp on the public imagination had more to do with scandals, acting fees and his weight than any of his later performances. Stefan Kanfer's Somebody: The Reckless Life And Remarkable Career Of Marlon Brando reminds us of a man whose early talent was thrilling, and launched him on a lifelong struggle to shed its burden.

What were men in the movies like before Marlon Brando? They were certainly men, but it took Brando to convert the gender into a genre. At 29, he was too old for The Wild One, but more importantly he now seems far too complex. Movies often posed moral questions for men to resolve, but Brando was one of the first actors to wrestle with them. Heart-stoppingly handsome when young, he brought new emotional tools to male screen acting, such as improvisatory passion, vulnerability, self-loathing and cool. Even now, seeing the Hamlet of Hollywood pick up Eva Marie Saint's glove and put it on his big paw in On The Waterfront is one of the smallest but most expressive character gestures on film.

Kanfer's book is far less indulgent than Brando's own autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me. Published in 1994, it was written for money that Brando badly needed after a series of tragedies involving his troubled family: son Christian Brando's fatal shooting of the fianc of his half sister, and the subsequent descent into madness and suicide of Brando's daughter Cheyenne.

Brando's memoir namechecked his pet racoon and starry lovers such as Marilyn Monroe, but failed to mention any of his wives or children. Kanfer gives an economic account of a tragic court case that was the culmination of a chaotic family life. Brando viewed himself as a rakish charmer. Kanfer's narrative is less romantic.

Brando could be generous, but also controlling and unpredictable. He made a lot of money, and was the first actor to demand – and get – millions for a few days of reading from cue cards, waxing pseudobiblical and keeping a straight face as Superman's dad. But he also lost a lot of money. Buying an atoll in Tahiti was an epic Conradian convergence of power-tripping and gullibility. He had profit points in The Godfather, but sold them off to Paramount for 50,000 because he needed money, losing a pension worth millions.

Especially in his later years, the pattern was to take the money and then, fed by his self-contempt, knock the film. Sometimes he didn't even wait for the cameras to stop rolling: he fell out with Frank Oz, the director of one of his last films, The Score, within two days and refused to act if Oz was around. One crucial scene was finally directed by his co-star Robert De Niro, with Oz monitoring the performance covertly off-set. Bloated and nearly immobile in these last films, by the time he agreed to reprise Don Corleone for The Godfather video game, they had to scrap much of the recording because of the noise from Brando's oxygen tank.

Some heavy Freudian luggage should be laid at the feet of his parents. "Bud" was the third child of two alcoholics: Brando's mother, the gifted but out-of-control Dodi, neglected her family and could end up in bed with almost anyone. Marlon Sr made everyone miserable and told his son: "You won't amount to a tinker's damn." Young Brando grew up wild, unstable and hateful of authority. He became a control maniac and his paranoia smashed friendships and pillaged goodwill so that almost everyone he worked with – from his drama teacher in prep school to Arthur Penn in The Missouri Breaks and Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now – left feeling burned.

Brando didn't just yield to temptation, he lunged at it. An epic glutton for food, women and punishment, he was vast, funny and appalling – but the best passages in Kanfer's overview describe his brilliance on screen. Brando was never sure of what he had. Or perhaps he was so frightened by it that he avoided it and ridiculed it. Yet when he was capable of responding to films with great arias of acting, he was the offer moviegoers couldn't refuse.