Book Review: ‘Marlon Brando’ by Patricia Bosworth

Some years ago, I stopped in a used books sale next to a church with a friend who loves books (she works as a librarian now). As we were browsing around the books, she spotted a biography book on Marlon Brando and immediately caught my attention as she knew I was a fan of him. As it was inexpensive and, most of all, about Marlon Brando, I didn’t hesitate to buy the copy. However, I waited until January 2021 to read it. I’m pretty sure I bought it at least four years ago if it’s not five. So, one might wonder why I waited so long. Well, the main reason was that I was afraid to be disappointed. Biographies are not always as good as autobiographies (don’t get me wrong; there are excellent biography books). It just felt as one Marlon Brando biography among many. There was probably a better book on Marlon Brando out there. Later, my fear was more around the man himself. Despite being an excellent actor, someone who did a lot for civil rights and so forth, he wasn’t always an easy person to be around and one that had his own demons.

I was convinced to finally read the book after checking favourable reviews on Goodreads. Plus, it’s a relatively small book (my edition is around 300 pages, but it’s a pocket-book format).

The biography, entitled Marlon Brando, was written by former actress turned journalist and biographer Patricia Bosworth. Sadly, I just learned that she passed away last April due to COVID-19 complications. 😦 The book was originally published in 2001. Like every traditional actor biography, it explores Marlon Brando’s life from his childhood to his golden days. Note: in 2001, Marlon Brando was still alive. It gives details on his private and personal life, his relations with other people (friends, family, wives, etc.) and his films.

Being a relatively small book, it doesn’t explore every subject with lots of details. However, it’s a generally good preview of Marlon Brando’s life and, I would say, a good way to learn more about him. On my side, I can positively say that I discovered a lot. Indeed, aside from having a school-girl crush on Marlon Brando, liking him as an actor and having read some books on him that had text but also a lot of pictures, I didn’t know everything about his life either. For example, I had no idea that he was a good friend of Maureen Stapleton. Talking of friend, his longtime friendship with Wally Cox is probably the most talked-about subject in the book. I also remember reading, in one of those photo albums, that he once gave lessons to Michael Jackson. Lessons of what? Turned out it was drama lessons. Makes sense. Case closed.

Wally and Marlon

Marlon Brando was a complex character but not an uninteresting one. Some would say he was pretentious and difficult. While it could be true, I also believe he was not someone who tried to be friend with everybody and understood that you couldn’t please everybody. He was not a hypocrite. He was a no-nonsense person and, perhaps, a bit too intelligent to fit in a mould. What I appreciated about Bosworth’s writing is also how she presents Marlon Brando’s acting philosophy. How he learned his profession and chose to approach it. He was the incarnation of method acting and playing a character was more a feeling than an action for him.

Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)

More precisely, a part I found extremely interesting and informative was the 18-pages chapter dedicated exclusively to The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972). Of course, it was perhaps Marlon Brando’s best-known film. It’s considered a masterpiece of cinema history and a groundbreaking film. So, it having its own dedicated chapter was no surprise. Consequently, it was a rewarding read. It did not only give insights on Marlon Brando himself but also on the production of the film. Did you know that Francis Ford Coppola was convinced his film was going to be a flop? How wrong he was! Did you also know that he was only 31 when he directed it? We always talk about Orson Welles being only 26 when he made Citizen Kane (1941). Well, 31 is pretty young as well, especially for such a big film. If you could only read one chapter in this book, that is the one I would recommend.

Filming The Godfather

Unfortunately, despite his positive aspects, the book is far from being perfect and has noticeable flaws. In connection to what I just wrote, I believe some films discussed deserved more background. For example, the part on Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) is too short (like, a paragraph) which, honestly, surprised me (not in a good way). I know Marlon Brando’s role is relatively small, but still. I also wished there were more details on The Freshman (Andrew Bergman, 1990). No, it’s not Marlon’s most well-known film, but it’s a great one and a personal favourite. Plus, it is a comedy (Brando plays a parody of Don Corleone), a genre the actor didn’t often explore. So, it would have been interesting to know more about his approach. I feel that, after the chapters dedicated to The Goodfather and The Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972), Patricia Bosworth got rid of the rest of Brando’s filmography and dedicated very little time on the films made in his older days.

Talking of The Last Tango in Paris, the whole Maria Schneider-rape scene scandal was then not known publicly (or very little?). So, it’s not an issue the chapter addresses. However, there are some awkward reading moments… Because of that and because the book was written when Marlon was still alive, it is maybe not the most up-to-date biography. While Marlon Brando didn’t really help the cause while filming this scene, my!, Bertolucci had a twisted mind…

Of course, my fear of being disappointed by Marlon Brando the man was not totally unjustified. As I said, he was not someone who absolutely wanted to please people. But, in a way, I was prepared, and most of what I read didn’t come out as a surprise. He isn’t necessarily presented as the most approachable person, but he had his qualities too. But since we are both Aries born on April 3, maybe we would have gotten along fine. Or not. Maybe we would have spent our time arguing on something. However, I’m sure he had a good sense of humour and, in interviews, he seems nice enough. Also, it seems that he had good working relationships with some people, lesser good with some others. It’s a case-by-case situation. In other words, Brando was quite a mystery.

A French interview with Marlon Brando with a fun plot twist! This interview has always been a favourite of mine.

Who Marlon Brando was is just factual. Consequently, I found it interesting that Bosworth showed us all his facets without putting him on a pedestal. Nobody’s perfect.

However, about the book itself, its biggest flaw and, once again, that isn’t Bosworth’s fault, was the translation. It was a French version and, honestly, not a very good one. Of course, as I haven’t read the original English version, I cannot properly compare, but I feel there was something unright and clumsy about this translation. In the same vein of ideas, the type of vocabulary used at times doesn’t seem appropriate for a biography. For example, Bosworth often calls Marlon Brando “notre homme” (“our man”), which sounds too familiar in my opinion. Was it really written “our man” in the original English version? If it’s not, what does it replace? Also, I felt that, sometimes, Bosworth tends to go a bit in the subjective writing (I know Donald Spoto does that as well), which is not something commended in a biography book.

With that being said, no, Marlon Brando by Patricia Bosworth is not a perfect book, but it remains an entertaining and informative read. I believe it is a good way to get introduced to “our man”. 😉 For these reasons, I give it a rating of ***.

If you have ever read this book, I’d be curious to know what you thought of it. Or else, what do you think is Marlon Brando’s best biography? I know he wrote an autobiography which, I’m sure, is well worth reading.

See you!