“Somebody” fails to do justice to Marlon Brando’s prodigious, and oft infuriating, talent. The literary equivalent of “The Freshman,” Stefan Kanfer’s highly derivative book shows occasional flashes of wit but never really takes flight. A former Time mag film critic, Kanfer paints a curiously flat portrait of Brando: The scribe is far more convincing describing the late thesp’s negative qualities — his laziness, perverse nature and casual cruelty — than explaining his charms. Film fans would be better served checking out earlier bios, or his pics, to see why Brando really was somebody.
Kanfer claims to have undertaken the project to show how Brando’s inner torment drove him to artistic triumph and personal misfortune. Sure enough, he spends much time psychoanalyzing the thesp, quoting liberally from “Adult Children of Alcoholics” a few pages in, and the “DSM — Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” about his oppositional defiance disorder a few chapters later. We also learn from another psychiatrist that Brando had an oral fixation “common to many neglected children.”
However, Kanfer doesn’t really serve up any particularly keen insights with these passages; anyone who has seen pics of Brando’s ballooning weight could probably have guessed he had an oral fixation. And do we really need shrinks to tell us that an autocratic, womanizing and absent father messed Brando up, and that having an alcoholic mother who also disappeared tried his soul further? It’s not as if Brando is the only star borne out of an unhappy childhood.
Kanfer is on surer ground when he explores how Brando’s sudden success fueled self-loathing and observes that the thesp’s lazy streak served as a defense mechanism when he became famous. Nor does he shy away from describing how disruptive Brando’s acting method could be to co-stars and filmmakers. In fact, Kanfer’s so persuasive about Brando’s negative qualities that one begins to wonder why he wrote the book: For all his stated admiration for his subject, he doesn’t seem to like him very much.
Part of the problem is Kanfer’s reductive writing style, which lacks the lyrical charm of Peter Manso’s expansive 1994 tome, “Brando: The Biography,” Brando’s autobiography from the same year, or Patricia Bosworth’s 2001 treatise, to name just three of the books he cites. Kanfer calls Brando a genius but does not really explain his artistry or his seductive charm. The author just tells us it is so — offering testimonials from others as proof.
The tone shifts during Brando’s sad, later years, when he coped with one family tragedy after another. He still caused havoc on sets but at least he expressed remorse about his role in his children’s struggles.
Kanfer concludes that mental illness dogged Brando for decades, “probably since his childhood.” He bases this on a passing reference in Bosworth’s book, and the fact that “so many of the actions he took were not of a rational man.”
That single paragraph epitomizes so much of what is wrong with “Somebody.” Brando’s supposed remark that he had spent a lifetime trying to be less crazy is not necessarily that damning, yet Kanfer seizes upon it as telling admission, calling it Brando’s Rosebud.
There are plenty of other groaners and leaps of logic in this tome. Kanfer strains to provide context to Brando’s life, often to awkward effect, and borrows elliptically from earlier works without necessarily crediting the source.
This likely won’t be the last Brando bio, but in the meantime, there are plenty of far superior looks at the thesp’s outsize life to peruse.