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Conversations with Marlon Brando

April 3, 2009 |  5:48 pm

Brando_caesar

Marlon Brando was born 85 years ago today, and though he's been gone for five years now, he's newly revived in print. The book is "Marlon Brando: In Conversation with Lawrence Grobel," from interviews that  appeared in Playboy in 1978. Above is Brando in 1953, glowering as Marc Antony in "Julius Caesar."

In 1978, Grobel spent nine nights on Brando's Tahitian island, talking with the (semi-retired) actor and running a tape recorder. "I'm fascinated by anything," Brando tells him. "I'll talk for seven hours about splinters. What kind of splinters, how you get them out, what's the best technique, why you can get an infection. I'm interested in any … thing."

"He's full of random bits of arcane knowledge," Grobel says in the introductory pages. But this enhances rather than detracts from the discussion, which includes politics and acting as well as whatever Brando's mind lands on. Brando is open if not always serious. He knows people are baffled by him, and seems to enjoy saying baffling things. He sails and calculates how fast they are traveling, but he may be making up the method as he goes along. He catches flies with his hands, and, to amuse a 6-year-old girl, pops one into his mouth; when he opens up, the fly buzzes away.

Grobel, for the most part, keeps up. After Brando rants about city life and "rich people snorting cocaine," Grobel asks, "Do you think the rich take cocaine as a means of escape or for pleasure?" Brando answers:

If it's a pleasure not to be yourself, not to have doubts about yourself, or to have an exaggerated sense of your own importance, then perhaps it is a pleasure. But it's a questionable one because you're dealing with an unreal world and eventually you're going to have a rendezvous with a brick wall, and you'll have to return to whatever you are.

Sure, he's talking about cocaine — but is he? It's hard to read "exaggerated sense of your own importance" and not think of fame. And method actors like Brando — who felt compelled to begin psychotherapy after playing Stanley Kowalski so intensely on Broadway — what do they do if not find pleasure in not being themselves? 

On that island in Tahiti, Brando sat on the shore with Grobel the second night. Brando recites a short poem, and Grobel brings up T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" — "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me." Brando's response: "If the mermaids can't sing for me here, Christ, they never will."

These extensive interviews capture some of the contradictions, humor and playfulness of Brando. They catch him after his notorious media aversion was slackening (five years had passed since he broke paparazzo Ron Gallela's jaw) and before his family tragedies (n the 1990s, his son was convicted of manslaughter and his daughter committed suicide). His relaxed candor with Grobel is wonderful in this small reissue — from a new press owned by, of all people, director Brett Ratner — which captures a seemingly serene interval in the life of a very complicated man.

Is Grobel is correct when he writes that Brando "will doubtless be remembered as long as movies will be watched"? I don't know, but I'm not sure Brando himself would care. This book makes me think he might, but he might be just as happy talking about splinters to schools of mermaids.

— Carolyn Kellogg

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