The Way It's Never Been Done Before
My Friendship with Marlon Brando
by George Englund
HarperEntertainment, 292 pp., $25.95
MARLON BRANDO LEFT HIS INDELIBLE imprint on two generations of American actors--and not just American: Actors from nearly every country reflect something of his style. He was an icon, for good or for ill, and icons by their nature tend to be largely mythic beings, receiving all manner of interpretation. Brando is certainly no exception.
The director George Englund was a friend from their first meeting in 1956 at a Hollywood party where Brando sought Englund's help in fending off an exceedingly determined Anna Magnani. "I need some protection," said Marlon.
So he took Englund (and Englund's then-wife Cloris Leachman) along with Magnani, insisting he had to drive the Englunds home to Fresno because of some strange medical condition of Englund's eyes that prevented his driving at night.
Despite Magnani's angry protests, Brando dropped the actress off at her hotel and began a five-decade friendship with Englund.
From that night until Brando's death in June 2004 at age eighty--when Englund was the last person to see him--the two men's lives intertwined. Englund's The Way It's Never Been Done Before: My Friendship with Marlon Brando is no conventional movie-star biography. Englund confines himself to recollections of moments he and Brando shared. Whole decades pass with hardly more than a linking sentence. There's no feel of prettying or whitewashing of the past.
It was Brando who suggested Englund's writing some years ago. "Write about anything, write about something you know," suggested Brando. And so, without telling Brando, Englund began putting down on paper the scenes, incidents, and conversations he and Brando had been having over the decades. Some of the scenes are grim, such as Englund's final visit, when Brando had oxygen tubes in his nose and was suffering from considerable pain. Others are disarmingly blithe, such as Brando's first date in Hollywood with the Indian actress Anna Kashfi, a woman he would marry and divorce within a little more than a year. Yet others balance comedy and a kind of ghastly horror, such as a business meeting with Englund, Brando, and his father, then CEO of Brando's production company--when, as Englund describes it, "a quiet madness prevailed."
And then there is the night in Washington, a few weeks after President Kennedy's assassination, when Englund brings Brando over to Averell Harriman's house, where the president's widow and her sister Lee Radziwill are staying. After quite a few martinis, they decide to go out for dinner. Englund calls the Jockey Club, arranges for a quiet table in the rear, but their walking through the main room causes a sensation and before they can order, word comes that the press is on its way. What ensues is a hectic scene, followed by a touching recollection of Jackie Kennedy recalling her husband's death to Englund while Brando and her sister are in the kitchen making omelets.
One thing that drew the two men together was the difficult relations they had with their fathers--or, in Englund's case, no relations. Englund had actually not known his father, an alcoholic who dropped out of his son's life when the boy was six months old. As for Brando, Englund writes, "Constantly in his youth Marlon was fed his father's anger and alcoholism, forced to endure the man's absences and learn of his infidelities. When his father did come home, he was derisive, dismissive, and derogatory about his son's ability to do anything. Mountainous anger seized up in Marlon and for the rest of his life he would lay a lick on anyone who even resembled a father or held a father's authority." As for Englund, "Throughout my life I searched for my father, I searched for him in Marlon. Marlon sought a better father in me."
As for their mothers, Englund has dedicated his book to them, noting over time he has increasingly felt his mother's hand on his life. "Marlon's mother was too often lost to him, too often in an alcoholic mist outside his reach, but her maternal force was in him. The confused, gnarly man who was his father, that man was plainly not the source of Marlon's talent. I believe the source was his mother."
Then too both Englund and Brando had sons of their own. "Marlon and I both intended to be good fathers. Whatever happened later, we began with high resolve." One of Englund's sons died of an overdose of heroin in a dingy hotel in New York, and Brando was not quite the supportive friend Englund might have expected. But he endeavors to understand and seems to realize what Brando must have been experiencing with two of his own children.
BRANDO'S SON, Christian, was the object of heavy media coverage when he shot and killed the fiancé of his half-sister Cheyenne after she told him that the man, by whom she was more than six months pregnant, was abusing her. Brando hired William Kunstler to defend his boy, stood by him, put up his house for a two-million-dollar bail, and testified for him in court. The young man's psychiatrist testified that: "Despite the material advantages conferred on him by the Brando name, neither parent provided a stable, safe, emotional environment for Christian to grow up in." The boy was sentenced to ten years in prison, and Cheyenne, a complicated, difficult young woman, committed suicide not that long afterwards.
Englund came also to know all too well what it was like to work with the actor. He directed Brando in The Ugly American, made on location in Thailand and released in 1963. After one particularly infuriating time arguing with Brando over contractual matters, he observes, "I've seen Marlon wreck so many deals, so many projects--everything is going the right way and suddenly he flings in some new condition. Then he won't budge from it." He also notes: "Marlon's will to have things his way is almost unopposable. His acting ability, his storytelling, his doggedness finally bend you. But in the unlikely event those techniques don't work, he goes to the major weapon, abandonment of the whole civilized code. His face can show such anger, such threat of anarchy if you don't accede to what he's demanding that you do. No one has ever matched him in this threat to bring the empire down."
A powerful sense of the nature of the friendship that existed between the two men reigns throughout The Way It's Never Been Done Before, without ever slipping into the maudlin or sentimental. Englund's perceptions and observations don't exactly explain what went into the makeup of this particular icon, but they cast more illumination than we are likely to encounter elsewhere.
Cynthia Grenier is a writer in Washington, D.C.