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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 180 Contents

Martin Jones


The wild one


From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me
Marion Brando with Robert Lindsey
Century £17.99

The making of films in Hollywood has very little to do with artistic merit or talent. All that matters is that a project makes money.

Central to this is the creation of stars. The lead actors are turned into people to be admired and held in awe. As Marlon Brando points out, ‘Celebrities of a certain kind are treated as messiahs whether they like it or not’.

Brando has been a part – reluctantly, he asserts – of this myth machine since the success of the stage version of A Streetcar Named Desire catapulted him to fame in 1947.

But Brando is special, not only because of his acting, the length of time that he has been making films or because a number of the films he has made have been controversial.

Since the early 1960s he has taken radical and often principled stands off screen that have led him into direct confrontation with both the Hollywood establishment and the government. He has displayed a healthy disdain of authority and a self effacing modesty seldom seen from ‘legends’. How much of this public persona is genuine and how much of it is the created myth?

Coming to New York in 1943 in his early twenties, he found himself amongst a Jewish community swollen by those escaping Nazi occupied Europe. Totally overwhelmed by this cultural and intellectual whirlpool, he not only learnt to act but by 1945 was doing speaking tours to raise money for the Stern Gang.

He wrote later:

‘I was outraged along with most people ... that the British were stopping ships from carrying the half-starved survivors of Hitler’s death camps to a new life ... I did not know at the time Jewish terrorists were indiscriminately killing Arabs and making refugees out of them in order to take their land’.

For much of the 1950s Brando kept quiet during the McCarthy era. Here, he condemns not only the redbaiting witch hunts but also film director Elia Kazan, an ex-Communist who gave evidence to the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee, naming scores of ex-comrades, which resulted in their being blacklisted.

At the time, however, his actions were less damning. Not only did he continue to work with him but starred in On the Waterfront, which Kazan attempted to use as a vehicle to justify his betrayal. However, by the early 1960s Brando was pulled into the radicalisation that began to shake the US.

His description of the notoriety surrounding his film The Wild One should serve as an explanation of his own political development:

‘The civil rights movement, rioting in the streets because of racial injustice and the Vietnam War, were just around the corner. A sense of alienation was rising among different generations and different layers of society ... Old traditions and venerated institutions were distrusted and the social fabric was being replaced by something new.’

Through the 1960s he threw himself into a whole range of struggles: getting arrested to promote the rights of Native Americans, taking part in Freedom Rides, meeting with the Black Panthers and exposing Third World poverty.

Yet something does not ring true. I think he was genuine. With the explosion of social protests that swept the US into almost open rebellion, Brando was picked up and came out fighting on the right side. However, the fact that he was a multi-millionaire, and always an ‘outsider’, meant that as the movement fragmented and declined he was left with no gravitational pull that could make sense of the ideas that he had come across.

Something else has to be addressed when reading this, in parts very interesting, if contradictory, book: Brando’s attitude to women. He attempts to disguise a nauseating sexist outlook behind a Freudian analysis of rejection by his mother that will simply not wash.

It would seem we are now left with a man who looks at the world through the distorted mirror of an over inflated ego and sees no hope for humanity other than the discovery of DNA which will at some point in the future allow ‘a genetic fault that causes errant behaviour or self destruction ... simply [to] be removed’. At times you are left wondering if this garbage comes from the same person. Sadly, I think it does.

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