The alarm bell goes off in the middle of the subtitle: Brando’s ‘thought’? Who the heck is interested in Brando as a thinker? Few would question his right to be considered the most influential English-language actor of the 20th century, and many would concede that – neck and neck with Olivier? – he may well have been the greatest. To cite a few triumphs: One-Eyed Jacks, On the Waterfront, The Godfather, The Missouri Breaks. Yet even if Brando had been a mute inglorious Spinoza in his spare time, it would not have made a splinter of difference to his colossal gifts. Brando’s talent was akin to that of a great dancer, a great athlete, a great instrumental soloist, whose instrument was his entire body: he was fiercely intelligent, like a predatory animal, but not a systematic man of ideas. His was, if you like, a Shakespearean talent, rich in negative capability. And you don’t usually get that way by reading books.
One of the selling points of Susan Mizruchi’s biography is that it shows Brando did get that way, or at any rate part of that way, by reading books. As she says, she is ‘the first biographer to have reviewed Brando’s archives’, including his