Marlon Brando, perhaps the most influential actor of the 20th century, and George Englund, jobbing director/producer and the author of this slim memoir, completed one movie together. The Ugly American (1963) wasn’t exactly a defining moment in the actor’s filmography but, as The Naked Brando: Portrait of a Friendship testifies, they were far more than just colleagues. The two knew each other for almost fifty years and Englund was the last friend ever to visit Brando, just one day before he passed away at his home on Mulholland Drive.
It was an unconventional bromance – Englund, at least according to this account, was somewhere between Brando’s sparring partner and his punching bag – and there’s no conventional mapping out of the actor’s career in these pages. Instead the chapters flit from the old Brando, bloated, weary and trundling an oxygen tank behind him, the glamorous and legendary figure of the early Sixties – already a shade past his prime – and the troubled wreck of the early Nineties, part tragic King Lear, part Falstaffian buffoon.
You very quickly learn a lot of random facts about Brando. He was five foot ten, he played the congas, he had a bad knee, he could fart at will (to the consternation of various girlfriends), he sometimes wore Chanel No. 5 and he spoke French fluently (not so easy to believe, given the way he often chewed his lines). Englund knows how to shape a lively anecdote, and there are tales of fun encounters with rapacious Italian actress Anna Magnani, Western author Louis L’Amour, President Kennedy and Jackie (on separate occasions) and a surreal game of touch football where Rebel Without A Cause scriptwriter Steward Stern tries to ward off a berserk Brando with a Basque shepherd cry.
Even so, a veil of unreality hangs over the virile and muscular Brando. Perhaps timing has something to do with it. The pair first met in 1955, a few months before Brando won the Best Actor Oscar for On the Waterfront. With three Academy Award nominations in four years, Brando’s best was already behind him, and Englund never encountered the committed artist who delivered those brilliant early performances. What he did get to experience, intimately, was Brando’s decline. His explanation for it is simple. The more power and prestige Brando achieved, the less self-discipline he was able to muster.
A mother ‘removed by drink’ and an absentee father had together given the young Marlon an obsession with bending rules and bucking authority. Having achieved unprecedented success in a few short years, Brando was free to pour his testing behaviour into his film work, with disastrous consequences.
Whatever the reason, Brando’s fall was stupendous and is charted by Englund with resigned humour. There are early, comical signs of it on The Ugly American. Twenty-five pounds overweight, Brando waves away the finger-food at a chic Hollywood party, only to be caught stuffing himself with pie in the kitchen. By the early Nineties, Brando’s life had turned into a bitter morality tale. One of his children commits suicide, another is arrested and tried for murder (Brando was down the hall watching TV in his bedroom when the fatal shooting took place) – it’s as if they’re furies raised to punish him for his earlier neglect. No longer the glittering centre of attention, he leaves incoherent messages on the author’s answerphone.
In his salad days Brando was suspicious of anything that was too commercial, but by this time was interested only in freeloading upon his fame. Between domestic tragedies he squandered his time on get rich quick schemes – an autobiography, an island hotel for Japanese businessmen, acting master-classes on DVD and, best of all, bottling and selling Marlon Brando’s Tahiti Rainwater. His determination to foist all the work onto his hapless partners while at the same time trying to cut them out of the deal ensured that none of these schemes made it very far. He was still worrying about money even as he took to his deathbed, where he wheezed out his last days, miserable and incontinent.
It’s a bruising story, but Englund tells it in a way that is, for the most part, brisk and stoical. Perhaps because his prose has some of the high colour of Fifties pulp writing, he comes off rather like one of those semi-hardboiled narrators you get in movies like The Bad and the Beautiful and The Barefoot Contessa – someone who has seen it all and lived to tell the tale. And there’s at least one episode you would love to have seen on celluloid: a middle-aged Brando, black and white TV perched on mountainous stomach, watching On the Waterfront in bed and reminiscing fondly about a lost past.