A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway in 1947, signifying a brave new era for the arts. Along with pushing at the period's sexual boundaries, Tennessee Williams' provocative work showcased an electrifying 24-year-old newcomer. As the brutal Stanley Kowalski, Marlon Brando altered the very perception of the craft of acting.

To this day, Brando remains an audacious original. Marlon Brando, a new addition to the Penguin Lives series, adeptly explores the contradictions of his sometimes dazzling, often confounding career. Written by Patricia Bosworth biographer of Brando's chief 1950s rival, Montgomery Clift the book examines the forces that shaped his career and the personal demons that were its undoing.

The son of a salesman and an alcoholic, would-be actress, Brando grew up in the Midwest. But it was New York that beckoned, following his expulsion from high school (for his elaborate pranks). He worked as an elevator operator, night factory watchman, cook and enrolled in acting courses. It was under the tutelage of Stella Adler, master of method acting, that he was able to channel his rage against his father into his performances. Ever in conflict with his father, Brando adored his mother. And he cherished the frail, bespectacled Wally Cox a friend since boyhood. (Cox became famous in his own right as a comic character actor.) Hard to believe, but at the height of his glory in Streetcar, Brando shared a filthy apartment with Cox and a pet raccoon named Russell.

But then, Brando always flaunted convention. Following his move to 1950s Hollywood, he made no secret of his many affairs (he preferred exotic women) or of his disdain for the politics of moviemaking. Still, it was the screen that enshrined his performance as Kowalski. He went on to strike an indelible pose in a black leather jacket and a biker cap in The Wild One and to win an Oscar for On the Waterfront. But eventually, he cashed in and began making movies strictly for the money. The resulting performances were almost always fascinating; the movies weren't.

By the early 1970s he was considered unemployable. Then came an astounding one-two punch: The Godfather and The Last Tango in Paris. The latter, about a doomed three-day sexual relationship, was an art house sensation. The Godfather brought Brando his second Oscar. In one of the most memorable nights in Academy Award history, he sent an American Indian named Sasheen Littlefeather to reject the honor.

A skilled writer with a fluid delivery, the insightful Boswell delivers numerous memorable scenes (such as Brando in a physical tussle with Cox's widow over possession of his ashes). She doesn't delve into the tragedies involving his son Christian and daughter Cheyenne, and she all but sidesteps certain personal details, such as Brando's homosexual liaisons. But if the book is not definitive on a personal level, it is a satisfying, exceedingly colorful biography of a career.

Biographer-TV producer Pat H. Broeske has a menagerie of animals that includes an orange cat named Stanley for Stanley Kowalski.

 

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