Picks and Pans Review: Brando

updated 10/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Peter Manso

Marlon Brando seems to be the only human on the planet who has no respect for his own genius. The mystery of that towering gift and his lifelong struggle to shed the burden of it is a topic that could fill volumes. At the moment, it fills two: Brando (Hyperion, $29.95), a hard-hitting unauthorized biography by Peter Manso; and Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me (Random House, $25), written by the actor with journalist Robert Lindsey.

Both books excel in depicting Brando's childhood, the fraction of his life that most clearly illuminates why his talent has never brought him happiness. "Bud" was the third child of two jazz-age alcoholics: Dodie Pennebaker, an acclaimed amateur actress, and Marlon Brando Sr., a cold, prosperous sales executive who told his son, "You won't amount to a tinker's damn." Young Brando grew up wild, unstable, plainly hateful of authority.

Accounts diverge when Brando reaches early manhood, discovers acting and rises to the station of World's Greatest Actor. As Manso tells it, Brando squandered his promise with compulsive sex and eating. To hear Brando tell it, acting was just a good way to make money, have sex and eat.

Manso makes a strong case that Brando's childhood destroyed not only his career but the sanity of his children—as evidenced by the 1990 murder of his daughter Cheyenne's fiancé, Dag Drollet. (Convicted of the crime, Brando's son Christian is now serving a 10-year prison term, and Cheyenne has been hospitalized for psychiatric problems.) For Brando—who refuses to violate the privacy of his wives or his children by including them in his opus—any good that came of his life is a sheer miracle. "If I hadn't been an actor, I've often thought that I'd have become a con man and wound up in jail. Or I might have gone crazy."

Manso's exhaustively researched, 1055-page book shows just how close the actor came. Manso's book is humorless; Marlon's book is, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. Manso brings the weight of hard facts to his argument. Brando brings little more than his magnetic presence. Between them they unlock the riddle of this complex giant, but neither quite cracks it alone.

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