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IF you think Seth MacFarlane made audiences squirm in their seats when he hosted this year's Oscars, it's worth remembering the comparative discomfort caused in 1973, when Marlon Brando, winner of that year's Best Actor award, refused to turn up to collect his prize from Roger Moore, he of the rictus grin. Instead, Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather, a native American Indian spokesperson, in his place. When Brando's name was called, she went up on stage, politely declined the statuette, and explained that Marlon would not accept it on political grounds, and wanted to protest against the unfair depictions of Native American Indians in film.

It was just one example of the renegade spirit, the contempt for conformity and disdain for fame that defined Brando in his life and his career. Still widely regarded as the greatest actor who ever lived, Brando's engagement with Hollywood was both glorious and ignominious. Ultimately, it was a bitter wrestling match which left both the studios and the star exhausted and defeated.

He wasn't ever one to sugarcoat truths about his character. "I'm crazy," he told his long-standing and long-suffering secretary Alice Marchak when she first came to work for him, "You should also know that I'm addicted to sex." That was in the Seventies, before the lexicon of sex addiction had really been developed, but no doubt modern experts would agree with Brando's self-diagnosis, especially when one takes even the most cursory glance over his romantic history.

So when the news broke last month that Rita Moreno, the West Side Story actress, has revealed in her memoirs that she had an affair with Brando for eight years, her story hardly seemed surprising. Her account of being bowled over by Brando's sexual charisma, and of the destructive love that followed, culminating in her suicide attempt in his home when he finally left her, seemed utterly in keeping with the public image of Brando that we know; a composite image built from the energy he brought to his characters – from a sadistic Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, to the damaged, sexually obsessed divorcee in Last Tango In Paris – and the details of his off-screen life. In real life, he veered from the committed supporter of minority rights, and champion of underdogs everywhere, to the man who once tied his young lover and future wife, Tarita Teriipia, to a bed as punishment for some transgression and left her there until his PA stepped in to rescue her.

Like most women, Rita Moreno found his volatile spirit compelling. "To say that he was a great lover – sensual, generous, delightfully inventive – would be gravely understating what he did not only to my body, but for my soul," an excerpt from Moreno's book reads. "Every aspect of being with Marlon was thrilling, because he was more engaged in the world than anyone else I'd ever known." The life-affirming excitement he represented to her didn't come without a price, it must be said. He was almost compulsively unfaithful, to her, and any other person he became involved with.

Marlon Brando was born in Omaha, Nebraska, into a state of high dysfunction. His mother, Dodie, was an amateur actress and an alcoholic. His father, too, was a heavy drinker, a philanderer and a violent drunk. Brando was expelled from military school in his teens, and found his way to New York. "I suppose the story of my life is a search for love,'' Brando said, in his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me. "But more than that, I have been looking for a way to repair myself from the damages I suffered early on and to define my obligation, if I had any, to myself and my species.''

When he first announced to his father his ambitions to become an actor, the news was greeted with disdain. "Tell me if anyone would want to see a yokel like you on the stage," Marlon Brando Snr wrote to him. But, hanging around with the stage rats, he soon found himself keeping company with the legendary Stella Adler, maven of New York theatre and one of the greatest practitioners ever to have taught the craft of acting. Brando's beginnings on stage were nothing short of incendiary. Early witnesses to his performances – in plays such as Truckline Cafe and A Streetcar Named Desire, opposite Jessica Tandy – spoke about them in much the same language as Rita Moreno uses to describe him as a lover; to come into close proximity to the young Brando, it seemed was to be overwhelmed by his discomforting intensity, subsumed, dominated and transfixed.

Joan Baez, remembers of her first time clapping eyes on him in the flesh: "I tried to see his face clearly, hoping he would glance over just once and look straight into my eyes. As he evaporated into the crowd my heart pounded so hard my body shook."

If his affair with Rita lasted eight years, the one he is rumoured to have had with Marilyn Monroe was similarly said to have been on and off for years. Other stars (female and male) believed to have shared his bed include Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner, Hedy Lamarr, Rita Hayworth, James Dean and Rock Hudson. He famously caused a rift between the Collins sisters (Joan and Jackie) when he seduced the latter when she was just 15 and he was already into his 30s. "He stared straight at my 39in chest – men often talk to my chest – and said: "That's a great-looking body you have, little girl'," Jackie told one interviewer. Joan reportedly also had a relationship with him.

It seemed there wasn't a woman alive, either in Hollywood or elsewhere, who could resist him. He exploded onto celluloid as the anti-Cary Grant; unvarnished and brawny, those giant shoulders and brooding brow offset by the almost alarming sensuality of his mouth. He wasn't spiffed and squeaky clean, he was a rough, grimy, brute male. His trademark style adopted by American men with alacrity, was a dirty hands combination of T-shirt and jeans. If James Dean made the teenagers scream, Marlon Brando made grown women melt.

Stella Adler took Brando into his home, and even hoped that he would marry her daughter Ellen, who was 17 when she met the then 20-year-old actor. "One thing that Marlon had was that he paid such attention to you when he was talking to you that you immediately became filled with his attention. That was his way of seducing you," Ellen remembered. Marlon was, at this time, far too distracted by the world of sexual opportunity that had opened up at his feet to think about marriage, but the pair were to remain lifelong friends.

From the off, his attitude towards Hollywood veered between ambivalence and open disdain. "The only reason I'm here is that I don't yet have the moral courage to turn down the money,'' he once said. He despised the power-broking, schmoozing and great sense of self-importance of the film industry. Even Truman Capote, who wrote a savage hatchet job of an interview, revealing his bloated ego, that has gone down in journalism history, described him as "the least opportunistic person I've ever known. He never gave a damn about anybody who could help him; you might say he went out of his way to avoid them".

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According to Ellen Adler, fame interfered with his way of engaging with the world. "He loved to study people," she says. "And being famous got in the way of that. Because now they were looking at him instead of the way it had been before. Before the fame."

After a faltering start in pictures, he hit gold with his role in On the Waterfront, the Elia Kazan-directed picture which won Brando his first Oscar – the one he was persuaded to turn up to collect himself. It was a professional high water mark, to which he wouldn't return for almost 20 years, when he took on the role of Don Corleone in The Godfather series. After that, he had a few other hits including Last Tango In Paris and Apocalypse Now, but then gave up the ghost. His career declined into farce. He earned a reputation as demanding and intractable on set, of turning up ill prepared and unrehearsed. He was losing his hair, and his battles with his weight, bloating into a man twice his previous size.

Meanwhile, as he became increasingly reclusive as a man, his life was becoming tabloid fodder.

His first marriage, to the actress Anna Kashfi, ended after just a year. As The London Times put it in his obituary, "There had been plenty of bad publicity about his marriage to Anna Kashfi, who claimed to be Anglo-Indian, but whose father later declared her to be pure Irish."

Rumour had it her real name was Joan O'Callaghan. Anna had a reputation as an alcoholic who was prone to rages.

On one occasion, she abducted the couple's son Christian from boarding school during a row with Marlon and drove him over the border to Mexico. Marlon had to abandon ship on set filming Last Tango in Paris, in order to organise for the boy's safe return.

He hadn't much success at marriage. Wife number two, the Mexican actress Movita Castaneda lasted less than two years, but it was his marriage to Polynesian boatman's daughter Tarita Teriipia, whom he met when she appeared alongside him in Mutiny On The Bounty, that catalysed the major tragedy of his life. Tarita was 18 years younger than Brando, and even after they were married, refused to leave her native Tahiti to be with him in America.

Nonetheless, the couple had two children together and Brando's big messy brood struggled to assimilate. In 1997, their daughter Cheyenne fell pregnant and confessed (falsely) to her half brother Christian that a local boy was abusing her. In a rage, Christian shot the kid in question dead in his father's living room.

The result was a Hollywood show trial with all the bells and whistles, including an hour-long monologue from the defendant's father. Christian eventually served five years in jail. His half sister Cheyenne committed suicide in 1995.

In total, Brando had 11 children, (though many believe there are others unacknowledged) including three with his housekeeper, who shared his bed in the house on Mulholland Drive to which he eventually retreated, having finally abandoned his career. There, he succumbed to ill health, eventually becoming alienated from his professional circle. It's telling that in his later years, one of his closest friends was Michael Jackson, who regarded him as a father figure. The pair had a lot in common, but even battle- hardy Jackson fans didn't know what to make of the obese man who periodically appeared alongside their idol on stage.

Brando died, aged 80, in 2004, surrounded by a Filipino family that had moved into his house, under the auspices of overseeing his care and affairs.

Though he did his best to extinguish the legend he became, fame hasn't left him, even in death. If anything, it's only reinforced his star status.

"I searched for, but never found, what I was looking for either on screen or off," he said, with resignation rather than in peace, near the end of his life. "Mine was a glamorous, turbulent life but completely unfulfilling."

'Rita Moreno, A Memoir', is published by Penguin

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