Bookreview:The Contender
William Foreman (The Freeman) - October 24, 2019 - 12:00am

CEBU, Philippines — Mercurial, feline, charismatic, sullen, progressive, brutal: actor Marlon Brando was a knot of contradictions. Passionate about social justice and civil rights, Brando could also treat the many women in his life as disposable. Hailed as a genius for his intense performances in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront,” Brando struggled to retain his interest in acting and refused to play the Hollywood game. Prizewinning Hollywood biographer William J. Mann masterfully captures Brando’s allure, his psychological complexity and the epic arc of his career in “The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando.”

Mann interweaves narrative strands from Brando’s traumatic childhood through his professional ascent to build a layered portrait of his ambivalences, rages and sexuality. Why did Brando punch a fellow actor backstage in his early years at the New School’s Dramatic Workshop? A flashback to Brando’s turbulent time in military school suggests possible answers. Similarly, Brando’s fluid sexuality and active sex life (he called himself a “sex addict” long before the term was common currency) is interwoven against childhood scenes with his beloved but neglectful, alcoholic mother.

The portrait of 1940s New York and Brando’s time at the Dramatic Workshop is particularly fascinating. Mann punctures the myth that Brando was a Method actor (someone trained in the Strasberg method) by showing how pivotal the acting teacher (and Stanislavski disciple) Stella Adler was in Brando’s life and work. Adler not only trained Brando in her technique but also took him into her culturally and intellectually progressive home, opening his eyes to art and politics. Adler’s milieu was the source for Brando’s lifelong political activism.

Subsequent chapters in Brando’s life and work are as carefully and fairly handled. Extensive interviews (with Ellen Adler, Rita Moreno, Elaine Stritch and many others) reveal Brando’s complex and often ambivalent relationships with women, his children and Hollywood.

From Mann, Brando receives a biography every bit as compelling and powerful as his own stage presence.  Reviewed by Catherine Hollis (

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