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Marlon Brando Uncaged: The Rebel's Untold Story by Burt Kearns

In his groundbreaking book "Marlon Brando: Hollywood Rebel," author Burt Kearns offers an unparalleled glimpse into the life of one of cinema's most enigmatic figures. Through meticulous research and exclusive interviews, Kearns paints a vivid portrait of Brando that goes far beyond the silver screen. This isn't just another celebrity biography; it's a deep dive into the psyche of a man who revolutionized acting and challenged Hollywood norms.

Kearns' work stands out for its raw honesty and fresh insights. He doesn't shy away from Brando's complexities, exploring both the actor's undeniable genius and his personal struggles. The book reveals how Brando's rebellious spirit not only shaped his career but also influenced an entire generation of performers. Read more below from Journalist John Wisniewski's exclusive interview with Kearns.

Interview on Marlon Brando: Hollywood Rebel

  1. Why did you want to write your book on Marlon Brando, Burt? What do you like about  Brando?


At the time, I was looking for a project to follow my book, Lawrence Tierney: Hollywood's Real-Life Tough Guy, and had been encouraged by my agent and adviser Lee Sobel to take on a subject who might be more familiar to the general audience-- and publishers. As it happened, Brando’ centennial-- April 3, 2024 -- was in the not-so-distant future, and even today, twenty years after his death, his name would be familiar to most readers, even young ones.  That, of course, led to the next challenge: What could be written about Marlon Brando that hadn't already been covered? There must be dozens of books about the great actor. Peter Manso’s biography went on for eleven hundred pages. Brando told his story in Songs My Mother Taught Me.  The difference came down to my perspective, not as a film buff or fan of The Godfather, but as a journalist, documentarian, and researcher who’s covered and contributed to popular culture for decades. Brando was always one of the most mysterious and enigmatic figures of my generation. I was a teenager when The Godfather was released. Before that, I knew him from The Wild One, the image of Brando on the motorcycle, the poster that was on my bedroom wall alongside the one of Peter Fonda in Easy Rider-- the picture that's on the cover of the book. In the 1960s, that poster was everywhere. Brando was an icon. In Marlon Brando: Hollywood Rebel, I used specific moments in Brando’s life and career as jumping-off points to the facets of popular culture he influenced, and continue to influence, a hundred years after his birth and twenty years after his death. And I discovered that Brando’s influence goes far beyond acting-- to the youth revolution, civil rights movement, rock ’n’ roll, fashion, psychotherapy, art, male sexuality, leather, biker, punk, and gay cultures, political activism, environmentalism -- even eco-tourism. And he had a defining influence on individuals, from Jack Kerouac to Andy Warhol, Elvis to the Beatles-- the Village People to Andrew Dice Clay! And as I wrote in the book, it’s surprising how much of this can be traced back to the film The Wild One.


2. What film made Brando a big star? What made Hollywood really notice him? 

Brando was already making a name for himself as a stage actor, in New York and on Broadway,  as a young man who’d stop a show with guttural howls of anguish or mumble his lines, before A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway on December 3, 1947. But his role as the brutal Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar was transformational. Here was an actor who wasn’t merely reciting lines and projecting to the last rows in the balcony. Here was an actor who seemed to be simply living onstage, expressing a realism that Broadway audiences hadn’t experienced. And in his tight jeans and a sweaty t-shirt that was deliberately a size too small, Brando was very sexual presence. Kowalski was the villain! He rapes the heroine, the fragile, fallen southern belle Blanche DuBois, but because of his performance, the audiences took his side! The director Elia Kazan later said, “What could I say to Brando? ‘Be less good?’”  By the time Brando left Streetcar and made his way to Hollywood in the fall of 1949, there had been many offers and Hollywood was ready for him. He was the Brat from Broadway, the Mumbler, the Slob,  but also the next Big Thing.  Brando didn't do what was expected of the latest Hollywood ingenue. He didn't arrive at Los Angeles Airport, check into the Beverly Hills Hotel and show up at Ciro’s with the latest starlet. He got off a train in the suburb of Alhambra and moved into his aunt’s small bungalow. His grandmother was there at the time, so he slept on the couch. He refused to sign a multi-picture deal with a studio. Instead, he signed on to a movie produced by Stanley Kramer. Kramer made quality, left leaning “message pictures”:  movies with social relevance. This one was The Men. Brando played a paraplegic war veteran in a veteran's hospital who had a hard time accepting his condition. Before filming began, Brando checked into an Army hospital in Van Nuys, and for four weeks lived as a paraplegic patient. A lot of actors do that immersive preparation nowadays. Back then, not so many.


3. What was it like for Brando to star in A Streetcar Named Desire?


For Brando, starring in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway was a star-making experience, but also a transitional and transformational period in Broadway history. With that role and that performance, Brando changed stage acting. Gone were the days of the stentorian thespian, projection their lines to the last row of the balcony. The modern era began on that stage. In 1951, when Brando starred in the film version of Streetcar, also directed by Elia Kazan, he showed he could be equally powerful onscreen-- and even more so in close-up. Recreating the role in his tight T-shirt and jeans, Brando became a bonafide movie sex symbol. He also received his first Academy Award nomination for best actor.  


4. Why did Brando star in The Wild One? 


Looking back today, it seems like a strange move. After Streetcar, which was his second film, he was back with a Kazan as the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in ¡Viva Zapata!  And then, in what was seen a stunt casting, he portrayed Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. “The Mumbler” took on Shakespeare, yet more than held his own alongside British actors like John Gielgud and James Mason.  ¡Zapata! and Caesar earned Brando two more Best Actor Oscar nominations. So, he could make any movie he wanted, and he chose a biker flick. Only back then, there was no such thing as a biker flick. The Wild One was another Stanley Kramer production, a movie about motorcycle gangs that wreak havoc in a small town. The story was based on a real-life biker riot in Hollister, California, over July Fourth weekend, 1947. It was another serious film tackling a subject of great importance: in this case, the phenomenon of World War II veterans who returned from combat overseas, couldn’t fit back into proper society and took to the road on motorcycles in gangs that were was something far different than the law-abiding motorcycle clubs of earlier decades. The film would also address concern over the rise of juvenile delinquency and youth gangs, so prevalent after the war. Brando was all-in. He participated in the research, hit the road with biker gangs in preparation, and made many script suggestions. He made it clear that he wanted this movie to examine the reasons why these bikers were outlaws and how the townspeople-- the “straights”-- were just as responsible for the violence as the rebels. But before filming began, the Production Code Administration -- Hollywood’s censors-- rejected the script and removed much of what Brando believed was important. He wanted to reveal the psychology of the bikers, show why they formed gangs. All that remained, he said, was the violence. Brando was very disappointed, He considered walking away from Hollywood altogether. But largely because of the choices he made in portrayal of the gang leader Johnny Strabler, especially the sensitivity and his own “bisexual charisma” he added to the character, The Wild One this film touched off a youth revolution. It helped launch the rock ‘n’ roll generation, civil rights movement, and much else to follow.


5. Did Marlon have power in Hollywood? To choose his own screenplays?


Brando had the luxury of choosing his own screenplays from the beginning. One of his greatest performances, in On the Waterfront, almost never happened because he didn’t want to work with Kazan after finding out the director had “named names” before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Brando was sued by 20th Century-Fox in 1954 when he signed on to, then walked away from, The Egyptian (the suit was settled when he agreed to star as Napoleon in Désirée). Brando came to Hollywood at a time when the studio system was hanging on by its fingertips. Talent agencies were consolidating power and more and more actors were starting their own production companies. Brando was late to the game in starting his own production company, but when his accountants convinced him to do so, he started Pennebaker, Inc. (his mother’s maiden name) in 1956. He had big plans to produce and star in films “that mattered,” like a “cowboys and Indians” movie that tilted toward the side of the American Indians, and a film addressing Third World issues. He did eventually make a Western, One-Eyed Jacks. Stanley Kubrick had been on board to direct, but he and Brando fell out during pre-production and Brando took over as director (for the first and last time). Cameras rolled in December 1958 and Brando spent a lot of time, film, and money before the picture was released in 1961. A version of his Third World film, The Ugly American, premiered in 1963. This was all during a period when movies took a backseat to his activism, on behalf of many causes: anti-death penalty, civil rights, and Native Americans, among them.


6. What made him such a great actor?


One film expert I quoted in the book compared Brando's film debut to the introduction of sound to motion pictures. Just as the “talkies” ended the silent movie era, so did Brando change film act. Before Brando, actors “acted.” They read their lines. They waited for another actor to read theirs, then continued with their part. Brando didn't do that. In every character he played in every movie, Brando brought a reality that came from within. He wasn’t acting. He was living. Much of this was  through the so-called “method acting” technique that he learned from Stella Adler, in which he would use his own experience and imagination to inhabit a character from the inside.  Just as he mumbled onstage “because sometimes people mumble in real life,” he brought real life to his roles. To him, acting was easy. Too easy. In his opinion, everyone acted. Brando was criticized because he didn't always learn his lines. He often had cue cards taped up around the set; later he used an earpiece, but that wasn't laziness. Sure, Brando was lazy. That became clear later in his life. But this was a technique that he used deliberately. In real situations, people don't respond immediately to what others are saying. They take a moment to process, and then respond, sometimes hesitantly. That’s what Brando brought. Every great actor I’ve interviewed or spoken to, from James Earl Jones to Martin Sheen to Burt Reynolds, has told me the same thing: the best actors “just be.” Brando was the one who taught film actors to just be. He was a great actor because he brought something to each role and inhabited characters in a way that was totally unexpected, whether playing an ex-boxer, a spy, a Nazi, the leader of a biker gang, or Superman’s father.


7. Were studio executives ever annoyed at his behavior?


Studio executives were annoyed at his behavior, and directors were annoyed at his behavior, because there were few directors that Brando respected, and if he didn't respect them, he didn't listen to him to them. That’s a reason why in many troubled productions, Brando was blamed for delays or failures, sometimes unfairly. The most publicized was Mutiny on the Bounty, which went into production in 1960 and had the expected delays and problems caused by shooting on the water, script rewrites, and a change in directors. Because of his reputation, Brando took a lot of the blame. Some of it was deserved; some wasn't. Bounty didn’t make its money back and was considered a flop, but Brando’s performance as Fletcher Christian, the sailor who leads the mutiny, is a strange, off-beat interpretation, very different than Clark Gable’s or Mel Gibson’s take. Who would play the swashbuckling antihero as what they referred to as a “fop” or “dandy”? Once again, he subverted all expectations and redefined the image of a Hollywood leading man.


8. Why did Brando go overseas to make later films during the mid to late 60s?


The 1960s was considered by many to be Brando's “lost decade” in films, as he put activism ahead of his career, opposing the death penalty, marching with Martin Luther King, being arrested in protests with the Native Americans, even began supporting the Black Panthers. But he had bills to pay and people and causes to support, so he took acting roles. What I found amazing about his films of that decade is the excellence and uniqueness of his work. A lot of these films were considered to be “flops” and the quality varied, but Brando never phoned it in.  And the roles were varied: the slapstick comedy of Bedtime Story; as a repressed homosexual Army Major in John Huston’s Reflections in A Golden Eye; a Texas sheriff in The Chase. And gong overseas? Brando left Hollywood because that’s where he could find work. In 1967, he was in France to film The Night of the Following Day, a low-budget crime flick. Critics said the movie was beneath him. The following year, Brando traveled to Colombia, then Morocco, to film Queimada. He wanted to work with Gillo Pontecorvo, director of the recent Oscar-nominated film The Battle of Algiers. The movie was set in the 1800s. Brando played a British agent sent to the Caribbean to incite a slave rebellion in order to take over the sugar trade. Queimada was released in the United States as Burn! – as in “Burn, baby, burn!” a rallying cry of the 1965 Watts riots. Brando looked for parallels in the story with the racial unrest and injustice of the late sixties. It's one of his greatest performances. Really worth seeing. But although Burn! was critically acclaimed, it wasn’t a big moneymaker, and added to his reputation as “box office poison.” He was forced, really, to head to the UK for his next role because he needed the money. For the psychosexual drama The Nightcomers, he was paid fifty-thousand dollars. Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, preproduction was getting underway on The Godfather, and the director and producer wanted Brando in the starring role, but the suits at Paramount said, “No way. Box office poison.” They wanted Laurence Olivier, Ernest Borgnine—anyone but Brando. The greatest film actor of the century agreed to do a screen test.


9. What is considered to be Brando greatest performance?


The Godfather is probably the film most people today associate with Brando, but many recognize his work in On the Waterfront, the role that won him his first Academy Award for Best Actor. That was a peak. Everything in his first five films, up to The Wild One, had led to Terry Malloy. But as far as I’m concerned, his greatest performance was in Last Tango in Paris, maybe because it was more than a performance. A film about a middle-aged man dealing with the suicide of his French wife, who embarks on an anonymous sex affair with a young woman. This was 1972. Here, he was working with Bernardo Bertolucci a young director who really didn't speak English and encouraged Brando to ad-lib much of the film. In this case, most people talk about the scene in which he sodomizes his sex partner, played by Maria Schneider, with the aid of a stick of butter. The rea scene is between Brando and Veronica Lazăr as his wife, or I should I say his dead wife, as he sits in a hotel room with her corpse and pours out his heart in a monologue consumed with grief, anger, regret and self-hatred. It’s devastating. After all the years of method acting to inhabit a character, Brando went deeper than he’d ever gone, dredging up his own experiences and all the pain that came with it. It was real, and it took a lot out of him. So much that he vowed that he’d never again destroy himself emotionally for a movie. And he never did. He went on to do Superman. In Marlon Brando: Hollywood Rebel, I write about what followed, his surprising weight gain, the two decades of cameo roles, and his increasing denigration of acting as an art, all the while showing how his performances, activities, and words continue to resonate today.


About Burt Kearns:

Burt Kearns is a name that demands attention in the world of journalism and entertainment. With a career spanning decade, Kearns has consistently proven himself to be a master storyteller and a force to be reckoned with in the industry. His unique blend of investigative journalism and sensationalism has captivated audiences and sparked countless conversations.

Kearns' work has left an indelible mark on popular culture, from his groundbreaking exposés to his innovative approach to tabloid television. His ability to uncover hidden truths and present them in a compelling manner has earned him both acclaim and controversy. But it's precisely this fearless approach that has made him such an influential figure.

Beyond his journalistic endeavors, Kearns has also made significant contributions as an author and producer. His books offer readers an insider's perspective on the media landscape, while his television productions continue to push the boundaries of what's possible in the medium.

Whether you're a fan of his work or a critic, there's no denying the impact Burt Kearns has had on the world of media. His legacy serves as a testament to the power of bold, unapologetic storytelling and the enduring appeal of a well-told tale. For more visit:


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