Yet for all the sadness, all Brando’s flaws — and despite Mann’s sympathy, he’s often infuriating — this book does achieve a quiet vindication. Brando secured the part in The Godfather, beguiling the studio with boot-polish hair and stuffed jowls, yet again he refused to enjoy his triumph. On Oscar night 1973, he sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to reject his best-actor award and to issue a statement about Hollywood’s legacy of racist westerns. John Wayne was so outraged it took six security guards to keep him from Littlefeather. As Mann compassionately shows, Brando could mean more now than he has for years. He just had to wait for the waves.
Why are movie biographies often so dire? This zigzag opus is hard to follow. Some films are dealt with in obsessive detail, others go unmentioned – there is hardly anything on Apocalypse Now. Mann’s chronology is confused to such an extent that I wondered whether a compositor had randomly shuffled the manuscript pages in a fit. I did laugh, however, to learn that Brando once rigged up a remote-control fart machine, which went off whenever Robert De Niro sat on a settee.
Marlon Brando is a stupendous subject for a biography. He was the greatest American actor of the 1950s. ... Mann is an experienced writer about Tinseltown (his previous subjects include Barbra Streisand). His research is exhaustive. His tone is agreeably respectful and affirmative. There is no malice in the book and no prurience. The Contender is absurdly long, but amid the interminable pages detailing rehearsals, there is much of interest. As Hollywood biographies go, this is as nice and as intelligent as can be.