... deeply engaging and perceptive from page one. Neither hagiography nor scandal sheet, it’s a clear reckoning of a complex man. The author explores the films, of course, but mostly Brando himself ... The curious twist, and possibly the most compelling aspect, is Mann’s decision to conclude with a quiet moment in 1974—leaving the final 25 years of Brando’s life for a brief epilog. The madness of Apocalypse Now, his sporadic retirement, and his increasingly public family issues are thus given the briefest of consideration. While the narrative is bookended by descriptions of son Christian Brando’s 1991 trial for manslaughter, Mann has crafted a fitting end to the story he wanted to tell, and this account may be the richer for it ... A thoroughly enjoyable, illuminating read, and a must for all libraries.
Marlon Brando reigned over Hollywood in an era before it was possible to know every little thing about an actor’s life — but this biography is going to change that. Mann went through Brando’s personal archives to craft a story that covers not only his behind-the-scenes persona but the way in which he led the charge for a merging of Hollywood and protest culture.
Mann masterfully captures Brando’s allure, his psychological complexity and the epic arc of his career ... Mann interweaves narrative strands from Brando’s traumatic childhood through his professional ascent to build a layered portrait of his ambivalences, rages and sexuality ... The portrait of 1940s New York and Brando’s time at the Dramatic Workshop is particularly fascinating ... Subsequent chapters in Brando’s life and work are as carefully and fairly handled ... From Mann, Brando receives a biography every bit as compelling and powerful as his own stage presence.
... a big, sprawling, meticulously researched and, for the most part, compelling biography that tells us everything we ever wanted to know about the man and then some. Brando lived a messy life, so maybe it’s appropriate that his biography is somewhat messy, too, with its not-quite-chronological arrangement ... Mann ably captures Brando’s blossoming in New York’s theater world ... In the prologue, Mann also makes the questionable assertion that 'Brando’s acting, as great and as important as it is, is not the most interesting thing about him.' But our interest in him, our interest in Mann’s book, springs from his best acting — not from his admirable political activism, his Tahitian island getaway, his frequent affairs, his numerous wives, his many children, the attempted suicides of several people around him, the murder one son committed or the suicide of his daughter in Tahiti. That’s all grist for a bio, but it’s not the main attraction.
You’re going to find it hard to read a good Life of a good actor without throwing the book aside in frustration. Sure, he’s an angel, a genius, a charmer, but such a muddle and a mess, not to mention a pain in the neck. Imagine what it’s like for the writer. Or for Marlon ... There could be less of [the] scene-setting, but maybe there were fears that the dropping in and out might disconcert some readers. The book does move back and forth in time, dumping strict chronology for feeling and insight. I think this works ... Mann is at his best recounting the speed with which the young Brando went from the New School to playing Stanley Kowalski ... Mann’s is the best short life of Brando we’ll ever have, and nearly as good as his incisive portrait of Katharine Hepburn, Kate. I say ‘short’ with some irony, but it might actually have been shorter, for the dropping in and out is more an interpretation than a thorough record. Actors are always considering and exploring so many other lives that their own can suffer in comparison. But Mann persuades us that Brando was so confused and contradictory that a tidy story would be a cheat.
Reading [Mann's] annotated source notes is like following a relentless gumshoe nailing down every major and minor clue in a case. The consideration of the iconic actor’s life and career that results is solid, perceptive and enlightening, however overlong ... Mann’s approach puts Brando in sharp relief ... Mann’s profile of Brando as social activist is by far the biography’s singular achievement. We see that Brando was as powerful in life as on film ... Mann’s ardor for his subject, alas, sends him into literary overtime. He often repeats and defends key points after he’s firmly made them. You might say that this valuable biography is overly successful.
... an exhaustive, sometimes exhausting study that is both a recounting of the available information about Brando’s life and career and an analysis of Brando the artist ... One may quibble with Mann’s frequent repetition of his theories about what made Brando tick as a man and an artist. Nonetheless, The Contender is an impressive book, a must for fans of Brando and of film acting. The book offers detailed descriptions of the making of Brando’s major films as well as a rich sense of the inner and outer life of this complex, often troubled man.
... remarkably ambitious ... [Mann] has conducted many vivid interviews with Brando’s friends and associates, and been exceptionally thorough in his investigation of Brando’s boyhood, his family life, and his political activities...Of these he gives the fullest and most sympathetic account yet, showing how deep-rooted was Brando’s commitment to social justice and racial equality ... This montage-like, back-and-forth technique is by no means unsuccessful in exposing layer after layer of Brando’s life...Sometimes he leaves something and never returns to it, but the weaving is handled with remarkable deftness ... The passages of reporting—like on the civil-rights march—are highly successful, dramatized but factual and credible; less convincing is Mann’s attempt to enter into the mind of the man he invariably refers to as 'Marlon'—never a good sign in a biographer ... Despite the author’s constant assertion that Brando regarded acting as a childish, insignificant activity, the actor’s own words, liberally quoted, give the lie to this. He fought fiercely and constantly to take his work beyond the competent, the intelligent, the attractive ... Mann’s book is continuously fascinating, vivid, and full of new information; for anyone interested in Brando, it is indispensable. But about the central activity in his life, it is fundamentally wrong. So, yet another book on Brando is still to be written.
... an insightful and well-researched portrait ... Taking a cinematic approach, Mann swoops in on pivotal moments in Brando’s life ... Though sympathetic to Brando, Mann doesn’t shy away from his flaws, such as his often callous treatment of women. The result is a thoughtfully considered study of a supremely talented, observant, and imaginative man who became a reluctant cultural icon.
... [a] meticulously researched book, bolstered by access to the Brando estate ... Throughout, Mann balances Brando’s reluctance to act with excellent insights into his finest performances ... A complex, intimate, and illuminating inquiry into and defense of Brando.