Jewish Journal

Marlon Brando and the Jews

by Danielle Berrin

July 30, 2014 | 1:49 pm

Marlon Brando in 1953. Photo from Columbia Pictures

Marlon Brando the man was often more confounding and bizarre than any character he ever played. 

Among his many and sometimes contradictory roles — actor, womanizer, political dabbler, sex symbol and star — he was also a reputed and sometimes disputed philo-Semite.

“I would describe Brando, in some sense, as a convert,” Boston University professor and Brando biographer Susan L. Mizruchi said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. Her new book, “Brando’s Smile,” is a rigorously researched account of the actor’s life, using details culled from his personal archives to debunk negative myths: that he abandoned Broadway for the lucre-driven lure of Hollywood; that he was “coarse, uneducated, and inarticulate”; that he was unprofessional and ill-prepared for work; that obesity undid him; that his politics were half-baked; and that he was a roaring, albeit bumbling anti-Semite.  

Mizruchi will have none of that, but she is most adamant in defending Brando’s affection for the Jews.

“Brando’s relationship to the Jews was lifelong,” she said. From the moment he arrived in New York as an impressionable, young student, “he fell in love with Jewish culture.”

Though the book is the obsessive homage of a fan, its revelation is in linking Brando’s feral intellect with his facility for acting, a sensibility he cultivated under the tutelage of Jewish teachers. In recorded conversations for Brando’s biography that Mizruchi transcribed for the book, Brando had this to say of the New York Jewish intellectuals he encountered during the formative years of his theatre training: “They gave me a sense of education and of the value of education.” 

Chief among them was his acting coach Stella Adler, a brassy and beautiful actress who taught him that his mind was his most vital tool. Adler hailed from a family of actors who were all renowned in the Yiddish theater, and their ability to take on hundreds of different roles was seen as a combination of skill and smarts. Adler’s expert stagecraft, along with her intellectual rigor, ensorcelled the burgeoning thespian; and he would come to associate Judaism itself with the pursuit of knowledge: “If anything is Talmudic, it is the regard for learning,” Brando remarked for his autobiography.

His attraction to the Adlers was personal, too. “The Adlers basically adopted Brando,” Mizruchi said. “They took him into the family” — so closely that he began dating Stella’s daughter, Ellen, even though the elder Adlers disapproved. Their wit at the family dinner table turned Brando on to Jewish and Yiddish humor, and he eventually amassed a voluminous collection of Jewish literature. 

Brando also learned to speak a good deal of Yiddish, which came in handy when he starred alongside Paul Muni and Celia Adler in the Ben Hecht play “A Flag is Born,” the fiercely Zionistic account of the founding of Israel. In it, Brando played the character David who excoriates his fellow Jews over their inability to thwart the Holocaust. “Where were you — Jews?” Brando bellowed with “flash, violence, electricity,” director Luther Adler recalls in Mizruchi’s book. “Where were you when the killing was going on? When the 6 million were burned and buried alive in the lime pits, where were you?”   

On stage or in front of the camera, Brando could draw upon a private rage buried beneath his bonny surface. Pain was familiar to him, having grown up with damaged, alcoholic parents, and it intensified his empathy for the downcast. The Jewish historical struggle, as well as that of Native Americans, evoked the rage born of his own vulnerable past.

Like his parents, Brando couldn’t escape his own addictions. He had epic appetites, most notably for women and food, which he never overcame. (Brando was survived by 13 children — two others had predeceased him — and those are just the ones who were counted; he died weighing nearly 300 pounds). He also voraciously consumed books, notating, outlining and underlining with the hunger of a striving student. He famously kept bookshelves filled with classic tomes backstage during theater performances, and would read during breaks. Literature in all its forms was, for Brando, the narcotic fuel upon which his dramatic disposition depended. 

Brando’s communion with intellectual Jews was further cultivated when he enrolled at the New School, a bastion of intellectual rebellion in Greenwich Village, whose faculty included many Eastern European Jews and socialists who had fled fascism. Though his time there never overlapped with hers, Brando developed an intellectual crush on the controversial Hannah Arendt; he read every single one of her books and often gave them away as gifts.

“He was endlessly curious,” Mizruchi said. “He respected intellect and learning more than anything, and the Jewish people exemplify what he respected most.”

Brando became so well versed in Jewish ideas and issues, he could speak of them with chilling authority. But there were occasions his expression of familiarity resulted in convoluted and even offensive public statements. Like the time in 1996, when he appeared on “Larry King Live” and rambled on about Jewish power in Hollywood: “Hollywood is run by Jews; it is owned by Jews,” he said, demanding greater sensitivity in its portrayal of minorities, even while using nasty epithets to do so. 

King, of course, trumpeted Brando’s uncouth remarks to gin up ratings, and the two had a falling out. Brando was soon awash in a storm of controversy he couldn’t comprehend — he, who was so personally fond of Jews and had many Jewish friends; and, who, in the very same interview concluded, “I will be the first one who will appraise the Jews honestly and say ‘Thank God for the Jews.’ ”

In the end, Brando apologized profusely and was offered the kosher stamp of approval from the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier, who declared, “I am satisfied, after spending three hours with the man, that Marlon Brando is not an anti-Semite.”

When it came to Jewish suffering, Brando understood the politics of survival. It’s what made his views on Israel equally provocative and eerily prescient — as the reality of Jewish powerlessness began to change.

“Because of the suffering, extraordinary, incomprehensible [suffering] that the Jews have gone through, you forget that the Jews are also human and that they also have done the very things that have been done to them,” he said in a tape recording transcribed for the book.

At a moment when Israel and the Arab world are locked yet again in another cycle of agonizing war, it is unsettling to encounter Brando’s percipience on the matter, as if he is speaking now, directly from the grave: “[T]his entire business of hanging onto conquered territories at any price, I think is crazy. And you have Jewish fanatics that are all the equal of any Palestinian fanatic group, and like all people they say they’re doing it in defense of this cause. The cause is to ensure the fact that what happened in Germany will never happen again, and you can’t blame them for that.”

Hard words to swallow, but wise and enduring from a Hollywood legend and a fan of the Jews. 

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Danielle Berrin writes the award-winning Hollywood Jew blog, a cutting edge, values-based take on the entertainment industry for jewishjournal.com. A Los Angeles Times profile...

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