Book Worm: Songs My Mother Taught Me

After watching On the Waterfront for the umpteenth time last week, my curiosity was more piqued than usual and Google books introduced me to Marlon Brando’s autobiography, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me. I started flipping through the preview and by the time Google said, “Hey pal, I’m cutting you off,” I’d already became completely engrossed in the book, so now it’s officially mine for the keeping.

First things first, albeit a fascinating and incredibly talented actor, Brando’s pretty weird. There are times throughout the book when he says things that come far from out of left field. And I’m talking keep-going-left-until-you-hit-the-parking-lot-for-the-next-stadium left field. For example, at the end of the book, you’re reading along thinking, “Wow, Marlon, it’s really interesting to have read your perspectives on acting and your fascination with diversity and culture.” Then, BAM.

Whatever grains of optimism survive in me about the evolution of mankind are centered in the belief that genetic alteration, however fraught with danger, is the only possible solution to that Hannah Arendt referred to as the banality of evil.

Did he just advocate for genetic modification in humans to end war and cruelty? Yes. He did. So, there’s that.

Aside from random interjections of strangeness, it is an interesting read. It’s worth it just for the time he spends talking about his views on acting and his description of Tetiaroa, his island in Tahiti. (Yes, his island.)

He often says that he only acted because it was an easy way to make money, which is a little hard to believe. While he did indeed have the ability to make quite a bit of dough in a short amount of time, he is also one of the greatest actors ever, so I’m thinking he had to care just a little bit. Unsurprisingly, he has some great advice and opinions on how to act: such as instructions on experiencing emotions rather than acting them out or making your lines sound more spontaneous through queue cards or hidden microphones.

A really powerful theme throughout his autobiography is the desire to find the psychological motivations for why people do what they do. His life was overcast by the shadow of his parents’ alcoholism and an overly strict father who was stingy with his love. Chronicling a series of failed therapists who didn’t do much more than take his money, Brando talks in depth about the one therapist who he worked so well with that after three years he got up out of his office and said, “I don’t think I need to come back any more.” And he never did.

I identified a lot with his personal struggles during his twenties and thirties. His confusion, his trying to figure out just where in the world he fit in, his throwing himself behind causes in the hopes of making some sort of a difference for the better. By the time he wrote Songs My Mother Taught Me, he was 70 and it sure makes me hopeful. Through the calm, accepting tone in which he writes, it’s clear he’s come to terms with all those things that previously caused him internal conflict. After all:

You learn a great deal simply by living long enough.

Featured image from Wikimedia Commons, by the photographer Carl Van Vechten.

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