Edited version of Truman Capote’s interview of Marlon Brando in Kyoto, Japan, 1957
The little maid on the fourth floor of the Miyako Hotel, in Kyoto, led me through a labyrinth of corridors, promising, “I knock you Marron.” The “l” sound does not exist in Japanese, and by “Marron” she meant Marlon – Marlon Brando, the American actor, who was at that time in Kyoto doing location work for the motion picture version of James Michener’s novel Sayonara.
“Oh, hi,” he said. “It’s seven, huh?” We’d made a seven o’clock date for dinner; I was nearly 20 minutes late. “Well, take off your shoes and come on in. I’m just finishing up here.” Looking after the girl as she scurried off, he cocked his hands on his hips and, grinning, declared, “They really kill me. The kids, too. Don’t you think they’re wonderful, don’t you love them – Japanese kids?”
His quarters consisted of two rooms, a bath and a glassed-in sun porch. All that he owned seemed to be out in the open. Shirts, ready for the laundry; socks, too; hats and ties, flung around like the costume of a dismantled scarecrow. And cameras, a typewriter, a tape recorder, an electric heater that performed with stifling competence. Pieces of partly nibbled fruit. And books, a deep-thought cascade, among which one saw Colin Wilson’s The Outsider and works on Buddhist prayer, Zen meditation, Yogi breathing and Hindu mysticism, but no fiction. He has never, he professes, opened a novel since April 3 1924, the day he was born, in Omaha, Nebraska.
While he may not care to read fiction, he does desire to write it. The lacquer table was loaded with overfilled ashtrays and piled pages of his most recent creative effort, A Burst of Vermilion, a film script.
Brando had been in Japan for more than a month, yet even the film’s director, Joshua Logan, was impelled to say, “Marlon’s the most exciting person I’ve met since Garbo. A genius. But I don’t know what he’s like. I don’t know anything about him.”
While we were awaiting dinner, he lolled his head against a pillow on the floor, dropped his eyelids, then shut them. When he spoke, his voice – an unemotional voice, in a way cultivated and genteel, yet surprisingly adolescent – seemed to come from sleepy distances.
“The last eight, nine years of my life have been a mess,” he said. “Maybe the last two have been a little better. Less rolling in the trough of the wave. Have you ever been analysed? I was afraid of it at first. Afraid it might destroy the impulses that made me creative, an artist. A sensitive person receives 50 impressions where somebody else may only get seven. Sensitive people are so vulnerable; the more sensitive you are, the more certain you are to be brutalised, develop scabs. Never evolve. Never allow yourself to feel anything, because you always feel too much. Analysis helps. It helped me. But still, the last eight, nine years I’ve been pretty mixed up …”
The voice went on, for like many persons who are intensely selfabsorbed, he is something of a monologuist. “People around me never say anything,” he says. “They just seem to want to hear what I have to say. That’s why I do all the talking.”
Watching him now, I felt as if my initial encounter with him were being recreated. It was a winter afternoon in New York, 1947, when I attended a rehearsal of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, in which Brando was to play the role that would bring him general recognition, Stanley Kowalski. But on the remembered afternoon, I hadn’t a clue to who he might be. Arriving too early, I found the auditorium deserted and a brawny young man atop a table on the stage, solidly asleep. Because he was wearing a white T-shirt and denim trousers, because of his gymnasium physique – the weightlifter’s arms, the Charles Atlas chest (though an opened Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud was resting on it), I took him for a stagehand. Or did until I looked closely at his face. It was as if a stranger’s head had been attached to the brawny body. For this face was so very untough, superimposing an almost angelic refinement and gentleness on hard-jawed good looks. The present Brando, the one lounging on the tatami, lazily puffing filtered cigarettes as he talked and talked, was, of course, a different person. His body was thicker; his forehead was higher, for his hair was thinner; he was richer. There were other alterations. His eyes had changed. Now he looked at people with assurance, and with what can only be called a pitying expression, as though he dwelt in spheres of enlightenment where they, to his regret, did not.
The subtly tender character of his face had been preserved. Or almost. Manoeuvring a word in edgewise, I asked, “How did you break your nose?”
” … by which I don’t mean that I’m always unhappy. I remember one April I was in Sicily. A hot day, and flowers everywhere. I like flowers, the ones that smell. Gardenias. Anyway, I went off by myself. Lay down in this field of flowers. Went to sleep. That made me happy. I was happy then. What? You say something?”
“I was wondering how you broke your nose.”
He grinned, as though remembering an experience as happy as the Sicilian nap. “In Streetcar, some of the guys backstage and me, we used to go down to the boiler room in the theatre and horse around. One night I was mixing it up with this guy and – crack! So I walked around to the nearest hospital. My nose was really busted. They had to give me an anaesthetic to set it, and put me to bed. Not that I was sorry. Streetcar had been running about a year and I was sick of it.”
(Recalling the incident recently, Irene Selznick, producer of the Williams play, said, “Suddenly his face was quite different. Kind of tough. For months I kept telling him, ‘But they’ve ruined your face. You must have your nose reset.’ Luckily for him, he didn’t listen to me. Because I honestly think that broken nose made his fortune. It gave him sex appeal. He was too beautiful before.”)
Brando made his first trip to the coast in 1949, to play the leading role in The Men, a picture dealing with paraplegic war veterans. His attitude to the film business, he summed up by saying, “The only reason I’m here is that I don’t yet have the moral courage to turn down the money.”
Sensing silence in our conversation, he dissolved it: “Still, movies do have the greatest potential. You can say important things to a lot of people. About discrimination and hatred and prejudice.” Upon his Tokyo arrival, Brando informed some 60 reporters that he had contracted to do Sayonara – the tale of an American jet pilot who falls in love with a Japanese dance-hall girl – because it strikes at such prejudices. Also because it would give him the “invaluable opportunity” of working under Joshua Logan. But time had passed. And now Brando said, with a snort, “I give up. I’m going to walk through the part, and that’s it. Sometimes I think nobody knows the difference. For the first few days on the set, I tried to act. But then I made an experiment. In this scene, I tried to do everything wrong. Grimaced and rolled my eyes. What did Logan say? ‘It’s wonderful! Print it!'” A phrase that often occurs in Brando’s conversation, “I only mean 40% of what I say,” is probably applicable here.
Dinner was taking a long while. When it arrived, I was replying to inquiries Brando had made about an acquaintance of mine, a young American disciple of Buddhism leading a contemplative, if not entirely unworldly, life inside the gates of Kyoto’s Nishi-Honganji Temple. The notion made Brando’s face become still. He listened with surprising attention. My Buddhist friend often conveyed himself to the local cinemas. He had read that Marlon Brando was in town, and longed to meet him. Brando was little amused. The puritan streak in him, which has some width, had been touched. “It’s like the other day on the set,” he said. “We were working in a temple, and one of the monks asked me for an autographed picture. Now, what would a monk want with my autograph?”
He stared questioningly at his scattered books, so many of which dealt with mystical subjects. “What I’d like to do,” he presently said, “I’d like to talk to someone who knows about these things. Because …” Just then the maid skated in balancing vast platters.
“Because,” he resumed, “I’ve seriously considered – I’ve very seriously thought about – throwing the whole thing up. This business of being a successful actor. What’s the point if it doesn’t evolve into anything? All right, you’re a success, you’re welcome everywhere. But it doesn’t lead anywhere.” He rubbed his chin with the towel, as though removing stale makeup. “Too much success can ruin you as surely as too much failure.”
“You know, it took me a long time before I was aware that that’s what I was – a big success. Then, when I was in Streetcar, and it had been running a couple of months, one night – dimly, dimly – I began to hear this roar. It was like I’d been asleep, and I woke up here sitting on a pile of candy.”
As we ate, Brando returned to renouncing his movie-star status. He decided to compromise. “Well, when I get back to Hollywood, what I will do, I’ll fire my secretary and move into a smaller house,” he said. He sighed with relief, as though he’d already cast off old encumbrances. “But,” he frowned, “it has to have a fence. On account of the people with pencils. I need a fence to keep them out. I suppose there’s nothing I can do about the telephone.”
“It’s tapped. Mine is.” By whom? He chewed his steak, mumbled. He seemed reluctant to say, yet certain it was so. “When I talk to my friends, we speak French. Or else a kind of bop lingo we made up.” My host located a letter buried among the plates, and read it while he ate, like a gentleman perusing his breakfast newspaper. Presently, he remarked, “From a friend of mine. He’s making a documentary, the life of James Dean. He wants me to do the narration. I think I might.” He pulled his apple pie toward him. “Maybe not, though. I get excited about something, but it never lasts more than seven minutes. Seven minutes exactly. That’s my limit.” Finishing his pie, he gazed speculatively at my portion; I passed it to him.
Many critics reviewing Dean’s first film, East of Eden, remarked on the well-nigh plagiaristic resemblance between his acting mannerisms and Brando’s. “He had an idée fixe about me. Whatever I did, he did. He used to call up.” Brando lifted an imaginary telephone to his ear with a cunning, eavesdropper’s smile. “I’d listen to him talking to the answering service, asking for me. But I never spoke up. I never called him back. No, when I -”
The scene was interrupted by a real telephone. “Yeah?” he said, picking it up. “Speaking. From where? Well, I don’t know anybody in Manila. Tell them I’m not here. No, when I finally met Dean,” he said, hanging up, “it was at a party. Where he was throwing himself around, acting the madman. I took him aside, [gave him] the name of an analyst, and he went. And at least his work improved. Toward the end, I think he was beginning to find his own way as an actor. But this glorifying of Dean is all wrong. That’s why I believe the documentary could be important. To show he wasn’t a hero; show what he really was, just a lost boy trying to find himself. That ought to be done, and I’d like to do it – maybe as a kind of expiation for some of my own sins. Like making The Wild One”, the strange film in which he was presented as the Führer of a tribe of fascist-like delinquents. “But. Who knows? Seven minutes is my limit.”
Brando began to weave his fingers in the air. “Acting is such a tenuous thing,” he said. “A fragile, shy thing that a sensitive director can help lure out of you. Now, in movie acting, the important, the sensitive moment comes around the third take of a scene; by then you just need a whisper from the director to crystallise it for you. Gadge [Elia Kazan’s nickname] can usually do it. He’s wonderful with actors.”
One of Brando’s most memorable film scenes occurs in the Kazandirected On the Waterfront: the car-ride in which Rod Steiger, as the racketeering brother, confesses he is leading Brando into a death trap. Could he use the episode as an example? “Well, let’s see.” He puckered his eyes. “I didn’t like the way it was written. Lot of dissension going on there. I was fed up with the whole picture. All the location stuff was in New Jersey, dead of winter – the cold, Christ! And I was having problems at the time. Woman trouble. Let me see. There were seven takes because Rod Steiger couldn’t stop crying. He’s one of those actors that loves to cry. We kept doing it over and over. But I can’t remember just how it crystallised itself for me. The first time I saw Waterfront, in a projection room, I thought it was so terrible I walked out without even speaking to Gadge.”
A month earlier, a friend of Brando’s had told me, “Marlon always turns against whatever he’s working on. It seems to comfort him to be dissatisfied.”
It was 10.30pm and below the windows, the hotel garden, with its arrangements of rock and tree, floated in the mists. He said, “Have you been to Nara? Pretty interesting.” I had, and yes, it was. An hour’s drive from Kyoto, a postcard town set in a showplace park, the apotheosis of the Japanese genius for hypnotising nature into unnatural behaviour. Then, as though apropos of Nara, he said, “Well, I’d like to be married. I want to have children.” It was not, perhaps, the non sequitur it seemed; the gentle safety of Nara just could suggest marriage, a family.
“You’ve got to have love,” he said. “There’s no other reason for living. Men are no different from mice. They’re born to perform the same function. Procreate.” (“Marlon,” to quote his friend Kazan, “is one of the gentlest people I’ve ever known. Possibly the gentlest.” Kazan’s remark had meaning when one observed Brando in the company of children. At ease, playful, appreciative, he seemed their emotional contemporary, a co-conspirator.)
He went on, “That has been my main trouble. My inability to love anyone.” He stood there as though hunting something – cigarettes were found; inhaling, he slumped on the pallet bed. “I can’t. Love anyone. I can’t trust anyone enough to give myself to them. But I’m ready. I want it. And I may, I’m almost on the point, I’ve really got to …” His eyes narrowed, but his tone, far from being intense, was indifferent. “Because – well, what else is there?”
“Anyway, I have friends. No. No, I don’t,” he said, verbally shadowboxing. “Oh, sure I do,” he decided. “Some I don’t hold out on. I let them know what’s happening. You have to trust somebody. Well, not all the way … Do you know how I make a friend?” He leaned a little toward me. “I go about it very gently. I circle around and around. Then, gradually, I come nearer. Then I reach out and touch them, ah, so gently …” His fingers grazed my arm. “Then,” he said, “I draw back. Wait awhile. Make them wonder. At just the right moment, I move in again. Touch them. Circle.” Now his hand travelled in a rotating pattern, as though it held a rope. “Before they realise it, they’re all entangled, involved. I have them. And suddenly, sometimes, I’m all they have. A lot of them, you see, are people who don’t fit anywhere. But I want to help them, and they can focus on me; I’m the duke. Sort of the duke of my domain.”
Brando yawned; it had got to be a quarter past one. “Let’s have another cigarette,” he said as I made a move to put on my coat.
“Don’t you think you should go to sleep?”
“That just means getting up. Most mornings, I don’t know why I do. I can’t face it. Anyway, I may work later on.” Outside, it had started to drizzle, so the prospect of a nightcap was pleasing. He suddenly said, “My mother. She broke apart like a piece of porcelain.”
Though born in Nebraska, where his father was a salesman of limestone products, Brando, the family’s third child and only son, was soon taken to live in Libertyville, Illinois. There the Brandos settled down in a rambling house. Milking the cow was the daily chore that belonged to Bud, as Marlon was then nicknamed. Bud seems to have been an extroverted and competitive boy. Rebellious, too; rain or shine, he ran away from home every Sunday. But he and his sisters were devotedly close to their mother. Always, Mrs Brando had played leads in local dramatic productions, and always she had longed for a more brightly foot-lighted world. Her son, talked out of some early clerical ambitions and rejected for military service in 1942 because of a trick knee, packed up and came to New York. Whereupon Bud, the plump, towheaded, unhappy adolescent, exits, and the man-sized and very gifted Marlon emerges.
Brando has not forgotten Bud. When he speaks of the boy he was, the boy seems to inhabit him. “My mother was everything to me. I used to come home from school …” He hesitated, as though waiting for me to picture him scuffling along an afternoon street. “There wouldn’t be anybody home. Nothing in the icebox.” Lantern slides: empty rooms, a kitchen. “Then the telephone would ring. Some bar. ‘We’ve got a lady down here. You better come get her.'” The image leaped forward in time. Bud is 18, and: “I thought if she loved me enough, trusted me enough, we’ll live together and I’ll take care of her. Once, later on, that really happened. She left my father and came to live with me in New York, when I was in a play. I tried so hard. But my love wasn’t enough. She couldn’t care enough. She went back. And one day” – his voice grew flatter, yet the emotional pitch ascended – “I didn’t care any more. She was there. In a room. Holding on to me. And I let her fall. Because I couldn’t take it any more – watch her breaking apart, like a piece of porcelain. I stepped right over her. I walked right out. Since then, I’ve been indifferent.”
The telephone’s racket seemed to rouse him from a daze. He walked me to the door. “Well, sayonara,” he mockingly bade me. “Tell them at the desk to get you a taxi.” Then, as I walked down the corridor, he called, “And listen! Don’t pay too much attention to what I say. I don’t always feel the same way.”
Excerpted from The Duke in His Domain, by Truman Capote. Copyright 1957, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1973 by Truman Capote. Reprinted by arrangement with the Random House Publishing Group. Originally published in the New Yorker, November 1957.