“Hollywood Hellraisers: The Wild Lives and Fast Times of Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson” (2009)

Author: Robert Sellers

Publisher: Arrow Books

Buy it on Amazon

An addictive romp of a book, it tells the tale of four legendary actors: Brando, Hopper, Beatty, and Nicholson. Often shocking, sometimes sordid, consistently depraved, and almost always quite funny- it presents the readers with truth and myth blended together to give the reader a picture of how four misfit bad asses changed Hollywood and how films were made forever. Drugs, booze, cash, and sex galore, it’s hard not to be left in jealous awe of such terrible behavior.

The story starts, as it does for Brando, in Omaha, Nebraska. His childhood is one of pain- a dreadful alcoholic of a mother, and abusive Kowalski-esque father, who, when not on the road gambling and cheating on his wife, terrorizes his son and instills in him a feeling of worthlessness. The sensitive little boy is a painting of contradictions: he terrorizes his school and his neighborhood with inventive pranks, including burning the word “shit” into the blackboard with corrosive chemicals. At the same time, he is the type of kid that rescues sick and broken animals and takes them home to recover- injured birds, snakes, even the occasional homeless person that’s passed out on the sidewalk. He has zero interest in academics, showing attention and skill exclusively in athletics and drama. Eventually, his pranks and attitude get him expelled, and he is shipped off to Shattuck Military Academy for the duration of his high school career. Naturally in military school, his pranks grow more subversive, and he often sneaks off campus in order to “keep company” with local girls and women. He is expelled from school, and in a testament to his popularity, the other boys of the school sign a petition and go on strike until he is reinstated. He wants nothing of it and goes to New York, in pursuit of freedom, jazz clubs, and sex. Lots and lots and lots of sex.

These are the main themes of the Marlon Brando story, if you subtract from the equation that he is the finest actor to ever grace the silver screen. An often insane and colourful sense of humor, a huge aversion to authority, and a voracious sexual appetite of near biblical proportions is the tale that this book tells. Along the way though, it finds its roots in the tale of his career, from meteoric rise to fame, to sad decline in relevance, to remarkable comeback, and finally to the spotty and sometimes confusing twilight of his career. The anecdotes between the covers are drawn from biographies and hours spent culling the British Film Institute’s archives of newspaper and magazine clippings, as well as interviews with people who worked with the actors profiled in the book.

Brando was an incredibly complex and private man, deeply sensitive and troubled, with an intimidating demeanor meant to keep people at bay and to keep them on their toes. He was also quite mischievous and silly, and loved to sing and to laugh. He was the type of person who defines their own version of morality- sexually promiscuous but without a single fiber of prejudice in his body. Unlike other books available, this one doesn’t give a heavy hand to the dark side of Brando’s psyche, painting him into a sad, fat bastard. No, it’s a book that revels in the ridiculous parts of his personality, and the antics to which they lead him. There is an anecdote shared in the book that his son Christian often told, and has become one of my favorites, because to me it shares what a true character he was.

Christian also liked to tell the story of the time when, as a kid swimming in a lagoon in Tahiti, a shark swam by and Marlon just shouted “motherfucker” and socked the beast on the nose.

For decades, Brando and Nicholson were neighbors on Mulholland Drive, even sharing a driveway. Often, when Jack was out of town, Marlon would break into his house in order to raid his refrigerator, as he would have his own locked up as part of one of his failed crash diets. Intriguingly, and for reasons unclear, he would leave behind his underpants. Perhaps they were his calling card, letting Jack know he had been there. It seems only fitting that after Marlon’s death, it was Jack who bought his home, in an effort to protect the privacy Marlon fought his entire life to cultivate. The building was torn down, too expensive to renovate, and a garden put in its place.

There are four subjects in the book, keeping it a fast paced and interesting read. In a condensed and amusing fashion, the reader gets the rundown of four remarkable careers. It doesn’t sugar coat the stories told, but the tone is often celebratory, written by someone who has a sense of humor about, but certainly respects, the men he is writing about. It is a testament to the writer that when the inevitable part in the story that Marlon passes away, I found myself legitimately choked up in a public space. Without a doubt, some of the behavior is repugnant, but Sellers has a gift for humanizing his subjects- sure, the average Joe would never even try  in a million years to pull the shit they did, but even though it seems at times that they’re a different breed, they’re mere mortals like the rest of us. Sadly, this fact would once again be illustrated soon after the release of the book: in October 2009 it was announced that Dennis Hopper was dying of prostate cancer (he passed away May 29, 2010). Ultimately though, the book is an entertaining read that I would recommend to anyone with a love of pop culture, a specific admiration for one of the actor’s profiled, or who has seen and enjoyed the film Easy Rider. A definite thumbs up.


1 Response to ““Hollywood Hellraisers: The Wild Lives and Fast Times of Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson” (2009)”

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