Book Review
By Ray Young



Fan Tan

A new novel by Marlon Brando and Donald Cammell

256 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, $23.95

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    Whether or not Marlon Brando—the actor, one-time film director and occasional activist—will leave a conscious impression on future generations remains to be seen. There were those before him who commanded similar praise (Emil Jannings and Paul Muni come to mind), but the mushrooming immediacy of the twentieth century caused the legacies of those early luminaries to age and crumble as rapidly as the expansion of cinema itself.
    Brando too was a product of his era, but the fiery demon of his Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, and the measured confusion and punchy élan of his Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront transcend their surrounding dramas and altered the course of film acting. We can still feel him today, some three decades after his best work, anonymously and through a plethora of soft and callow imitators and poseurs.
    Yet for every Streetcar or Waterfront, he made a string of poor or mediocre duds (Bedtime Story, Saboteur, Code Name: Morituri, Candy) and high-minded misfires (The Ugly American, Mutiny on the Bounty, A Countess from Hong Kong), ill-advised script and career choices which suggest a simpleton’s attraction to schlock and the slight possibility that his six or seven great performances were flukes.
tango005.jpg     Watch Last Tango in Paris—one of his best pictures—without the influence of the myth, and Brando’s glazed presence for Bernardo Bertolucci would appear to have less to do with the insecure and depressed condition of the man he’s playing than the sheepish and childish confusion of an actor caught in some crazy foreign movie.

Right: Brando and Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris (click to enlarge)

    One would like to believe that that was Bertolucci’s intent, an ingenious manipulation of the star’s shortcomings to the advantage of the character. But Brando may have always been out of his depth and rarely (if ever) in touch with the human side of the parts he took on. Yes, there was that ‘brooding intensity,’ an oft-sited ‘smoldering magnetism’ intimating a great, analytical mind busy dissecting his environment.
    But after reading all the articles and bios and the star’s own autobiography, seeing the films, going over the interviews (especially Connie Chung’s for network television) and the great and noble plans and tragic losses Brando suffered away from the screen; after all that, there is little to substantiate claims of depth or brilliance. If anything, it urges the question: had Brando not been an actor, would he have been…a waiter?
    Judging by Fan Tan, he most certainly would not have been an author. Some twenty pages into this pirate story set in and around the Orient during the late 1920’s, its succession of meandering digressions suggests that this posthumous publication was a desperate act of an heir in debt.
    There’s been some talk in the press about how the novel’s main character, Anatole ‘Annie’ Doultry, is the kind Brando would have loved to play on screen. But this thin sketch of a man floats over a hackneyed plot, one that was to have been fleshed out (with co-author Donald Cammell, the film director) for a movie that never went beyond the planning stages. Brando and Cammell’s combined notes—napkin doodlings? inebriated rants? audio tapes encrusted with lunch?—were culled together by film critic David Thomson, whose stamina and endurance should not go unnoticed. Filling less than three hundred pages, Fan Tan is a numbing chore to read, and Thomson’s task would’ve pushed a lesser man to the brink.
    Not that the work is entirely without purpose or narrative structure. Strikingly odd imagery comes alive during all-too-brief passages, such as one concerning an hallucinatory drug experience, and another with a tortured man’s consumption of his own toe. But they’re outweighed by so much rambling nonsense, tiresome blather about prison cockroach races and the rather bland profile of the soldier of fortune making shaky deals with a Dragon Lady.
    Nor is it easy to picture Brando as ‘Annie,’ a character more suited to the Robert Mitchum of, say, Josef von Sternberg’s Macao wandering onto the set of Sam Fuller’s China Gate, tussling with Angie (‘Lucky Legs’) Dickinson in yellow face. Flat and underdeveloped in its irony and cynicism, the prose has a dash of old school jingoism and the tourist’s eye for Asian culture. As if to underline its own shortsightedness, the novel barely notices its one readily available metaphor, the structure of the Chinese casino game of Fan Tan in relation to ‘Annie’ in his everyday house of cards.
    Cammell first involved himself with Brando in the mid-’60s, when he approached the actor to play in Performance. The film, which Cammell wrote and co-directed with Nicolas Roeg, would have had Brando as a gangster holed up in the bohemian digs of retired rock star Mick Jagger. But Marlon passed, and the role (thankfully) went to James Fox, who turned out to be excellent in the part. When Brando eventually saw Performance (made in 1968, it wasn’t released until 1970), he appreciated Cammell’s creativity and wanted to work with him.
    A day late and a dollar short. Donald Cammell never quite got the hang of schmoozing that’s required of a commercial filmmaker, and ended up making a small handful of esoteric, barely released pictures. But he maintained his association with the actor, even marrying China Kong, the (very) young daughter of one of his common law wives, a union which Marlon disapproved of. Nonetheless, they collaborated on other concepts for films which, like Fan Tan, never went beyond the planning stages, much to Cammell’s consternation.
    It was part of the actor’s childish character to concoct ideas—some brilliant, like his venture to end world hunger from his perch in the South Seas—which bored him quickly and went abandoned and unfinished. I’m of the mind that a lot of it was junk to begin with, material better left to the fan’s imagination. Had Fan Tan been left unread; had its legacy consisted of the tumultuous relationship of its authors and that eye-catching, kitschy art the publisher used on the jacket, it could have been a juicy piece of the Brando enigma. It could’ve been…a contender.