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Songs My Son Taught Me

Christian Brando

`WILD SON: THE TESTIMONY OF CHRISTIAN BRANDO, Theatre Review

Do you have a guilty pleasure? Mine is reading tabloidy tell-all books about the private lives of geniuses. Reading these literary invasions of privacy - such as Francoise Gilot’s blabby book about Picasso or May Pang’s salacious saga about John Lennon - helped pass the time while on long haul flights from Guam to New York or L.A. to Switzerland or Tahiti, etc. So when I heard about Wild Son: The Testimony of Christian Brando I set out to Santa Monica Playhouse see this one-man show by Champ Clark ASAP (although by car, not jet).

Marlon Brando, the star of classics such as Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild One, Viva Zapata, On the Waterfront, Burn!, Last Tango in Paris, etc., is my favorite thespian. The Method actor’s life offstage and offscreen has been as colorful and dramatic as any of his plays or movies. What’s probably the most tragic part of Marlon’s life deals with his daughter Cheyenne and son, Christian, who is depicted by a smoldering John Mese in this one-act play, based on Clark’s audiotaped interviews with the eldest child of the star of The Godfather, who had about nine children from various marriages and liaisons.

Like his father, what a story Christian had to tell, which Mese convincingly, movingly unravels in about an hour.

And like his father, what a story Christian had to tell, which Mese convincingly, movingly unravels in about an hour. Christian’s childhood - if you can call it that? - was full of unrelenting conflict and nonstop antagonism with both of his parents. Although she goes for some reason (perhaps legal?) unnamed throughout the production, Anna Kashfi was an aspiring actress of dubious ethnicity. According to some sources, while she may have been born in India, Kashfi was actually of Anglo heritage, but she allegedly fobbed herself off as being Indian (dot, not feather). The attractive young woman used this exotic allure to lure the world’s top movie star to marry her. (Over the years Marlon was romantically linked to nonwhite beauties such as the Mexican Movita, Puerto Rican Rita Moreno and Asian France Nuyen.) The fact that Anna was pregnant with Christian Devi also helped convince Brando, a renowned womanizer, to march down the aisle with her in 1957.

Their marriage was as short-lived as it was tumultuous, with Christian caught in the middle of two warring parents who who made no secret of the fact that they despised each other. As Mese poignantly recounts, Christian and custody over their son was often the reason for the battles between Kashfi and Marlon. Anna’s alleged substance abuse and Marlon’s high-flying superstar lifestyle also added fuel to the fire. Strong-willed himself, as Mese makes abundantly clear, there was no way Christian - or, arguably, any other child - would escape unscathed from such endless parental warfare and would have a semblance of “normalcy.” Kashfi, who died in 2015, gets short shrift in the play, as she has in most media accounts of her, such as publicly slapping Marlon at a court hearing.

This well-acted, well-written one-hander tells Christian’s side of the story, and it is quite a remarkable, tortured tale. For those unfamiliar with Christian’s life and its tragic denouement, I won’t indulge in any plot spoilers here. Having read a number of those tattletale tomes about Marlon (the least revealing of them all was, 1995’s Songs My Mother Taught Me, but of course, penned by Marlon himself), most of Wild Son rings true, although it is obviously told from the son’s point of view. However, as an amateur “Marlonian,” two things struck me as not being factual.

Christian claims the Brandos were all working class, salt of the Earth types from Nebraska, and that Marlon was the exception to that proletarian rule. But Marlon’s father, Marlon Sr., was in fact a successful salesman, while his mother, Dodie, had acting aspirations and not only influenced her son, but that other Nebraskan, Henry Fonda. While it’s true Marlon grew up on a Nebraska farm during the Depression, his family was comfortably middle class amidst those hard times.

During my 13 or so trips to French Polynesia I went to Tetiaroa twice. To the best of my recollection, Mese mispronounces Tetiaroa, the atoll near Tahiti that Marlon acquired around the time he shot 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty, wherein he played, interestingly enough, the mutineer named Fletcher Christian.

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Christian Brando

Wild Son is full of namedropping, of the stars who formed part of Marlon and Christian’s firmament, such as their longtime Mulholland Drive neighbor Jack Nicholson, and there are some amusing anecdotes about celebs in the play. Marlon was known for being temperamental offscreen and for his characters’ exploding anger onscreen and onstage. The only time Christian goes Brando berserk in Wild Son is revealing - when he learns that Michael Jackson plans to attend his pop’s memorial service at producer Mike Medavoy’s mansion. Already distraught enough due to his father’s death, Christian volcanically erupts in fury, objecting on the grounds that the singer is an alleged child molester. It’s revealing that Christian, himself a kind of abused child (whose nanny started having sex with him when he was only about 12 or 13), is unable to contain his wrath when it comes to the subject of childhood abusiveness.

As a film historian I’ve encountered many children of accomplished artistes (including some whose paths crossed Marlon’s, but who shall here remain unnamed). Most of them, unlike their illustrious parent, have little to no talent. They have to go through life without possessing a shred of the artistry that propelled their father or mother to the heights. How they deal with this family legacy is often a great struggle for them, as it is has to deal with where they fit into the Hollywood, et al, constellation, status, money and more. The majority don’t do well in coming to grips with their legendary relation’s fame and achievements. Christian had one of the most revered names in acting but nevertheless failed to make a screen career for himself.

One of those children of famous fathers I met was the star-crossed Cheyenne Brando, Christian’s little sister whose fate was intimately tied to her big brother’s. At the end of my first trip to Tahiti, my vahine Mareva Salmon met me at Faaa airport, where my girlfriend pointed out to me: “Eddie, you look - it is Tarita.” There, along with the co-star of Bounty who’d become Marlon’s Tahitian wife, was several children they’d presumably had, including six-year-old Cheyenne. Along with them was Dick Johnson, Marlon’s major domo in Tahiti, who’d I previously met and I greeted him.

Introduced to Tarita, I went to kiss the beauty on the lips but she was too fast for not-so-Fast-Eddie and she deftly kissed me Tahitian style on each cheek. Six-year old Cheyenne was very pretty, adorable and ehu - that is, a blonde Polynesian. Like her mom and the other children, Cheyenne was holding fragrant leis in order to welcome Marlon home from making Apocalypse Now in the Philippines.

However, it turned out that shooting Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic had gone into overtime, and in those days before emails and cell phones, Marlon had been unable to notify his Tahitian family that his plans had been changed and he’d missed his flight in order to continue playing Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. I remain the disappointed look in Cheyenne’s face when she found out that, like god knows how many times before, her absentee dad would be, once again, a no show…

Wild Son is a must see for fans of Marlon and those fascinated by his legendary life. I don’t know how interesting it will be for those not entranced by the Brando lore, but theatergoers who enjoy the one-man show format, powerful acting and storytelling will probably get much out of it, too. Mese has a string of stage and TV credits and ably embodies this Christian who was, alas, tossed to the lions.

Wild Son: The Testimony of Christian Brando plays on Sundays at 5:30 p.m. through May 26 at the Santa Monica Playhouse, Main Stage, 1211 4th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90401. For ticket details see: wildson.brownpapertickets.com; (800)838-3006.

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based reviewer/historian Ed Rampell co-authored the third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/ .