Filmmaker Cammell, Brando book together

By CASEY SEILER, Entertainment editor
First published: Friday, October 14, 2005

If alternate realities exist and other possible pasts run parallel to our own, perhaps someone somewhere is sitting down in his living room to watch the 20th-anniversary DVD of a movie that might be called "Fan-Tan."

It stars Marlon Brando, arguably the most influential screen actor of the 20th century, as Anatole "Annie" Doultry -- sailor, lover, gambler and gunrunner -- as he travels the South Pacific in 1927 in the company of a pirate band led by the lubricious but lethal Madame Lai Choi San.

Maybe "Fan-Tan" is brilliant. Maybe it's a fascinating mess. Maybe it's just awful, except for the scenery.

In this dimension, we'll have to settle for the book.

Good thing, then, that the recently released "Fan-Tan" (Knopf; 256 pages; $23.95) is what used to be called a hoot. An unreconstructed piece of pulp fiction ("She belted him across the chops with her right hand"), it's also something of an X-ray of Brando's obsessions -- including dirty jokes, non sequitur dialogue and lissome Asian beauties.

A checkered past

"Fan-Tan" was lashed together by acclaimed film critic and historian David Thomson from material left behind by Brando and his collaborator, Scottish filmmaker Donald Cammell. As recounted in Thomson's afterword, Brando and Cammell became close friends after the 1970 release of "Performance," Cammell's hallucinogenic film about a gangster (played by James Fox) and a rock star (Mick Jagger) who share a lushly appointed hideout and gradually swap identities.

Cammell, who had originally wanted Brando to play the gangster, became part of the actor's network of friends, and even married China Kong, the daughter of Brando's longtime lover Anita Loo. In 1979, Brando proposed the two men collaborate on a screenplay based on the actor's story about a Scottish-American sailor in his mid-50s; Cammell, whose career had withered after his move from Britain to California, assumed he would direct the eventual film.

Three years and a great deal of Brando's money later, the two men decided to transform their 165-page treatment into a novel, to be written by Cammell and approved by Brando; the authors received a $50,000 advance from the British publisher Pan.

And then -- nothing. In 1986, Brando repaid the advance and let Cammell know that "Fan-Tan" was effectively over.

Unfinished projects

"Brando flitted around from one thing to another," said Thomson, who visits the New York State Writers Institute next week. "I'm sure when a proper biography is done of the man, we'll discover there were dozens of projects floating around." One that we currently know about is "Jericho," a dark CIA thriller that Brando actually managed to get Cammell to sign onto only two years after "Fan-Tan" sank.

"When a person dies ... everybody assumes we know the films they were concerned with, because it's the list of things they did," said Thomson, speaking last month from Manhattan. "But it's very often the things they never were able to do that concerned them the most."

As a writer and film scholar, Thomson has become an expert in what might be called Hollywood's phantom history: His 1996 biography "Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles" presents an inventory of the director's undone or half-completed projects; Thomson's idiosyncratic 1987 "Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes" examines the life of another actor-filmmaker who, like Brando and Welles, could expend years of effort tinkering with projects that never ended up at a theater near you.

Thomson, a British-born writer now living in San Francisco, was charged with assembling "Fan-Tan" by the Cammell and Brando estates, at the request of Knopf editor Sonny Mehta. Cammell, after a series of professional reversals and psychological problems, committed suicide in 1996; Brando died in 2004.

Thomson got a tantalizing glimpse of the amount and variety of material held by Brando's estate, which includes a "vast amount" of audiotapes made by Brando at meetings and during phone conversations. Brando's executor, Hollywood powerhouse Mike Medavoy, provided Thomson with some of the brainstorming sessions between Brando -- who frequently dropped into character as Doultry -- and Cammell.

Power relationships

Underlying both "Fan-Tan" and Thomson's afterword to the tale itself is the idea of uneasy power relationships. Doultry and Lai Choi San spend almost as much time playing erotic head games with each other as they do plotting their big score. Cammell and Brando acted out their own drama.

"I think Cammell was a very smart guy," Thomson said.

"I think Cammell probably could have interpreted everything that was going on between him and Brando in a much more sophisticated way than Brando might have been able to put it into words. I think that Cammell knew that he was really totally dependent on Brando's whims, Brando wanting to do this. I'm sure he spent a lot of time trying to work out how he could just simply hold Brando's attention."

But did Brando see the project as an investment or an excuse to turn Cammell into his endlessly available sounding board? And did the actor ever honestly expect "Fan-Tan" could get made in the dawning age of the blockbuster?

"I think there were days and times when he thought it would, and then there were days and times when he thought not," Thomson said. "(Brando) was an extremely moody, unstable, unreliable person, and his state of mind changed a great deal -- sometimes for reasons no one could work out."

Casey Seiler can be reached at 454-5619 or via e-mail at [email protected].

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David Thomson