Ever since I saw Marlon Brando as a guest on the Dick Cavett Show, I've thought that here was a man who should be running his own show whenever possible. He strode onto the stage in a denim jacket and neckerchief, looking like the cat who ate the canary, ready to make another meal of Cavett. His host tried his best to steer him towards chatter about his Hollywood career, but Brando was determined to use his appearance as a platform for his activism.
The crowd was attentive, though undoubtedly a bit impatient, but every once in a while he'd flash a disarming grin at Cavett, and you could practically feel everyone in the room swoon. You couldn't get that effect if he had been a dutiful guest. Brando is at his best when he is free to express himself, and that is exactly why Listen to Me Marlon is such a moving film.
The documentary, directed by British filmmaker Stevan Riley, makes public for the first time clips from the hundreds of hours of private recordings Brando made of himself over the course of his life. This massive cache of tapes includes the actor's musings about life and his craft, answering machine tapes and his homemade self hypnosis tapes in which he begs himself to take it easy on the desserts he adores.
Riley juxtaposes these audio files with archival footage, clips from the actor's films, family home movies and news footage. It has the effect of a liquid collage, smoothly winding through the defining moments of the actor's life.
It's a quiet film, with a melancholy, bittersweet tone, most likely due to the reflective tone of Brando's musings. While the actor is seen at many different ages, it has the overall feel of an old man looking back, remembering and wondering where he went wrong.
Brando speaks a lot about his craft, how he learned about people by observing them on the street and how much his acting teacher Stella Adler encouraged him when he had little faith in himself. While he worked diligently to hone his talent, it is clear that he was born with the sensitivity crucial to performing the way he did. He often seems high on the details of life, like the rhythmic sound of a train clattering on the tracks or the way leaves on a tree look in the sunlight.
He talks about his parents, both alcoholics. His mother was poetic and inspired in him a sense of the absurd, while his father was abusive, always getting in bar fights, unhappy with the state of his life. It is easy to see how characteristics of both bled into his craft.
The actor seems to have been destined for a dramatic life, though he often gives the impression in his recordings that he craves peace and beauty above all else. Hollywood was not a lifestyle for him. While he enjoyed acting, there was a point where he only made films to earn the money he needed to escape from the chaos of life.
While Brando's films are given ample attention, there's also plenty of footage devoted to the life he built outside of the industry, from the way he fell in love with the open-hearted Tahitians while on location film Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), to his courageous activism on behalf of American Indians and African Americans. At one point a reporter asks him about the latter, and if he fears he could die fighting for the cause. A slow grin creeps across his face before he answers with a simple "yes".
Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of Brando's life was the difficulties that his children faced. His ex-wife arranged for his eldest son, Christian to be kidnapped while he was a teen. Years later, he was convicted of the murder of his half sister Cheyenne's boyfriend, who had been allegedly abusive to her. The scandal caused Brando's already emotionally fragile daughter to hang herself.
It is here that Riley is most skilled in his collage-making, demonstrating Brando's grief with clips of him speaking tearfully in court and to the press, and showing footage of his children in Tahiti, when they were young and uncorrupted by the outside world, something the actor insisted upon, though it meant he rarely saw them. The director creates an especially effective portrait of Cheyenne with just a few clips. You can sense her vibrance and vulnerability, and how much she was treasured by her father, despite his frequent absences from her life.
I was also struck by the astonishing influence Brando's films have had. While his professional achievements are well known, it was incredible to see them gathered together here. So many of his performances could have sustained his legend on their own: the award winners like On the Waterfront (1954), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and The Godfather (1972), and the roles that inspired cultural change and debate, like The Wild One (1953), Apocalypse Now (1979) and Last Tango in Paris (1972). It isn't just that he was a great actor, he was also influential both in his style and in the material he chose.
In speaking for himself, Brando becomes more than an acting legend or the center of scandal. He is given the opportunity to share how it feels from the inside and uses all his powers of expression to help you understand. He always said that acting is "lying for a living," but it is really the communication of an essential truth that has made him a legend and object of enduring admiration.
Many thanks to SIFF for providing a screener of Listen to Me Marlon (2015). The film will open at SIFF Uptown Cinema on 8/21 and will be screening at select US theaters.