One night could hardly do Marlon Brando justice, so Turner Classic Movies splits this sterling biography into 90-minute halves — each to be televised in concert with classics like “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront” — painting an engrossing, painstakingly thorough portrait of the actor’s tumultuous life. More than four dozen interviews augment the clips, with a who’s-who of Brando co-stars such as Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and Johnny Depp discussing the actor in an unguarded, deeply personal fashion that’s exceedingly rare in celebrity chat. The result is a general paean to acting, with Brando as a defining practitioner of that craft.
Producer Leslie Greif makes relatively short work of Brando’s early years — introducing him as the rebellious son of a drunken mother and authoritarian father who shipped him off to a military academy — before diving into his early stage and film work. These interviews are simply extraordinary, from Kevin McCarthy — who understudied him in “Truckline Cafe” — to Eli Wallach, who notes that by rejecting parts when producers came knocking, “That made them all go nuts to get him.”
For most viewers, however, the real meat will come in seeing performers such as Depp, Pacino and John Travolta discuss the transcendent influence Brando had upon them when they first saw him onscreen. There is also considerable wrestling with precisely what “method acting” means, and while the definition varies, few would quarrel with the jarring ferocity Brando brought to “Waterfront,” “Streetcar” and “The Wild One” during the 1950s.
Much is made of the young Brando’s womanizing and physical allure — how he could quietly seduce a woman with her date standing there — as well as his growing discontent with acting, or at least reconciling its importance as a worthy vocation. This ambivalence can be seen even in an early clip of Brando chatting with Edward R. Murrow, just one of the many little gems (including screen tests) peppered throughout.
The second half chronicles “The Godfather” as well as other later (and not necessarily memorable) roles, as directors struggled to manage Brando the way Elia Kazan did during his breakthrough roles of the 1950s.
Then there is Brando’s political activism, highlighted by his defiant gesture of declining the Oscar in 1973 to register a statement regarding the plight of Native Americans. Sacheen Littlefeather, who famously appeared on his behalf, says John Wayne nearly had to be physically restrained backstage from rushing out to remove her.
Considerable time is granted to friends and colleagues reminiscing about Brando’s personal qualities as well as his professional legacy, conveying everything from his sense of whimsy (James Caan recalls mooning him, much to Brando’s delight, en route to “The Godfather” set) to the grief he experienced surrounding his children.
The one truly notable omission in the voices represented is the absence of Francis Ford Coppola, who directed Brando in “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now,” though filmmakers such as Bernardo Bertolucci (“Last Tango in Paris”) and Arthur Penn (“The Missouri Breaks”) provide considerable insight into Brando’s work and eccentricities. Nor does the project make any mention of Brando’s complicated life-long friendship with actor Wally Cox — given their onscreen personas, a truly unlikely odd couple.
“He is the marker. There’s ‘before Brando’ and ‘after Brando,’ ” observes Martin Scorsese, functioning as film historian, during the documentary. And if the real Brando was larger than life for both good and ill, Turner has delivered a production that in every way measures up to the man.
Docu unspooled in its entirety April 26 at the Tribeca Film Festival, will be broadcast on TCM May 1-2 and will bow overseas in the Cannes Classics sidebar of the French fest next month.