Who was the real Marlon Brando? Those unfamiliar with the Method-acting icon’s electrifying early work with director Elia Kazan might recall him as a bloated recluse, sequestered away in his Mulholland Drive compound or his Tahitian retreat, only to emerge when scandal hit or to rake in a quick million with work that was beneath him.
But “Listen to Me Marlon,” which opens in New York on July 29 and in L.A. July 31, goes a long way toward debunking the myths behind the legend, who died in 2004.
“He did take acting very seriously, even to the end,” says the film’s writer-editor-director Stevan Riley. “He would do intensive research for roles, scribbling in the margins of books and scripts. Everything he learned he would somehow squeeze into a film if he had an interest in it: things about mythology, the nature of good and evil, Freudian analysis. He was always trying to find out what made us tick, and he’d bring that to bear.”
Riley and his Passion Pictures partners, with support from Showtime, were given access to a Rosetta Stone of sorts — hundreds of hours of personal audio recordings by Brando over the course of five decades. The result is a documentary that paints an intimate, first person account — the most revealing portrait yet of someone many consider the greatest screen actor of the 20th century.
It’s all there in Brando’s own voice: the alcoholic mom who abandoned him (“I used to love the smell of liquor on her breath”), the father who disrespected him (“he was a man with not much love in him”), his great expectations as a youthful misfit (“I arrived in New York with holes in my life and holes in my socks”), the teacher and surrogate mother figure who saved him (“all acting today stems from Stella Adler”), his acting ambitions (“figure out a way to do it that has never been done before”), the serial womanizing (“past a certain point the penis has its own agenda”) and so forth.
Riley and his team leave no stone unturned, including the use of previously released material, such as footage from the Maysles brothers’ documentary “Meet Marlon Brando” and an interview by Edward R. Murrow that aired on CBS in 1955. They were also given access to tapes from Robert Lindsey, who co-wrote Brando’s 1994 autobiography “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” as well as home movies, countless behind-the-scenes stills, movie clips and stock footage to tell their story.
Before assembling his film, Riley had envisioned a more conventional approach, talking to as many as 40 people who were close to Brando at one time or another, including colleagues and family members, Brando’s household staff, Adler’s daughter Ellen, fellow activist/entertainer Harry Belafonte and Brando’s first agent Jay Kantor. But as the audio tapes piled up, facilitated by the relationship between Passion Pictures chief and the film’s producer John Battsek (“One Day in September,” “Searching for Sugarman”) with one of the chief archivists of Brando’s estate, Austin Wilkin, Riley felt “how far-fetched it would be, how amazing, to actually tell the story entirely in (Brando’s) own words.”
Some of the audio material is so intimate the viewer feels like a voyeur, such as when Brando is engaged in an apparent erotic tryst with an Asian journalist.
Like many contradictions in Brando’s life, Riley describes the thrice-divorced actor as both “a romantic” and “an arch womanizer and sex addict” who suffered from “attachment disorder” — problems that stemmed from his extreme insecurities. “He was deeply jealous and scared, and didn’t want to be hurt,” explains Riley. “So he’d test people to the point of breaking them.”
The recordings served partly as audio diaries, ideological musings and meditative exercises (some tapes would be labeled as “self hypnosis,” with the actor essentially addressing himself, hence the film’s title). “The meditation tapes were meant to help change himself, change his own wiring,” says Riley.
Ever curious about his own behavioral tics and motivations as an actor, Brando’s history with self-analysis dated back at least to his Oscar-winning work on “On the Waterfront” (1954), during which it was written into his contract that he could break off work at a certain hour each day to see his therapist. And early on in “Listen To Me Marlon,” it’s clear Brando intended to be the author of his own cinematic self-portrait, with a narrative that sounds more literary than your typical work of non-fiction.
“He’s a troubled man,” Brando is heard saying in the film late in his life, referring to himself in the third person, “alone, beset with memories, in a state of confusion and sadness, isolation, disorder. He’s more than beyond being social in an ordinary way; he’s more like a mechanical doll. Maybe he felt that he was treated badly and he’s angry about the treatment…”
The Brando tapes were also a way of setting the record straight. “He felt incredibly misinterpreted,” says Riley, “and felt it was futile to fight back against the critics.”
Riley’s takeaway? “Even in the fishbowl of his fame and how unusual that was, I was impressed by how quirky and relatable he was,” says the filmmaker, “and how much of an everyman he was underneath.”