Often called the greatest actor of his generation, if not all 20th-century cinema, Marlon Brando was also one of the most enigmatic, unpredictable, even damaged of movie stars offscreen. That complexity is limned as well as a documentary possibly could manage in “Listen to Me Marlon,” which draws on an extraordinary estate archive of personal materials to let the man tell his story (and analyze) himself. Sure to hold surprises for even those obsessives who’ve absorbed every Brando performance and factoid, this fascinating, artful pastiche merits specialized theatrical release in addition to inevitable cable and rental sales.
The title comes from self-hypnosis tapes we hear that the late subject made for himself, one among umpteen strategies for finding some inner tranquility. While there’s plenty of evidence here that Brando was a “difficult” person, and frequently a disastrous influence on those who loved him, the thing that comes through most strongly in the audio tapes excerpted here is how acutely aware he was of his faults. His unpretentious, sometimes guilt-ridden self-questioning makes “Listen” a warts-and-all portrait that he probably would have felt was quite fair, despite his often intense antipathy toward media scrutiny.
From the viewer’s p.o.v., it almost feels as if he assembled the film himself from beyond the grave. There are no new interviews here, and re-enactment fragments are inserted so discreetly they disappear into the fabric of an otherwise entirely archival assemblage. Its mix encompasses every kind of seldom-to-never-before-seen errata, from behind-the-scenes, promotional and TV-appearance clips to homemovies and other very private materials. There are also news reports and tabloid headlines detailing the more painful, scandalous aspects of his life. And of course there are clips from his films, all in beautiful condition, but some far from beautiful otherwise: For every famous bit from the likes of “On the Waterfront” (an Oscar-winning performance he disparaged), “The Godfather” and such, there are glimpses of artistically misfired or crassly commercial projects of which he felt ashamed, such as the all-star Chaplin-directed fiasco “A Countess from Hong Kong.”
Entering the movies as a stage sensation via “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1950, he spoke of hoping to bring a new realism (bred by his Method acting mentor Stella Adler) and versatility to a medium stuck in cults of glamorous personality. But disillusionment soon set in. There’s an absorbing section devoted to the making of 1962’s “Mutiny on the Bounty” remake. It introduced him to his chosen Earthly paradise of Tahiti, but his behavior was blamed for catastrophic production delays and cost overruns. After a decade’s professional slide, he triumphed again with “The Godfather,” which was then followed by “Last Tango in Paris” — whose director, Bernardo Bertolucci, dug so deep into Brando’s real psyche for that tortured sexual roundelay that the actor wound up feeling emotionally violated. His monologue to a dead wife in that film was a discomfiting improvisation, directly drawing on his upbringing with a cold, abusive father and hapless “poetical” mother, both drunkards.
Much as Brando tried not to emulate them, his own personal life was a perpetual shambles. We see his libido on full display as he flirts shamelessly with female interviewers, but his marriages and long-term relationships invariably ended in grief. Worse was what happened to some of his purported 16 children. Christian Brando famously shot his sister Cheyenne’s boyfriend to death in 1990, and was sent to prison; Cheyenne committed suicide five years later. While Brando’s chaotic, increasingly paranoid lifestyle clearly made him a problematic parent, there’s little doubt from the evidence here that he absorbed these and other tragic events with an almost unbearable sense of personal guilt. His enormous compassion found more successful expression in highly public support of the civil rights movement and, later, Native American rights.
The resulting multifaceted portrait reveals a man of spiritual and (early on) physical beauty who was also childish, lecherous, intellectual, prankish, evasive, brutally frank and umpteen other contradictory things — in addition to being a remarkable talent. Made with the full cooperation of the Brando estate, the pic is a superbly crafted collage whose soundtrack is as complexly textured as the curation and editing of visual elements.