I do wish Listen To Me Marlon had the same power as Brando himself, but instead it is a slightly interesting proposal on the nature of the man behind the name. We know him as both an incredibly brilliant actor and a difficult one, but his private life and the inner workings of his mind were obscured by sudden scandals and his desire for privacy. Director Stevan Riley utilizes clips from Brando’s filmography and found audio recordings made by Brando himself to construct the basis of the film. The choice to use audio recordings made by Brando himself is what saves it from becoming an E! True Hollywood Story-esque montage. Considering how private Brando attempted to be, the existence of these tapes in the first place is an incredible discovery and a glimpse into the working mind of one of the greatest actors to grace the screen.
Brando made hours and hours of never-before released audio recordings initially as an aide in his struggles with his “bad emotional habits formed in early years,” resulting from a difficult childhood. Marlon’s father, a traveling salesman, would often be gone for long stretches of time only to return and beat Marlon’s mother. Marlon eventually learns that his father also would see other women while away for work, a habit that Marlon unfortunately carried into his own life. He spent tons of money on psychoanalysis before deciding that it wasn’t worth the money. The coping method that worked best for him came from being able to verbalize his frustrations and to record his own relaxation tapes. I mean, if you could have Marlon Brando talk you to sleep every night, you’d do it too, right?
For the casual Brando fan, the documentary gives good insight into how different periods in his life interconnect, from his initial encounters in theater, learning “The Method” form of acting from the great acting teacher Stella Adler, to performing in A Streetcar Named Desire, to how his womanizing affected his personal relationships. Additionally, his work on Mutiny on the Bounty was also his introduction to the islands of Tahiti, which soon became a second home, and a refuge from the spotlight. The filmmakers emphasize Brando’s gaze here, intercut with clips of some of the dancers from Mutiny… a choice demonstrative of the power of his immersive acting style, and a visual comment of sorts on Brando’s ability to use his skills as an actor to get what he wants.
To put it simply, Brando had 16 children that we know of, some of whom were adopted, but for the most part came from various relationships and marriages, including a woman he married in Tahiti. He also had a tendency to flirt shamelessly with interviewers, often bordering on inappropriate, and certainly would be heavily scrutinized were he behaving in the same manner today. When he wasn’t resting in Tahiti with his family, or on set, he studied cultural issues and gave his platform as a public figure to those who needed and wanted it more than he did. It’s also notable that Brando was very active in the political sphere, often advocating for civil rights of minorities, especially during the Civil Rights movement, and raising the profile of Native Americans.
Despite his notoriously bizarre personality, he still widely is regarded as one of the greatest actors to have ever lived. When I think about the number of scandals surrounding actors, it is a constant reminder that those heroes we see on screen are actually regular people with problems. Perhaps Brando gets a pass in the minds of the masses because his work continues to stand on its own, and Brando repeatedly emphasized the importance of his privacy in interviews. It’s possible to separate Brando the Actor from Brando the Womanizer if all you’ve seen him in is The Godfather or On The Waterfront. Perhaps you’ve reached a more nuanced opinion after Streetcar, Last Tango In Paris, and Apocalypse Now. Maybe you’re a superfan who has seen Mutiny. Footage from these films provide the visuals within this documentary, to show not only his range as an actor, but also to illustrate how his own words were also active in his choices as a performer. Maybe that’s why he was so difficult to work with: he was constantly thinking and scrutinizing himself to the point where he needed to change entire scripts to fit what he envisions for his character.
Though he is one of the most well known actors of our time, it is entirely possible to not think of him in the same terms we do actors in 2015. He never had a twitter, or an Instagram to fill with commentary. Our opinions are almost entirely based on his work, or his bizarre public statements. Listen To Me Marlon might not be perfect all-around, but it does give him space to become a whole person. It’s a movie worthy of discussion, though Brando would scoff at the idea of having his life pried into further. This film takes the idea of the monolithic actor and him, oddly, to what is the closest we’ll ever get to the real Brando, failing some sort of resurrection.