Winston Churchill once said of the Soviet Union "It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". The same could be said of Marlon Brando, that most rebellious and unpredictable of acting legends. He could be selfish, nasty, charming, seductive and completely dismissive. If you have even a modicum of interest in Brando's life and career, don't miss director Stevan Riley's new documentary feature "Listen to Me Marlon". The offbeat title is meant to suggest the stream of consciousness that is based on the main premise of the film: audio tapes of Brando engaging in self-analysis. Ironically his intention was to use these recordings, which were made over decades, as the basis of an autobiographical documentary that was obviously designed to give his side of the story as it related to his life and career. As with many quixotic projects Brando became involved with, the film never became reality. However, director Riley (who helmed the acclaimed James Bond documentary "Everything or Nothing") received cooperation from the Brando estate to fulfill the actor's quest to refute certain urban legends about his life through his own words. The film is laid out in a fascinating manner. It is non-linear in the sense that it doesn't strictly adhere to the timetable of the momentous events of Brando's life. The movie zig-zags through the decades with photos and footage of his younger years with those from his final tortured days, beset by personal family tragedies. There was always a sense that Brando was consistently aloof and unconcerned about the public's perception of him. This proves not to be true. In the audio tape segments that define the premise of the movie (there is no narrator, only Brando himself), we find that this was a man who cared very much about being the target of bad press, especially when he was convinced the stories were not true. However, there is also an introspective admission that he considered himself to have major failings as a father and family man, a fact evidenced by the dramatic events in the latter part of his life that saw one of his sons, Christian, incarcerated for shooting to death his daughter Cheyenne's boyfriend and the subsequent suicide of Cheyenne several years later. It becomes clear through are photos and home movie footage that one aspect of Brando was that he truly loved his family, yet he was too self-absorbed with his own life and career to have been anything other than an occasional presence in their lives. In heartbreaking public trial footage, we see Brando, that most private of men, break down in tears as he bemoans his failings as a father. The movie shows that Brando himself was subjected to a strained relationship with his own father, a cold and unfeeling man who could never praise his son even after he had achieved international fame. In one awkward on-camera interview from the 1950s, the father is almost dismissive of his son's achievements. Brando later reflects compassion for his father, however, pointing out that he, too, had lived a very difficult life and was a product of those experiences.
Brando on the set of Last Tango in Paris with director Bernardo Bertolucci and co-star Maria Schneider, 1972.
The film provides no interviews with critics or colleaguesbut does present riveting vintage interviews in which we see Brando at his most playful. On a press junket (perhaps the only one he did in the 1960s) for the underrated WWII spy thriller "Morituri", Brando is far more concerned about seducing the attractive female journalists than he is in extolling the virtues of the film. The audio segments also indicate his bitterness over his experience on the 1962 remake of "Mutiny on the Bounty" which almost sank MGM. Brando took the lion's share of the blame for the film's enormous cost over-runs and was publicly chastised for selfish and irrational behavior on the set. His side of of the story is that they needed a scapegoat and he was it, pointing out he felt the film had major script problems from the beginning. The film also addresses the strained relationship between Brando and director Francis Ford Coppola, who resuscitated his career with "The Godfather". Brando laments that fact that Coppola bad-mouthed him for being unprepared on the set of "Apocalypse Now" and says he was hurt by this public flogging by a man he considered a friend. The documentary is peppered with film clips from key Brando movies, all of which are presented in gorgeous transfers, indicating Riley had a sizable budget for this film. (Many documentary film makers use VHS transfers of movie clips in order to get free usage under U.S. copyright laws.) There is also some truly rare color, on-set footage from "On the Waterfront" that left this viewer clamoring to see more. Brando's classics are represented and so are his bombs, so as the infamous "A Countess From Hong Kong", Charlie Chaplin's big screen comeback that landed with a thud. There are also the late career artistic triumphs such as "The Godfather" and "Last Tango in Paris", though on the latter Brando clearly resents his relationship with director Bernardo Bertolucci who he felt manipulated him into unveiling too many of his personal inner demons. Throughout the film, we see Brando represented by a digital 3D image of his head which he posed for in the 1980s and which fascinated him. He predicted that the future of film making would be revolutionized by digital technology- a predication that has come true. The statue-like, free-floating head of Brando serves as an anchor for his narration and perhaps, fittingly, reminds one of his appearance as Jor-El in "Superman". The movie also covers his social activism beginning with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. We see him among a Hollywood contingent in Washington D.C. as part of Martin Luther King's landmark protest. The film also traces his well-known devotion to equal rights for Native Americans. The movie includes the legendary Oscar ceremony footage of a mystery woman named Sacheen Littlefeather, in full tribal dress, refusing Brando's Best Actor statuette for "The Godfather" in protest of Hollywood's treatment of Indians on screen, much to the incredulity or perhaps amusement of presenters Liv Ullmann and Roger Moore. It was the kind of bold, in-your-face move that epitomized Brando as a rebel but it was also a missed opportunity. Why didn't he appear himself to make the speech? Laziness? Cowardliness? We'll never know. Like many of Brando's causes, however, these seemed to burn brightly but briefly.
The movie covers Brando's failed marriages and tempestuous relationships with women, none of which ended satisfactorily. Despite his late career fun appearances on Larry King's chat show, we get the feeling that he died feeling lonely and frustrated, haunted by what he perceived to be his own failures. If "Listen to Me Marlon" has a flaw is that it leaves us hungry for even more. Some key films and events are glossed over or ignored, perhaps for reasons of running time. Brando's "One Eyed Jacks", the only film he ever directed, is tantalizingly glimpsed in clips but not even identified by name. He created a fine movie after taking over from director Stanley Kubrick, who found he could not work with Brando. The film went far over-budget and caused angst at Paramount, adding to the growing belief that Brando might be more trouble than he was worth. However, we never hear a word about his views on directing or what happened on the set of the film. Perhaps he never addressed this in the audio recordings that Riley was given access to, but it will frustrate Brandophiles to not have the film covered in any detail. There are other snippets that also leave us desiring more: his dismissal of the first "Superman" movie, which he concedes he did strictly for money (but did he really think it was a bad movie?) Brando bragging that he rewrote the script for "Apocalypse Now", whereas others said he was just fudging because he was too lazy to read the script. The movie also covers Brando's increasing reliance on cue cards and other devices to remind him of his lines. Over clips from "The Formula", we hear him brag that he insisted that his character wear a hearing aid so that his lines could be fed to him. We see that the only place Brando truly feels at piece was in his beloved atoll in Tahiti. Home movies indicate this was a place where he could find peace and solace, away from studio executives, fawning fans and intrusive journalists.
"Listen to Me Marlon" is a remarkable film and is a fitting analysis of a man who personifies the old cliche "They don't make stars like that any more".
(The film opens July 29 for a two week run at the Film Forum in New York City.)