For me, loving movies was about nurturing memories. Some memories are brighter, some darker, and some are there to stay as iconic images stuck into subconsciousness. Marlon Brando is my favorite actor. “Listen to me, Marlon” is an exquisite insight into Brando’s private thoughts, confessions and tragedies. Documentary which, in more senses than one, makes me feel like a fly on the wall of his privacy. So, how is it ? How to describe the sensation caused by the eavesdropping on Brando? In a nutshell – I’ve never felt better about my voyeuristic nature.
“Listen to me, Marlon” is compiled from audio-tapes of the man himself. His journals, intimate thoughts, and self-therapy allegedly amount to more than 100 hours of usable material. Although, “Listen to me, Marlon” only uses small portion of this vast collection; it’s still wonderful resource for future explorers, fans and students of the actor’s work, considered by many as one of the greatest in the Hollywood history.
In the beginning, Brando states that he was on the “face digitization” process where his gestures and expressions were taken for future use. In this documentary we can see those images followed by audio-tapes narration. Many of his monologues start with the title sentence: “Listen to me, Marlon”. He is his own therapist and he’s leading us into the past which is full of disturbances with only few of those “calm places” (he calls them anchors) where he gets to be himself. Stevan Riley, author of the movie, compiled a film like a collage of ups and downs. Scene of news report about shooting in Brando family home is intertwined with his “anchor” under the elm tree in Omaha where he liked to sit as a child. That’s a bubble of protection against the cruelty of the world, but the movie teaches us that the harsh reality cannot be avoided. In these scenes we can see the kind of film which is projected to us. It’s a deeply personal confession. We can see river of thoughts on various films, directors, lovers, children and dogs. Force behind that river intrigues us and forces to push further into the privacy of the legend. That same legend who said: “the artists are mental prostitutes and worse, because the prostitute gives her body while an artist gives his most intimate feelings”.
Brando’s life as an actor starts with Stella Adler. He obviously revered Adler, and he gives her credit to bring Stanislavsky method of acting into the United States. Before Adler, you always knew what will any of the classic actors do in any given moment. For example if Clark Gable went for the door, and started slowing down, you could assume that he will turn around in the crucial moment and say: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”. Stanislavsky method changed that. Brando, more than anybody, was its most prominent representative. His roles in “Streetcar named Desire”, “On the Waterfront” and “The Wild One” became the mark points of the generation, and some of those subconscious images of him came from that iconic scenes. It’s special treat to hear Brando talk about his first movie “The Men” and the differences between cinema and the theater. Brando’s theory is that cinema is more demanding, because on camera every detail and every expression no matter how small holds importance. One could argue that’s not the case, but considering time-frame (early fifties) we’re talking about Brando’s theory has merit.
Marlon’s relationship with his father is also important part of the tapes. Brando said that his father was very much alike the characters he played. He talks about himself being a sensible man who played rough and hardcore masculine types because his father taught him how they act. His roles as Stanley Kowalski, Julius Caesar or Emiliano Zapata prove the theory. All of them were hardcore masculine characters in hard and improbable situations, and all of them had some power over those weaker than themselves. Brando thrived in such performances, but he called such characters “a cheats.” He said that he would probably be very good cheat if he wasn’t an actor. I’m cheating all the time as an actor, he says. All is just for show.
Second great phase of his career is marked with milestones of the cinema. “The Godfather”, “Apocalypse Now”, “The Last Tango in Paris”. Those masterpieces are also closely scrutinized in this documentary. Brando is talking about his relationship with Francis Ford Coppola, his ideas about civil rights and the fight for black vote, relationship with Malcolm X and finally – his rejection of the Oscar award for “The Godfather.” Also, interesting spice to the story is his opinion about Coppola’s screenwriting for “Apocalypse Now” where he takes credit for the end of the movie which was (in his own words) terrible in the original version.
Of course, we could dismiss that as vanity, but these tapes were highly intimate, confessional and weren’t intended for release. Why would Brando took credit for something he didn’t do?
Bertolucci says that Brando was highly inventive actor. In regard to “The Last Tango in Paris” Bertolucci’s advice to Brando was to “grab into his past” and “relax”. As a result, many of the replicas by Brando in that movie are purely his improvisation. “Listen to me, Marlon” is wonderfully edited. Scene in which the death of Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” is glued together with Brando’s own monologues about the transiency of life made me shiver. Brando’s world, as everybody’s, was the world of ups and downs. Heights and depressions. Only those who are truly the greatest are capable of fighting and surviving such amplitudes. In my opinion, Marlon Brando was one of them. It was my pleasure to be the fly on the wall of his intimacy. It was also a privilege.
Therefore, the documentary in question is highly valued contribution to the evaluation of Marlon Brando. It may not be the most coherent or most comprehensive, but it’s certainly the most personal view of the legend I’ve ever seen. For that alone, it deserves to be praised.