Surprisingly overlooked in the feature documentary category at this year’s Academy Awards is an unforgettable depiction of the man considered the greatest American actor of the 20th Century — as told in his own words, and culled from private audiotape recordings that served as a therapeutic escape for one of the most complex and fascinating personalities to ever appear on a movie screen.
Listen to Me Marlon (which David Edelstein of New York magazine has called “the greatest, most searching documentary of an actor ever put on film”), is directed and edited by Stevan Riley in mesmeric fashion, complementing the jarringly personal narrative of Brando’s often stream-of-consciousness thoughts with rarely-seen video footage perfectly in sync with each moment.
The film begins amid scattered scenes of the lonely refuge that was the actor’s Los Angeles home, and Brando’s voice describing himself as a “troubled man, alone, beset with memories, in a state of confusion, sadness, isolation, disorder…” Brando, who died in 2004, was speaking in the years after his son, Christian, was convicted and sent to prison for manslaughter in the death of his half-sister’s lover. (Cheyenne, Brando’s second child, herself committed suicide just a few years later.) Facing the press after the Christian incident, a shaken Brando sadly commented, “Misery has come to this house…”
The emotional turmoil that tore him apart in his later years was epilogue to the psychological trauma suffered throughout his youth at the hands of a physically abusive father and an alcoholic mother. In tapes that he labeled “self-hypnosis,” he drifts back to his early childhood in Omaha, Nebraska, attempting to recapture “the state of peace of the boy you remember, watching the elm leaves coming down…” The reality was far harsher. “When what you are as a child is unwanted…you look for an identity that will be acceptable.”
That identity found its form in acting, and was largely shaped by the legendary teacher Stella Adler, whom Brando hooked up with at the Actors Studio after arriving in New York in the ‘40s (“with holes in my pocket, holes in my mind”). Adler’s espousal of what was known as “method” acting, based on the theories of Constantin Stanislavski, was a perfect fit for the young thespian’s talents. After beginning work with Brando, Adler presciently told him, “The world is going to hear from you.”
Which of course it did, and quite loudly, but even worldwide fame and acclaim don’t always win you accolades from those whom you want them most.
In one of the most striking scenes in the documentary, the newly lauded actor (at the time, he was the youngest to ever have won the Oscar for Best Actor, for On the Waterfront in 1954, a record he held until 1978) is shown in a television interview with his father, who’s asked, “I can imagine you’re just a bit proud of your son right now, aren’t you?” “Well,” answers the elder Brando, “as an actor not too proud, but as a man, why, quite proud.” The son’s reaction is priceless, a subtle mixture of ‘huh?’ and WTH that justifies a description of his old man as someone with “not much love in him.” (When Christian was born, Brando swore he would never let him near his child.)
It’s not all about unhappiness. Listen to Me Marlon (which can be seen on Showtime) features remarkable footage of a joyous and unfettered Brando at his most liberated, in the place that he loved best: Tahiti. On the 12-island atoll, Tetiaroa, which he bought in the ‘60s, he was free to be himself and revel in the people whom he said “just took love for granted.” “It was everything I longed for,” he recalled. If he ever felt “closer to a sense of peace, it would be there.”
In the end, after the countless words and analyses that have pondered what lay at the heart of Brando’s genius, it’s also refreshing to learn that the artist himself did not see it as all that complicated. “Acting is just making stuff up. But that’s OK.”
We hear you, Marlon.