David Thomson’s entry on Marlon Brando in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film encapsulates many critics’ ongoing ambivalence towards this legendary actor’s turbulent career. Thomson proclaims that, after his star turn in Elia Kazan’s film version of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, “Brando was established for a generation of Americans as a great actor.” Yet, qualifying—and to a certain extent diluting —his praise, Thomson adds that “despite so many failed and wrongheaded films, Brando still commanded total respect and attention.”
Among those who remember Brando at the height of his powers, affection for the brilliant actor who brought his idiosyncratic version of “The Method” to the screen in Streetcar and Kazan’s On the Waterfront is tempered with memories of a troubled man who often squandered his talent in mediocre movies. Stevan Riley’s Listen to Me Marlon — which was produced and developed by Showtime, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and will be released in theaters on July 29th — reveals that a similar strain of ambivalence plagued Brando himself. As Riley explained to me by phone, in a joint discussion of his film with Brando’s daughter Rebecca, the “contradictions never end, but also underline the complexity of the man. As he says in the film, ‘I’m not going to invite the American public into my soul.’ At the same time, his roles reveal his soul.”
Often referred to as an “enigma,” it’s perhaps fitting that Brando’s legacy is being vigorously reexamined in the wake of the tenth anniversary of his death last July. Riley’s film, in tandem with Susan L. Mizruchi’s admiring study, Brando’s Smile (which argues that the actor, known for visceral emotion, was in fact a self-taught intellectual) and Florence Colombani’s new monograph Marlon Brando, part of Cahiers du Cinéma’s “Anatomy of an Actor” series, seeks to rehabilitate the reputation of an American legend, who, by the end of his life, was as much maligned as worshipped. For Rebecca, a clinical psychologist who speaks of her father with great tenderness, “people are finally understanding Marlon Brando, the real man—not just the actor. The family is very happy about these projects.”
Appearing in the form of a digitized ghost at the outset of the documentary (the press notes helpfully explain that the actor “had his face digitized in the 1980s by VFX supremo Scott Billups”), Brando is resuscitated by interweaving his ruminations culled from hours of archived audiotapes with a wealth of found footage, production stills, and kinescopes. Riley was spurred on to make the film by this treasure trove of recordings. Both inspired and slightly intimidated by the prospect of editing over “300 hours of material,” he nevertheless “thought it would be great to have Marlon tell the whole story in his own voice.”
In certain respects, Brando’s compulsion to record his every passing thought could be deemed self-therapeutic. According to Riley, “there was a huge assortment of tapes. . . In his last years, and especially in the aftermath of the tragedies that happened in his own household, he would experience panic attacks and attempts at self-hypnosis were part of that. Meditation was a way of trying to overcome his bouts of panic. Meditation was hugely calming for him after the shooting of his daughter Cheyenne's boyfriend by his son (and her half-brother) Christian and Cheyenne’s subsequent suicide. He had a lifetime of therapy, but these tapes constitute a kind of inquiry into what went wrong.”
Perhaps the central contradiction in Brando’s life and career concerns his veneration for the craft of acting, evinced in the film by his deep respect for Stella Adler, his most important teacher, and his frequently expressed disdain for show business and some of his own performances. As Riley admits, “He oscillated throughout his life from upholding artistic ideals to complaining about his profession. You asked whether he was disillusioned with acting as he grew older. I think he was disillusioned throughout his life. Even at the time of Streetcar, he found the job too overwhelming; he was putting too much of himself into his roles and it was too much hard work. That was where his love affair with acting began to fall apart. I asked Stella’s daughter, Ellen, if there was a point when he embraced fame. She said that she thought that was when Streetcar first came out and he felt he had arrived.” Rebecca concurred, but added, “towards the end of his life, there were projects like The Freshman and Don Juan DeMarco where he regained his own spark and reinvented himself as an artist. He loved the creative process. He was a pure artist, but didn’t like the politics of filmmaking.”
Brando’s ambivalence toward acting was no doubt at least partially aligned to his involvement in the Civil Rights movement and the struggles of Native Americans—causes that led him to believe that his own work was relatively frivolous, as well as tied to an industry that was frequently racist and decidedly non-egalitarian. Rebecca recounts how her father’s political preoccupations were incorporated into an empathetic approach to parenting: “He didn’t talk to us that much about human rights, but he taught us to be there to help others—as he does in the film when he speaks about being his brother’s keeper. When I was in the sixth grade, I remember him telling me on the phone: ‘Is there a kid in your class who always sits alone and has no one to talk to? I want you to sit with him and talk to him.’ Even when it came to sporting events, he would always root for the unpopular team.”
Nevertheless, if Brando was ambivalent about the cult of celebrity, his preparation for roles remained meticulous throughout his career. Riley emphasizes that, although the mercurial actor “would sometimes do roles for the money, he would certainly put a lot of himself in his roles when he was in a serious mode. Part of his approach was to read and explore as much as possible so he could eventually forget it. Fill your rational mind with all this information so you could discard it in the moment and let spontaneity take over. It was a kind of perfectionism. The Godfather interested him because of his life-long preoccupation with the struggle of good and evil. You could see it in his own house when tragedy struck and his basically good-natured son Christian wielded a gun, whether out of alcohol-fueled aggression or because of an accident. The ‘70s were a difficult time for him. He was on prescription drugs—although he had been taught to aspire towards truth under Stella Adler, he thought acting was a lie and had to confront that people like Presidents, in positions of trust, were lying.”
One of Listen to Me Marlon’s glaring omissions is its neglect of Elia Kazan, a Brando mentor who directed three of the actor’s most celebrated films—A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata! and On the Waterfront—and became controversial when he “named names” before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Riley justifies his decision not to confront Kazan’s legacy, as well as Brando’s apparently ambivalent view of this pivotal figure, for structural reasons: “We didn’t deal with Kazan, although Stella and Kazan were Marlon’s two formative influences. For narrative reasons, I decided to deal with Stella [Adler]. Marlon would fall in and out of friendships. He had a deep respect for Kazan, but, if you caught him on the wrong day, he might talk about how he was pissed off with Kazan.”
This structural decision notwithstanding, Riley acknowledges that the role of Stanley Kowalski, which Brando embodied in both Kazan’s stage production of Streetcar and the subsequent film, haunted him throughout his life: “It’s one of the big contradictions of Marlon’s life that he never wanted to be identified with Stanley Kowalski. You often hear that Stanley Kowalski represents a beast-like personality, which Marlon associated with his dad. By the end of Last Tango in Paris, he seemed to admit that he also had aspects of the beast. There was a woman named Arlene Martel, who was very close to Marlon. Although she loved Marlon, she thought that perhaps Stanley was the character he was closest to. Or he at least he understood the ambivalent nature of the role— his conscience also nagged him and he was an angel as well as a beast.” If nothing else, Listen to Me Marlon confirms that Brando was a complex, multifaceted man and actor— a brilliant chameleon who both loved and hated his profession, as well as a charmer who remained deeply private and unpredictable.
This article was originally published in January, following "Listen to Me Marlon's" premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.