As unconventional as its subject, Listen to Me Marlon offers an unusually intimate portrait of Marlon Brando, told almost entirely in his own words, culled from hundreds of hours of audiotapes he recorded over many years’ time. They range from self-hypnosis mantras to confessionals about his troubled youth. He also speaks with candor and insight about the nature of acting and the curse of fame. I found it all utterly fascinating
Filmmaker Stevan Riley fleshes out his raw material with a host of film excerpts, newsreel footage, television appearances, and the Maysles Brothers’ infectiously amusing Meet Marlon Brando (1966), in which the star shamelessly flirts with attractive female reporters during a movie junket. He also stages low-key dramatic recreations of Brando’s home environment, both as a child in Omaha and as an older recluse at his Mulholland Drive compound in Los Angeles. Fortunately, these sequences are subtly executed and help us to visualize the world in which Brando recorded his thoughts.
Listen to Me Marlon covers a lot of ground, but because it is not a traditional biography it omits some topics and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Viewers unfamiliar with the actor’s life might be surprised to learn that he had a sister, Jocelyn, of whom he was quite fond—and who had a respectable acting career of her own. She is never mentioned once. Is this because he (or his heirs) didn’t want to drag her into his tumultuous story? We may never know.
I found Brando’s thoughts about acting particularly intriguing. He gloried in observing people when he arrived in New York City and despaired when fame robbed him of that anonymity. At the premiere of Guys and Dolls he is visibly shaken by the need for police to restrain excitable fans—which an interviewer dismisses as par for the course. But Brando was an acutely sensitive man; the saddest aspect of the film is his quest for peace and solitude, and how the place that became his save haven, Tahiti, turned irrevocably sour in later years.
Listen to Me Marlon is a melancholy treatise on a man whose genius remains as formidable as his penchant for self-destruction. I take heart in a series of remarks near the end of the film in which he finds meaning and justification in his chosen career. I don’t know when he came to this conclusion, but it heartens me that he did. See if you agree.
NOTE: Listen To Me Marlon opens in New York Wednesday, July 29th at the Film Forum and in Los Angeles on Friday, July 31st at The Landmark, followed by a national rollout.