When Marlon Brando died in 2004, Jack Nicholson — no slouch in the ego department himself — recalled his thoughts on watching the first dailies of Brando when they made The Missouri Breaks: “Holy [expletive]. Who do you think you are, Jack? You’re in a movie with Marlon Brando!”
Even to mere mortals, Brando remains the quintessential actor of a particular type and era. Because of his legacy of extraordinary stage and movie performances and his complicated, often anguished personal life, there’s enough residual intrigue to justify the well-made new documentary Listen to Me Marlon.
Brando worshipers may find little new in the film, and it certainly omits subjects that might be considered essential, but for the rest of us, it’s an absorbing account of a most uncommon life. That’s partly because the actor tells his own story, via extensive audio recordings he made over the years.
Of course there’s the expected archival footage, guest commentary and a few re-creations of Brando’s home life, but the spoken memories, musings, jokes and stray remarks are the man’s own, and we’re free to make of them what we will.
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Highly intelligent, but with limited formal education, Brando was insatiably curious about people, and in the film he describes how, when he first arrived in New York — he grew up in Illinois — he was absorbed with observing individuals in the street, speculating about their lives, their work, their relationships. He was profoundly affected by the acting classes of Stella Adler, who had been just as profoundly influenced by the ideas of Konstantin Stanislavsky.
The result in 1947 was Brando’s explosive and much talked-about, imitated and parodied performance in A Streetcar Named Desire. His tough-guy character had a limited inner life, which can’t be said of the actor himself. He had limitless ambition. But, especially after he started making movies, his growing fame shook him, and he expended much energy seeking peace and quiet.
That’s how he and his family wound up in Tahiti, where a series of tensions and contradictions erupted that would result in family tragedy. There, and in his Los Angeles kingdom atop Mulholland Drive, he sought refuge but mostly found misery.
He seems as doomed as any character he ever played, but the film, directed by Stevan Riley, isn’t all darkness. Earlier in his life, Brando had a fine sense of humor — he loved playing practical jokes — and abundant energy. His rebellious streak — a la The Wild One, which made him an antiestablishment hero — was genuine, if controversial.
Still, the actor suffered deeply, and however much he’s responsible for that, it’s hard not to feel some compassion for a bright and sensitive artist who, at least early on, seemed full of life.
Exclusive: The Texas Theatre, Dallas
Listen to Me Marlon
Director: Stevan Riley
Cast: Marlon Brando
Running time: 104 min.