Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley, USA, 2015)
One sometimes can’t help but hoot at the notion that method actors created a new, more ‘realistic’ style of acting. One sees them now in old movies – James Dean, whom I love, is the most famous name that comes to mind — flailing about and being ever so ‘intense’ and, when one recovers one’s composure, one reads it, at best, as a style, different but no better, and sometimes a lot more mannered and worse than what preceded and followed it.
There are exceptions to all of this of courses. And Marlon Brando is one such. He’s simply a great actor, a monumental one. There are reasons why he was instantly celebrated, instantly influential, why he changed the course of American acting, first on stage and later on film. It is also worth remembering that in his heyday as a box office film star, his competition consisted of John Wayne, Rock Hudson, Burt Lancaster, William Holden, James Stewart, and Glenn Ford; more traditional film stars who often surpassed him in the box office rankings.
Brando was not only instantly influential but also instantly mythologised. In ‘The Glamour of Delinquency,’ writing not only from another century but from what seems another world, Pauline Kael says, ‘The United States has now achieved what critics of socialism have always posited as the end result of a socialist state: a prosperous, empty, uninspiring uniformity. (If we do not have exactly what Marx meant by a classless society, we do have something so close to it that the term is certainly no longer an alluring goal). What promises does maturity hold for a teenager: a guaranteed annual wage, taxes, social security, hospitalization insurance, and death….It may be because this culture offers nothing that stirs youthful enthusiasm that it has spewed up a negative reaction: for the first time in American history we have a widespread nihilistic movement, so nihilistic it doesn’t even have a program, and, ironically, its only leader is a movie star: Marlon Brando.’
That’s quite a burden to put on anyone, much less young and anguished artist.
I thought I knew all I wanted to know about Marlon Brando. I’d read all the biographies, including his own rambly autobiography, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me; I’d seen the key films, and I felt my interest in Brando had been satiated, exhausted frankly. But Listen to Me Marlon is endlessly fascinating and deeply moving. What the film has to offer that’s new is vast amounts of audiotape that Brando recorded for himself, sometimes to meditate, sometimes because he couldn’t get to sleep, sometimes because he wanted a record, evidence. But the film also edits these mountains of tape into a structure and a narrative and finds excellent images to accompany Marlon’s voice, speaking in his twilight years, in the night, and into the void, as a means of making sense of what’s happened, what he searched for and what he lost, what turned him from a beacon and into an overweight depressive who couldn’t even take care of that which he loved most, his children.
The film begins by Brando telling us that his face has been scanned by a computer, in motion, and whilst conveying different expressions and that, out of these, the computer could then generate much more, i.e. the actor is now unnecessary, even the actor’s job has been taken over by a machine. The film then proceeds to demonstrate why this can never be so, as we hear Brando recite some of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies, interspersed throughout the film, usually spoken to himself from memory — this is a language he loved that expressed something he felt to be true — to make sense of his life, very movingly. The first is from Macbeth:
‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Brando’s career is a metaphor for America in what’s been called ‘The American Century’: so much talent, so much beauty, so much genius, so many gifts bestowed by the gods, so easily corrupted, thrown away, deprecated, debased; an amazing talent to turn the many bounties bestowed by the Gods into nasty, self-aggrandizing ugliness. Yet, the film makes us understand this. The abusive father, the shame and pity incurred by his mother’s being the town drunk, the insecurity engendered by the feeling that he wasn’t very bright, that all he had to offer was his beauty, his escape to New York and the freedom and release he found there. One senses that this rejection of Omaha, middle America, all the Rockwell Saturday Evening Post certainties, also gave him freedom. Impossible to dictate behaviour, norms, societal niceties to a child if one parent’s a wife beater and the other passes out on Main Street.
The freedom is what enabled him to search and to express that which he found, that which he found lacking, and that which he was searching for but couldn’t find. The film demonstrates what a great, versatile and original actor Brando was through a whole series of clips of his most celebrated performances: The Men, The Wild One, A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, Guys and Dolls, Last Tango in Paris and many of his most infamous flops, including Chaplin’s The Millionairess and Mutiny on the Bounty. The one that struck me most is the moment in The Godfather where he’s told of his son Sonny’s death, acknowledges it, clearly tries to restrain the emotion that he’s feeling, but then he exhales from one side of his nose and half his face seems to collapse, indicating the depths of his grief thought an uncontrollable moment of breath. It’s such an original and beautiful acting choice: so right. One can’t imagine anyone else doing it and one can’t imagine Don Corleone feeling anything less.
Near the beginning of the film, when Brando’s describing his first days in New York, how kind Stella Adler had been to him and how much she taught him, the revelling in his triumph in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, the film evokes the same kind of nocturnal, alcohol fuelled, sexual freedom Gore Vidal so well describes in Palimpsest as being characteristic of New York in the late 40s. It was the ‘American Century’ but Americans had come back changed from the war and didn’t believe the old verities. Everything was possible.
Much of the film is devoted to showing the descent into tragedy; but the film very cleverly interweaves the triumphs with disaster; the great performances with the failed relationships; what his island in Tahiti meant to him with the fact that even an island couldn’t protect his children from misfortune; the box-office success wit the relationship with his father; his fight for civil rights and the rights of indigenous people with his own inability to keep his own home together. It’s a messy life the film presents, a complex one, riveting and moving
When he begins reciting Sonnet 29 into his tape:
‘When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising’
We don’t miss the last few lines of the sonnet:
‘Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.’
The film makes us understand and feel his loneliness, his sense of failure; we regret that he gave up on acting around the time of Apocalypse Now. Decline was perhaps inevitable but Brando’s fall and the way he fell…it’s not only that he turned into a joke — the great beauty and sex symbol now so fat he could barely move, though even as a joke he never lost his popularly acknowledged title as ‘the greatest film actor of his generation, but that decline turned to tragedy: a son jailed for murder, a daughter committing suicide, nothing but fast food for comfort and only audiotape to talk through and make sense of his life.
It’s a great film; and though I’ve focussed here on the audiotape, there is also fantastic footage, not only from the films but from press conferences – Brando flirting with a journalist in the early sixties is something to behold – old tv shows showing him interviewed at home with his father, his marching with Dr. King and his speaking on behalf of Native Americans on Cavett. It’s a complex weave of a life with a central insight – that Brando overvalued sex and couldn’t understand or accept love, presumably until he had his own children. And there’s an interesting tension that the film provokes between how he saw himself, a small-town boy, abused and mistrustful, fundamentally decent, not too bright and what the world saw; a beautiful, explosive actor, seemingly capable of understanding and expressing all that people are capable of feeling.
Listen to Me Marlon is a film to see. In a superb recent interview with the director and some of his children in The Guardian, one of them, Miko Brando says, ‘This film is about as close as you get to knowing him without ever meeting him’. One senses that, even as it makes one want to know more.
 Pauline Kael, ‘The Glamour of Delinquency’, I Lost It At The Movies, New York, An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Little, Brown and Company, 1965, p. 45