Whatever happened to Marlon Brando?
Better known in his later years for his onset antics rather than the quality of his performances, it seemed a far leap from the chiseled passion of his early work — The Wild Ones, A Streetcar Named Desire — to the boredom and bloat that marked his final decade. Two Oscar wins over the course of eighteen years to two Golden Raspberry nominations in the space of six does suggest something of a falling off.
What Listen To Me Marlon does is candidly uncover the reasoning of the man who made these choices — entirely in his own words.
A deeply private individual, this new documentary from director Stevan Riley (Fire in Babylon) and producer John Batsek (Searching for Sugarman), use, among other things, the extensive self-hypnosis tapes Brando recorded for himself to chronologically guide us through his career and personal life.
His troubled upbringing with a loving but alcoholic mother and a stern, abusive father; his time at the Actor’s Studio under Stella Adler, which he claimed set him free; his rise to stardom; his growing reputation for being difficult: nothing is excluded over the course of a melodic 142 minutes.
Even if you’ve read Brando’s autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, it’s a totally fresh experience having it recounted to you in Brando’s own familiar nasal mumble, and aided by a wealth of publicity snaps, movie footage, and home videos.
While iconic clips of Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable remind us of his place in the firmament, press photos of a grey-maned Brando at civil rights marches, or the facts behind his notorious refusal of the 1973 Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather, reveal more than just a great actor, but a fully rounded human being.
The film returns time and again to the scene of an empty home — bed unmade, bedroom curtains blowing in the wind — and a TV on which is presented a digital rendering of Brando’s face. It’s through this fully articulated mouthpiece, this animated death mask, that Brando’s words are often delivered to us — an increasingly haunting device as the film delves into the personal tragedies that defined his later years.
Playful and tormented, impassioned and disillusioned, an artist and a lover, and occasionally a hack, Brando’s legacy is all the more impressive demystified. Finally, eleven years after his death, Brando is talking. Whether Listen To Me Marlon is a demand or a request, it’s one well worth obliging.