Mark Reviews Movies

Listen to Me Marlon


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Stevan Riley

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:42

Release Date: 7/29/15 (limited); 8/28/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 27, 2015

Marlon Brando considered himself to be a professional liar. All actors are liars, trying to communicate some truth about the human condition through their craft, but Brando apparently didn't see that as a particularly special skill. He says that all people are liars to one degree or another—a child trying to get attention by throwing a fit, a person walking down the street trying to hide some personal turmoil, a husband trying to come up with a story for his wife about why he's coming home late.

Some people are good enough at it to make a living of it. This, Brando believed, was the only thing he was good at doing.

Brando spent his life immersed in this peculiar craft of lying to communicate the truth, and in Listen to Me Marlon, the actor, in his own words, tells the lessons he learned. The film is a portrait of an artist as a man throughout the course of his life. Some things about him changed: his outlook on movies, his primary reason for continuing with his career, his purist attitude about the craft of acting, and, perhaps most infamously, his weight. A lot about him, though, remained constant: his insecurity, his inner pain, his resentment toward his father, his fear that he would become that hated man, and his deep longing to maintain his privacy.

That last part makes Stevan Riley's documentary feel almost like a violation, because the director has assembled this chronological narrative of the late acting legend's life by cobbling together hundreds of hours of private audio recordings that have never been heard by the public. The film was sanctioned by Brando's estate, which makes the experience of listening in on the actor's most personal thoughts a little more palatable. Honestly, though, whatever feelings of discomfort we might have about the film are miniscule when compared to its accomplishment.

The documentary is a major step in determining what made this man, who spent the majority of his life trying to figure out what made human beings tick, tick himself. There's no reason to believe that Brando is lying here, because there's no reason to think he believed these recordings would ever be made available for public consumption. He's honest to a fault, even about his contradictions.

This is a man who loved his private life, yes, but he also says that he, as with any "neurotic" personality, needs admiration to fuel his sense of self-worth. Here, with his face reconstructed via digital technology (A process the man was convinced would replace actors in the future, and he has been proven correct in a few instances), Brando has put himself in the position for us to admire him even after his death in 2004.

Brando's legacy is a curious thing. He went from fame to isolation to fame again, with a reputation for being difficult on set, until he ultimately became an easy punch line when discussing a rich, famous person whose hedonistic appetites turned the person into a shell of his/her former self. Brando addresses all of that here, because the fear of being seen as something he was not consumed him. He seemed to have an unflappable attitude in public, with his self-confident strut and that devilish smirk that made it look as if he was in on some unspoken joke.

He knew the rumors. He heard them from interviewers (If, in his youthful days, said interviewer was a woman, he flirted to avoid any shop talk and, we assume, for the usual ends of flirting) and saw them splashed across the headlines of gossip columns. It hurt him, he admits. He might have enjoyed the fame in his youth, when women suddenly started showing interest in him. He came to hate it.

It's an old story and one that's not exclusive to Brando's life. Riley, though, has crafted a narrative—bolstered by archival footage and photographs, as well as haunting imagery that conveys Brando's memories and the empty rooms, halls, and alcoves of his home—that is more than just the ups and downs of fame.

A lot of that is happenstance, since Brando, serving as the narrator of his own life, is neither shy in private tapes nor dull as a storyteller. This is, after all, a man whose acting style (his teacher Stella Adler's version of the Method, an American variation of Constantin Stanislavski's system) relied on the emotional/psychological trick of "sense memory," in which an actor uses his or her personal experiences to portray a character's emotions at the drop of a hat. Whether he always had a gift for such sensory recall or he developed it once he started as an actor, the result here is that Brando's descriptions of his life and his thoughts on a variety of subjects are sincere, vivid, and surprisingly thoughtful.

He talks about his upbringing—the son of two alcoholics, one an abusive father. That detail informs an interview in which the reporter requests Brando's father's presence, and we witness the actor barely putting on a mask of comfort as his father changes the facts of their history. He discusses his dedication to human rights, participating in the Civil Rights Movement and, of course, trying to bring attention to the concerns of Native Americans. He engages in self-hypnosis to try to achieve the kind of peace that no psychiatrist could bring him.

Obviously, Brando talks about his craft. We hear his notes preparing for a few roles. He also conveys his disapproval of the Hollywood system (as well as a couple of directors whom he believes betrayed him), ultimately claiming that movies can't be art because of the business end of things. That goes to explain why his later career was filled with roles that seemed performed simply for the paycheck. He pretty much admits that was the case, coming up with ways to avoid learning his lines (e.g., cue cards on an actor's forehead and a tape recorder feeding his lines into his ear). He had better things to do.

The "better things" are in these recordings—self-reflection as a way to explore what it means to be human. Listen to Me Marlon sets out to match its subject's ambitious goal to understand this man in all his facets. There's no better place to start than directly with the source.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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