The Act He Acts
By Jeff Reichert

Listen to Me Marlon
Dir. Stevan Riley, U.S., Showtime

Marlon Brando was often unfriendly to the close-up. As the camera moved in, his mannerisms—to cast his eyes downward, turn to profile, raise his head up at an awkward angle away from the viewer thus making his heavy-browed eyes even harder to see, or, most dramatically, to make for the nearest bit of darkness—only came to the fore, lending his visage an aura of mystery, or sometimes of shyness. These turnings away often created the sense that he saw the camera as an unwanted intrusion, that he was a skittish colt when confronted by the lens. It’s a contrast to the magnetic, confident physicality he gave off when his full body filled the frame, especially earlier in his career. In the new film Listen to Me Marlon, created from hours of audiotapes the actor recorded at home, he notes: “When the camera is close on you, your face becomes the stage.” The stage, then, to this most iconic of actors, was a place from which he often desired to escape.

Marlon dropped out from the public eye with regularity and expressed increasing disdain for the filmmaking industry as his life wore on, taking longer and longer between films, sometimes arriving to shoot a movie totally unprepared, phoning in a performance for a paycheck. He candidly notes in Listen to Me Marlon how wonderful it was to work for three months a year, taping cue cards to the actors he was performing against rather than learning his lines. There’s another Marlon heard among the amassed audio tapes here, though: young, hungry, Stella Adler–trained, dead set on changing the acting profession, on injecting truth into the series of codified mannerisms that had, by the 1950s, become the mainstays of screen performances, and, still even late in his career proudly carrying that same torch, devastating audiences in Last Tango in Paris, obsessively (allegedly) rewriting the whole of Apocalypse Now on set. Which Marlon Brando do we most believe in? Did he so often look away from the camera—or flee from it entirely—only so that we would lean in closer, pay more attention?

Listen to Me Marlon allows the man’s contradictions to accumulate, and pays close attention to the highly personal connections Marlon drew between his choices later in life and what he describes as a fraught, dangerous childhood. His retelling of his own tale makes for an often riveting performance that raises questions—about his familial turmoil (the marriages, the love affairs, various children, their troubles); about his various political stands (marching with African American leaders in the Civil Rights movement; sending Sacheen Littlefeather to accept his Academy Award for The Godfather as a protest against treatment of Native Americans); about the sincerity of his rejection of the acting profession. Were these poses merely all part of a larger, calculated performance Marlon gave in service of the role of his lifetime: that of “Brando”?

Listen to Me Marlon provides ample evidence for the existence of many possible Marlons. It even offers access to other iterations we haven’t yet glimpsed: the self-soother who recorded creepily narcotized messages to himself for playback during stressful moments; the technological prophet, who, convinced that actors would eventually all be computer-generated, had his head digitized and rendered as spectral 3D model by visual effects wizards in the 1980s. We meet the latter Brando at the film’s outset, a disembodied, hollow-eyed collection of blue pixels on black, prone to disintegrating in fuzzy static, as he performs Macbeth’s famous soliloquy on learning of his wife’s death. “Out, out brief candle,” this ghost-Marlon intones. “Life . . . is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

It’s unlikely that the producers of the filmwholeheartedly agreed with Shakespeare’s assessment of the human condition, or this biopic probably wouldn’t exist; like much in Listen to Me Marlon we find in this first meeting with digi-Marlon an element deployed, and an effect created with little regard for how the meaning of the moment relates to the larger whole of the film. We see the floating head sporadically throughout, placed in and amongst the requisite photos and clips of Brando performances, random stock footage, and images created by Riley himself, which include: a woman in a sheer nightdress seen in silhouette, standing in for Brando’s departed alcoholic mother; a shot of wind chimes used as calming punctuation; the corner of an anonymous white farmhouse meant to represent Marlon’s childhood home. In this flow of images, we find a director hyperventilating somewhat in an effort to keep up with his subject, pairing audio and images sometimes lazily (Marlon speaks of trains, cue montage of antiquated trains from different periods), sometimes evocatively (Riley’s romantic handling of the Tahitian material, which freely blends footage from Mutiny on the Bounty [1962], news clips, and home movies). His montage is kinetic, but Listen to Me Marlon’s so atomized that it happens and then ends rather than culminates.

Like Amy, that other found-footage stardom biopic of recent vintage, the most productive frissons emerge from unexpected juxtapositions. Marlon’s tape archive spans most of his lifetime, and Riley, without ever making a point of it, cuts seamlessly from the voice of a younger, more stentorian Marlon to the older, slurrier version that’s become the stuff of parody. Thus we hear the actor age, rapidly and repeatedly throughout the film, to striking effect. These edits between recordings made at different times also create a sense of circling, of the obsessions that Marlon held onto throughout his life. Similarly, the actor’s ballooning into obesity is only treated on the audio track with a short audio segment that discusses his emotional eating as a child, while the progression of images helps trace the arc of Marlon’s descent from chiseled matinee idol to aged, fat recluse.

Riley’s most mysterious choice is to bookend the film with lengthy sections covering the 1990 shooting of Dag Drollet by Marlon’s son Christian. Given that the event came so late in Marlon’s life, it’s certainly not a primal scene for the “Brando” story, and so little of the film is devoted to Marlon’s life after that tragedy (a period that saw sporadic performances only, but one of his funniest and most winningly self-parodic in The Freshman), that it’s hard to discern what exactly this intense focus is meant to convey. Does Riley consider the mass media intrusion into Marlon’s life during aftermath the ultimate indignity wrought on a genius who, by this point deserved to be left alone? Or, do the lingering archival news shots of Marlon crying in front of reporters and breaking down on the witness stand show us the actor back in the spotlight where he always wanted to be?

As the film’s credits roll, a careful eye might note a handful of credits given to “Producers for Brando Enterprises.” This organization appears not to have had any creative approval over the film, and its involvement (at whatever level) doesn’t negate the value of the artifact that is Listen to Me Marlon, but this, coupled with the knowledge, as provided by Marlon himself, that he created the tapes we hear for the express purpose of their use in a film about his life, should leave us suspicious, or at least curious about what kind of artifact to expect, and about which Brando we’ve been allowed to see and what’s been omitted. (Where, for instance, are Marlon’s recordings about the dissolution of his marriages?) These are concerns viewers should have any time they sit down in front of a film constructed from archival footage. Searching for the truth in documentary, especially in one about a subject who mythologized his own life as he lived it, again proves tricky business indeed.