Listen to Me Marlon (2015)

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Marlon Brando kept hundreds of hours of audio tapes of his own reflections, recorded in meetings, during hypnosis, in therapy and during press interviews. They add up to a magnificent autobiographical account, in his own inimitable voice. The British director Stevan Riley has used them as the foundation of his documentary, Listen to Me Marlon – with a beautiful and elegiac use of archive footage and photos.

Brando tells us, in his own words, about his small-town childhood with his adored but alcoholic mother, and his fear of his violent, intimidating travelling salesman father. It is clear that his biggest debt was to to the actress and teacher Stella Adler, who imported Stanislavski’s Method to the United States – a revolution in stage and particularly screen acting: “everything that you do, make it as real as you can, make it alive, make it tangible.” When Brando was totally unknown, she said to him, “Don’t worry, the world is going to hear from you”. According to Brando, all motion pictures today, all acting today, stems from Stella Adler.

Above all, his thoughts on acting are fascinating, and on how movie actors are mythologised by the public. “It had nothing to do with me. The audience does the work. They are doing the acting.” “We need myths, we live by myths, we die for myths.” He has no illusions about the movie industry: “There are no artists, we are businessmen, we are merchants, and there is no art. Agents, lawyers, publicity people – it’s all bullshit. Money money money. If you think it’s about something else, you’re going to be bruised.“

“Lying for a living, that’s what acting is. All I’ve done is to learn to be aware of the process. All of you are actors, and good actors, because you’re liars. When you’r saying something that you don’t mean, or refraining from saying something that you do mean – that’s acting….. You lie for peace, you lie for tranquility, you lie for love.”

“When the camera is close on you, your face becomes the stage. Your face is the proscenium arch of the theatre, 30 feet high.”

His remarks on individual films are illuminating. On A Streetcar Named Desire: “There’s nothing about me that’s like Stanley Kowalski – I absolutely hate that person and I couldn’t identify with him.” On Candy: “Probably the worst movie I’ve ever made in my life, Candy. How can you do that to yourself? Haven’t you got any fucking pride left?” We learn that Last Tango in Paris was a film that Bertolucci intended to be about Brando himself – a man who protects his privacy. 

What comes across time and again, particularly at the time of his son’s trial for murder and Cheyenne Brando’s suicide, is his extreme shyness and sensitivity. One expression of his rejection of the brutal side of American life was his support of Martin Luther King and the black rights’ movement. Another was his passion for the peace-loving people of Tahiti, initially stirred by looking at library pictures of Tahitians when he was “entranced by their faces, unmanaged faces – that’s where I want to go, that’s where I want to be”. He realised this dream during the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty (a film he hated, though his Mr Christian is a delight). This, like so much in his life, comes across as a reaction against his hard, unloving father. 

Some more great quotes from the audio tapes: 

“You’ve got to be somebody. If you’re not anybody, you’ve committed a sin. And you’re on a goat trail, way out on your own.”

“The neurotic individual’s entire self-esteem shrinks to nothing if he does not receive admiration. To be admired and to be respected is a protection against helplessness and against insignificance. Because he is continually sensing humiliations, it will be difficult for him to have anyone as a friend.”

“The greatest fear an actor has is fear – how you’re going to be judged.”

“Life will have given me the truth, and taken in exchange what’s left of my youth.”

“It took me a while to realise. Unless we look inwards we will never be able to see clearly outwards.”

“I spent thousands and thousands of dollars on psychoanalysis. And those guys do nothing but stick pliers and screwdrivers in your brain.” 

“Acting is just making stuff up but that’s OK. Life is a rehearsal, life is an improvisation. I’m going to have a special microphone placed in my coffin, six feet under. So that when I wake up in there I can say ‘do it differently’.”

As is well known, acting became a burden for him: “I’ve taken too many punches. I don’t want to be stressed any more.” In his later film appearances – notable principally for their handsome remuneration – he didn’t even learn the script, relying instead on cue cards or a pocket recorder feeding the lines into his ear. Had it not been for Tahiti and the Tahitians, and what they represented for him, he would have given in to blanket disenchantment. For a man who locked the door to his inner life, these audio tapes – and Riley’s use of them – open it up to an extent that is rare in any biographical documentary. 

 
© 2021 Adrian Mathews