Read two critical perspectives on Listen To Me Marlon (Stevan Riley, 2015) by Susan L. Mizruchi and Edward E. Crouse. Listen To Me Marlon opens August 7, 2015 at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco, Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, and Camera 3 in San Jose. Also in this issue, read Ryan Lattanzio’s Q & A with Listen To Me Marlon director Stevan Riley and an excerpt from Brando’s Smile by Susan L. Mizruchi.
LISTEN TO ME MARLON: Discovering Brando
When he died in 2004, Marlon Brando left thousands of books, film scripts and notes on films. Many of the books and scripts were annotated, some of them heavily. There were in addition personal letters and papers, and original film scripts written by Brando himself (one, Tim and His Friends, featured Brando’s dog as protagonist; another, Jericho, was about the Colombian Drug trade, and Brando friends Rita Moreno and Quincy Jones were already cast for starring roles). He also left thousands of audiotape recordings of conversations with himself and with others (Brando interviewing his Great Aunt June during the 1956 filming in Japan of Sayonara, about family history in Nebraska, during a time when there were still Indians there). These materials had never been seen by anyone but his personal assistants. They provide an altogether new portrait of a fiercely independent and private actor, and they are the basis for my new biography, Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought and Work (New York: Norton, 2014; paperback 2015) and the just-released documentary directed by Stevan Riley, Listen To Me Marlon (2015).
My own odyssey through these Brando Archives began in 2008 when I started tracking down the scripts and books that the Brando Estate had sold on auction at Christie’s in 2005—these included Brando’s personal script for The Godfather and his 700-book collection on the American Indians (bought, I soon learned, by his friend Johnny Depp). These materials were scattered all over the world: the biggest collection was in a storage facility in Moscow, purchased by a wealthy Russian with a Brando obsession. I managed to convince the collectors who had bought these valuable materials to grant me access, by explaining that I wanted to write a new kind of book on Brando: a book that focused on the work Brando did and the things he said and wrote. Eventually, I was also able to review all of the holdings of the Brando Estate. Brando’s Smile was in production when I met Stevan Riley, who was going to be the director of a new documentary that would also be based on the Brando Estate archives. It was clear to me from the outset that Stevan shared my aspiration of portraying for wider audiences a side of Brando that few knew: his mind and imagination. Stevan and I mostly talked Brando on the phone after our first meeting, but given the depth of our interest in our subject, once we started a call it was likely to go on for hours.
Through Brando’s Smile and Listen To Me Marlon, a cultural icon alternately admired and ridiculed for his physique (from youthful charisma to Falstaffian old age) is revealed as an avid searcher and reader who craved knowledge as much as he more notoriously craved women and food; an idealist whose social activism in his life and films helped to define racial and cultural freedoms taken for granted today; and an actor whose talent and humanity made his performances memorable even when the film as a whole was not. Both the biography and the documentary seek to represent Brando from his own point of view by recuperating his voice, accessible for the first time through this treasure trove of newly discovered narratives. As Brando said in 1953, “You figure which salary bracket a Hollywood actor is in by the kind of smile he gets. When I first came here I got $40,000 a picture. The smiles people gave me showed two teeth. Now, I’m paid around $125,000 and more, I get both upper and lowers … I’ll never get the kind of big fat grins that go with $250,000 a picture; they only pay that kind of money to cowboy stars.” Brando’s prophecy confirmed his profound awareness of the politics of celebrity, and provides the germ of these accounts of his life and career.
A lifelong devotee of language (his favorite poets included Emily Dickinson), a voracious reader and rewriter of his film scripts, an actor whose film projects consistently engaged the best Anglo-American writers, Brando has rarely been accorded the power of his mind and the integrity of his beliefs. Brando gravitated to major storytellers (John Steinbeck, Carson McCullers, Henry James, Joseph Conrad) because he understood fiction and film as compatible, essentially dramatic arts. They shared origins, he told a friend, “in the stories acted out around the campfire by prehistoric men who had just returned from the hunt.”
While previous biographers and documentarians have presumed that Brando had given up on acting by the early 1960s and for the next forty years simply exploited, cynically, its commercial value, such accounts belie the new evidence: heaps of annotations on film sources and scripts, the conversations he conducted in the margins of books, many of them intended for use in films, the audiotaped ruminations and interviews, and the great performances themselves. So many Brando performances were well-received and profitable in their time, from films of the ’60s One-Eyed Jacks; Mutiny on the Bounty; The Chase; Reflections in a Golden Eye; and Burn!, to late roles (the anarchic assassin in Missouri Breaks, 1976; Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, 1979; the American Nazi in Roots, 1979; the lawyer in the anti-apartheid film, A Dry White Season, 1989; Max the mobster in The Score, 2001). They show that Brando continued to channel his energy and invention into acting to the end. Brando’s Smile and Listen To Me Marlon represent a departure in portraits of Brando by focusing on what is unique and enduring: his contributions to art, American culture, and to filmmaking.Susan L. Mizruchi is Professor of English Literature at Boston University. She received B.A.’s in English and in History from Washington University in 1981 and her Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1985. Professor Mizruchi’s specialties are nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature; religion and culture; literary and social theory; literary history; and history of the social sciences. She has taught courses in literature, gender, and film at Boston University for twenty-five years. Publications include: The Rise of Multicultural America (North Carolina UP, 2008); The Science of Sacrifice: American Literature and Modern Social Theory (Princeton UP, 1998); The Power of Historical Knowledge: Narrating the Past in Hawhorne, James & Dreiser (Princeton, 1988); and as editor, Religion and Cultural Studies (Princeton UP, 2001). She is the recipient of many academic honors, including year-long fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Huntington Library, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
LISTEN TO ME MARLON: Brandohead
Give director Stevan Riley points for difficulty. His movie, Listen To Me Marlon grapples with Marlon Brando—Method-acting juggernaut, activist, beaten son, tragic father—and yet barely penetrates the mystery of the reclusive, often self-defeating artist. MB spent decades privately recording himself in films, audiotapes, and most bizarrely with a blue-green video holograph of his head that he commissioned in 1980. The holo-head may feel like a digression because it’s only deployed a few times, but it’s one of the movie’s coups. It trails with every turn, as if powered by jellyfish tentacles, allowing the movie to swim past the most overplayed frames of the Brando highlight reel (contender … Stella! … an offer he can’t refuse). Brando’s hushed voice matches with the tapes and burnishes his gorgeous reading of Macbeth or his sense of the cosmic: “To be admired and to be respected is a protection against helplessness and against insignificance. Because he’s continually sensing humiliations, it will be difficult for him to have anyone as a friend.” (Riley also enlisted a stand-in to lip sync to the some tapes.) The life-and-death-mask aspect aptly evokes the busts in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion as Riley steers his camera through Brando’s own grief-laden home on Mulholland Drive, its owner dead for eleven years.
Whether MB ever intended to publicly release an autoportrait of these materials is unclear. On tape, he mentions a “highly personalized” project about “the life activities of myself … a troubled man, along, beset with memories, in a state of confusion, sadness, isolation, disorder.” Listen To Me Marlon walks the knife’s edge of his hard-earned solitude from the Industry that he despised but needed for sustenance. The movie pierces the private mental-physical isolation that occasionally gave him peace and healing in Tahiti or in a Hollywood hideaway. Riley doesn’t directly invoke the Fortress of Solitude in MB’s phoned-in turn as Jor-el in Superman, but he does often overplay other juxtapositions between MB’s real-life statements and his film roles. The bug of triviality bites Riley hard with the more italicized edits between the movies and radio-television-film footage. One example: Brando dandles the Oscar for On the Waterfront and says “It’s heavier than I imagined,” and Riley cuts to MB in Waterfront — “It’s like carrying a monkey around on your back.”
As heard in MB’s meditation/narration—masked by the blissful home movies and photographs shown—it’s clear that brutality began at home; he was raised in Omaha by two drunks, a sweet mother and a raging “sinner” of a father. His second screen role, as Stanley Kowalski, channeled and exorcised what he hated most about the latter. In real life, MB preferred to beat drums more than people. Later he peaceably doted on his kids Cheyenne and Christian, despite an awful divorce that involved kidnapping; the specter of Brando père’s violence, the filmmaker implies, was never fully banished as the kids romped through idyllic childhoods that seemed to lead inexorably to their horrible, gaudily publicized homicidal-suicidal catastrophe. (The movie glosses over the existence of MB’s fourteen other children, as well as his sisters.)
As far as onscreen violence, he got more than he gave, often in extremes, a masochism that more or less is unexplored turf within Listen To Me Marlon, with its non-inclusion of stars like Karl Malden’s whip in One-Eyed Jacks, the fists from The Chase that balloon his mug to Leatherface proportions, or Elizabeth Taylor’s slashing riding-crop facial in Reflections in a Golden Eye. Riley doesn’t really frame MB’s self-laceration, although to his credit he does juxtapose a hard slap from Guys and Dolls with photos of MB’s wife beating him. In a chilling moment during a television interview, Brando “jokes” about his abusive father, seated next to him: “I can lick him with one hand.”
Many women (and men) would certainly have been delighted to lick MB in other, more concrete ways when his status as a luscious object coincided with the shock of his soul-shaking Method acting. He succumbed to the lure of sex more than violence in his personal life, which Listen To Me Marlon profiles with a morning-after recording, not to mention the million-kilowatt charm he channels in the following exchange:
Female reporter: “Would you like to tell us something about behind the scenes while you were making the picture?”
Brando (smiling softly, lewdly): “How far behind the scenes?”
Whether it truly gets behind the man or not, Riley shuns captions, identification of dates or venues, or much else to contextualize the private self-recordings. Occasionally this gesture plops the viewer in the vulture-voyeur seat. But this is the risk run by splicing material so intimate of someone so famous. It’s also risky-to-messy to affix fiction to complex and contradictory realms of Brando’s life and persona. After outlining MB’s relationship with Martin Luther King and the American Indian Movement, Riley suggests that his conclusions about The Establishment—“They lie, congressman, presidents, all of them … They never see faces without lies anymore. Except the dead ones. They’re the true assassins, the true murderers”—form a preamble to Kurtz’s ravings in Apocalypse Now. The first-person isn’t always sincere and isn’t as easy as Riley makes it with Brando.
Does Listen To Me Marlon truly get into MB’s head? Does it matter? Whether Listen To Me Marlon truly breaks down the real person—one who is arranging fragments of an intended self-revealing documentary—a different, crucial point emerges: the “ecstatic rhythms” and genius of Brando’s best performances already laid bare his rage, tenderness, and beauty. This documentary just adds a few more heads and heartbeats.Edward E. Crouse is in his third decade of writing about movies and other media for publications such as the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Village Voice, Film Comment, Time Out Chicago, and Stagebill. He has co-authored a monograph on Curtis Harrington for Anthology Film Archives. Currently he programs at the Nightingale, a “rough and ready” microcinema in Chicago.