Previously unheard tapes offer unique insight into the acting genius
The standard narrative on Marlon Brando goes something like this: his talent was so immense he could do anything, but then he let himself go, indulged his eccentricities, phoned in his late performances. A tragic disappointment who threw it all away.
But the new documentary Listen to Me Marlon could do much to alter that narrative. In Stevan Riley's film Brando speaks for himself -- mostly through audio tapes he recorded over many years. They reveal an artist constantly searching -- for self-knowledge; for relief from the deep psychic wounds inflicted in his childhood; for a way to master his compulsions. And they contain ample evidence that Brando never abandoned his craft, but remained engaged until the end by the challenge of creating a meaningful performance.
Inferiority -- I've been close to it all my life.
Listen to Me Marlon opens in New York and Los Angeles this week before going wider. Showtime will air it in the fall. The project originated with producers John Battsek and RJ Cutler, who joined with Showtime to pitch the idea to the Brando estate. They then brought in Riley to direct.
Nonfictionfilm.com spoke with the director in Los Angeles just before the documentary opened in theaters, and earlier this year, at Sundance, where the film premiered.
Nonfictionfilm.com: The film was made in cooperation with the estate. Who are Brando's survivors? His son Christian died in 2008 and of course his daughter Cheyenne took her own life.
Stevan: He actually had a lot of dependents or children — I think it was 12 at the last count. Yeah, it was quite a few. He had several who were adopted. He certainly was pro-paternity.
There are people [non-family members] who were entrusted by Marlon to run the financial affairs [of his estate] and that included one of his P.A.’s who was a very close friend of the family… The producer Mike Medavoy, who goes back many years with Marlon, he’s one of the other trustees.
NFF: Why do you think Marlon made the tapes?
Stevan: Plenty of reasons. I think he enjoyed them when he was preparing a role and he’d practice accents and lines and get into character by playing on the tapes.
The self-hypnosis tapes, that was obviously fascinating to hear those and Marlon was doing a degree of regressive hypnotherapy and really trying to go back to these hiding places of his youth to pull out these insecurities and address them, help him heal himself, especially in the tragedy of the last 10 years of his life.
There are many categories of recording in a sense and collectively they delivered on the complete Brando-- the actor, the private individual.
NFF: Do you think the family knew he made these audio recordings or was that a surprise?
Stevan: [His daughter] Rebecca remembers her father when she might come into the room and he'd stop recording and then put the recorder down and engage her, but she didn't have a clue that all these tapes were around [after his death]. That was the big revelation for her.
He was a man with not much love in him. He used to slap me around for no good reason. I was truly intimidated by him.
NFF: The effect is to feel like you’re getting a tour of his mind.
Stevan: You are in the confines of his thoughts and his head.
NFF: Obviously his relationship with both parents was key. It’s hard to say which was more damaging to him, between his mother and his father. Probably equally.
Stevan: It sounds like his household was a nightmare, both parents being alcoholic, his father being as abusive as he was. I mean that was no tea party I don't imagine. Marlon, who was very sensitive to those things as a young boy, I think he felt the impact of that.
All of his authority and inferiority [issues] came from his dad. He had trust issues again with his mum.
NFF: There’s fascinating material in the tapes about The Godfather, and Francis Ford Coppola wanting him for the film. Brando mentions the indignity of having to do a screen test to reassure studio executives.
Stevan: [Brando was coming off] a whole run of flops. There were like 13 turkeys back to back. [The studio] really did not want him... It was humbling, really, that he was reduced to that screen test. But there was something redemptive [in it] as well.
NFF: Was it known before you heard the recordings that Brando hated the original script for Apocalypse Now and then proceeded to rewrite it?
Stevan: When you see the original script the character of Kurtz is actually quite different [from the filmed version].
NFF: There are such interesting things you found, for instance the audio of the young woman who sent him a love letter on tape. She was seemingly proposing marriage.
Stevan: That went on for an hour, that tape. That was in Marlon’s archive. He kept it.
NFF: And these wonderfully evocative moments when he’s flirting with comely female interviewers.
Stevan: You could sense how predatory there, wasn’t he.
Stevan: Yeah, he was single-minded. Let’s put it that way.
NFF: Regarding On the Waterfront it was remarkable to hear him say he didn’t think his performance was very good.
Stevan: Amazing, huh? When he watched it he was embarrassed. So disappointed. Which shows his perfectionism as well.
I read the script and it was stupid. It was awful. I told Francis, 'You're making an enormous error.'
He was a very different sort of figure, the Kurtz of the [original] script. He was a reprobate and he had concubines. Whereas Brando [told Coppola], "No, make him deep, intense and 'Heart of Darkness.' He has to be intelligent. He must be the embodiment and logical explanation of evil." And that was all of Brando's writing.
NFF: There is an ongoing dispute over the lighting of his scenes. In your film, Brando says he told Coppola how he wanted to be shot -- half in shadow. But Coppola said in an interview that he chose to shoot Brando that way to disguise how fat Marlon was.
Steve: No, no, no. I mean, I don't know. But even [cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro said Brando dictated the lighting on that. He backs up Brando's story.
NFF: The conventional wisdom on Brando was that he gave up. Went to pot. Wasted his gift. But in your film the man we get is an artist who is still engaged.
Stevan: Oh yeah, he never gave up on that. People forget that he pretty much had the 80s off after he got a [big] payday from Superman but he came back [in 1989] with an Oscar nomination for A Dry White Season.
He still wanted to do good work. I don’t think he could have tried to do anything less... Even flops like Candy which he was ashamed of he still put his all into it. He was brave enough to do something so ridiculous. There’s a degree of credit that should come with that.
He recorded copious notes on all of his roles which does [away with] the rumor, the myth, that Brando really didn't care and sort of walked through parts. The parts you wouldn't think he'd care about he still prepared for them quite heavily.
NFF: How misunderstood as an artist and a person has he been?
Stevan: He's partly responsible for that too. He didn't want to service any of these [tabloid] rumors. He felt that if he stoked that it would get worse and worse. I don't know whether that was the right policy because the more he distanced himself [from the media] the better prey he was.
[Paparazzo] Ron Galella was asked, "Who's your best scalp?" "Brando." I mean this guy was hunted. That can't have been pleasant and I think it affected his every relationship after that. I think he just felt who could he trust? And these trust issues went right back to the beginning... He really had to test you to figure out whether you'd break or whether you'd abandon him.
When he was an old man he’d go with binoculars in his car and he’d watch people at bus stops. He just liked to watch from a distance.
NFF: Is he the greatest actor ever in your opinion?
Stevan: I think he is, for a slightly different criteria. What really struck me -- aside from the fact of how incredibly sensitive he was and handsome as a leading man -- was how well observed he was about human beings. Even when he was an old man he’d go with binoculars in his car and he’d watch people at bus stops. He just liked to watch at a distance. Even when he was famous and a recluse he’d still do that. It amused him.
The really important thing is his bravery and range because I couldn’t name a single actor who would ever have had the courage to play, you know, Chinese in Teahouse of the August Moon, German in The Young Lions, Mexican in Viva Zapata!, Italian-American in The Godfather. And again assuming the accent and the rest of it. Irishman in Divine Rapture, Englishman in Mutiny on the Bounty and also Burn! What else? Southerner, Texan.
NFF: South African [in A Dry White Season].
Stevan: And it was not like Sean Connery doing it – Scottish every time. He’d just try to go outside of his comfort [zone]. I mean, who else is there? Johnny Depp was a big acolyte and fan of Brando. I think the people who were going in that direction were Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Heath Ledger -- had he survived. Tom Hardy now. But even the accents, crossing into a different culture -- I don’t think anyone has done that like Brando did.
NFF: And Shakespeare. Extraordinary Shakespearean actor, something Americans typically don’t excel at.
Stevan: He could quote Shakespeare ‘til the cows came home. People said, “Why don’t you ever do more Shakespeare?” And he said it was always in his back pocket. He loved Shakespeare. Shakespeare was like his prophet. I think he sort of felt you don’t need any Holy Scripture, just read the plays and it’s all there.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.