Listen to Me Marlon
Directed by Steven Riley
This is a superb rendering of the varied, complex, and deeply tragic life of Marlon Brando. It is very moving. I don’t know what could be done to improve this film. I think it is as good a presentation of this subject as can be done within the time constraint of under two hours. Obviously when you try to condense a life as rich and complicated as Marlon Brando’s into less than two hours some things have to be left out. I am curious to know more about Marlon Brando’s life as a result of watching this film, but the film had both breadth and depth. It covered everything that I would have wanted it to cover and it was a penetrating, thought provoking study. This was made possible by the many hours of audio diaries that Marlon Brando recorded himself that were searching, thoughtful, and introspective, and formed the soundtrack for the film. There was no narrator or commentator other than Brando himself. There were photographs, documentary footage, and newscasts to illustrate events.
The film explored his difficult childhood growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, with alcoholic parents, and an especially cold, violent father. The mother seems to have been somewhat better and he had a nanny that he felt close to, but who left him at age seven to get married. He had a bitter divorce, his son was kidnapped and recovered. The son later killed his half sister’s boyfriend in Brando’s house. The half sister later committed suicide. He suffered more than his share of horrendous tragedies. He did not like the spotlight. Like John Lennon, he realized what a world of illusion and misunderstanding it is, how isolating it can be, and how it makes authentic relationships with people difficult or impossible. He was interested in the civil rights struggle. He was a companion and supporter of Martin Luther King. He refused an Oscar as a protest on behalf of American Indians and their treatment by Hollywood. He was more than an actor. He thought about social issues and the impact of films upon society.
The film does a good job of connecting Brando’s inner demons with his work on stage and in the movies as an actor. His work as an actor grew out of his inner torment. “When you are unwanted, you try on different identities in hope that you will find something that is acceptable. Acting is survival.” He was blessed with stunning good looks and natural charisma. Many of his films are among the best films ever made. There are reflections on the nature of acting and footage of his acting teacher, Stella Adler, at the New School in New York City. He had been in psychoanalysis, which I think helped him focus on his inner self and use his own inner turmoil in his acting. It probably motivated him to make the many tapes of his thoughts and comments, which are a fortunate treasure trove of information and insight.
I have never made a list of my ten best documentary films of all time, but if I ever did, this would likely be on it. It is very hard to get any better than this. Go see it.