Marlon Brando’s life has passed into legend. The late actor was an enigma on screen and off, a mass of contradictions who provided no easy insight into his life or process. “Listen to Me Marlon,” a new documentary from director Stevan Riley, cuts through the mythology to present a complex but trippy portrait.
Riley doesn’t go the usual route, so no talking head interviews with Brando’s friends and family. Instead he pieces together Brando’s own words from private recordings, never before seen footage and, most intriguingly, the actor’s self-hypnosis tapes. The cumulative effect of this material goes beyond a standard bio. “Listen to Me Marlon” hits the factual signposts of the actor’s life but, using Brando’s words, is dreamlike in its assessment of those events. From the isolation of fame, the death of his daughter to career highs and lows, the movie covers it all in a biography unlike any other.
I’ve done this a long time, but on Friday as I sat next to Boo Radley, Lt. Col. William “Bill” Kilgore and Tom Hagan, all rolled up in the form of Robert Duvall, I don’t mind admitting I was star struck.
Even though he was one of the most quotable actors I had spoken to during the opening days of TIFF — for instance he said, “I call Billy Bob Thornton the hillbilly Orson Welles.” — while he was talking all I could hear were his lines from his famous movies rolling around in my head.
Getting an up close and personal look at the 83-year-old Oscar winner, brought back memories of him as Apocalypse Now’s warmongering Kilgore, shirtless kneeling down to tell his soldiers, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,“ and Don Corleone’s loyal adopted son Tom in The Godfather. “He never asks a second favor when he’s been refused a first.”
The actor was at TIFF to discuss the opening night film The Judge. He stars opposite Robert Downey Jr. as an erasable old judge, who, when accused of vehicular manslaughter must reluctantly rely on his estranged lawyer son for a defense in court. Luckily I pulled myself together long enough to take some notes.
When he’s asked what it’s like to play a mean character, he says, “Who’s mean? What’s mean about him? He’s a human being.”
He adds, “I almost didn’t take this but once I took it I had to jump in. There are so many negative things about the guy.”
But when asked if he’s afraid to immerse himself in negative characters, his answer turns into a master class on acting. “Why would I be afraid? Once I commit to do it, I’ll do it. I just wonder about it sometimes. Is it worth it to show those negative aspects of somebody?
“But Shakespeare said you hold a mirror up to nature. You try and approximate life as much as possible. Brando used to watch Candid Camera. You try and watch things as closely as you can. You learn from life and you try and represent life as accurately as possible. There’s no right or wrong, there’s just truthful and untruthful.”
He’s a living legend, a star whose career spans six decades, but he’s not nostalgic for the past.
“I think movies are better than ever now. The actors are better. There’s room for everybody now. If you go world wide, I think the actors are better than ever.”
As for his own career, he has more movies on tap, including one he’s directing, starring his wife Luciana Pedraza as a “lady Texas Ranger.” “I got a few more left in me before they wipe the drool,” he says.