Film Review: LISTEN TO ME MARLON (directed by Stevan Riley)

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by Jason Rohrer on July 25, 2015

in Film


Besides the enormous acting talent, a wonderful tertiary gift delivered by the presence on Earth of Marlon Brando is the Marlon Brando story. Everybody who knew him or ran into him in a drugstore has at least one. One of the best that does not involve sleeping with him is frequently told by Dick Cavett, who after taping a midtown talk show with the actor in 1973 was taken to Chinatown and made party to a street brawl. As less reliable narratives go, Peter Manso’s 1993 whorehouse-gossip biography bursts with pustules of salacious anecdote. But anyone who has seen footage of a Brando interview can tell you that the best teller of Brando stories was Brando. Since his death in 2004, one could be forgiven for expecting not to hear any new ones.


But Stevan Riley has got hold of a couple hundred hours of previously private audio tapes Brando made for his own mostly unrealized purposes, and the British documentarian has edited them into a vivid 100-minute autobiography. Listen to Me Marlon will be a revelation to those who don’t already know the startling eloquence of the quintessential Hollywood bad boy – this was a deeply thoughtful artist, an accomplished autodidact, and a rare talker who tossed off polished epigrams like beads at Mardi Gras. Initiates will appreciate the opportunity to hear so much of his wisdom at once, so judiciously and satisfyingly arranged.


Much of the audio consists of an aged actor talking to himself in inspired, depressed, always fascinating ruminations about an actor’s primary tool: his own person. Except for a few snippets of news-anchor chatter, the only voices heard in the film are Brando’s and those of a few people talking to or about him at a given historical moment. Many of them are women Brando is trying to seduce, or has already seduced and who are clearly aware that they’re not long for his bed. Some of the thrill is in imagining the bigger picture around the detail we are allowed. Far from having dull moments, this film has few that aren’t completely captivating.


Brando talks about his fragile, alcoholic mother and his drunken, brutal father; about studying and living with Stella Adler; about the joys, disappointments and outright terrors of being one of the world’s most recognizable and fuckable personalities. Of course he talks theater and movies: He speaks to his early striving for artistic integrity, his long middle period of boredom and money-grubbing, and his triumphant early-seventies return to the top of his profession. He reflects on appetites sexual, emotional and gastronomic. He discusses the late double-tragedy of his son’s imprisonment for murder and his daughter’s related suicide. He reveals insights to his own psychology that, like most of his thoughts represented here, throb with universal relevance. He gives some of the best advice on how to be an artist that a student could ever take. Tantalizingly, maddeningly, he recites from Hamlet and Macbeth.


Riley (who also edited and wrote the film) makes very nice choices about visual accompaniment: Childhood snapshots, home movies with Montgomery Clift and Kevin McCarthy, and clips from the familiar blockbusters (On the Waterfront, Last Tango in Paris) and a few less famous (The Formula, Viva Zapata) are cut with the usual inserts of spooling reel-to-reel and cassette tapes. If too many dolly shots of recreated, representative-dreamscape Brando residences stray into docudrama territory, there are always Brando’s words, which are the reward of admission.


For those not sated by this documentary, at least one more Brando-on-Brando trove looms on the horizon. The excellent interviewer James Grissom threatens to publish a book of his conversations with the man who was once responsible for a chunk of Tahiti and the ulcers of several Hollywood executives. So, happily, I think perhaps it is still too early to lament the complete loss of a titanic philosophical raconteur who died over a decade ago.

photos courtesy Passion Pictures

Listen to Me Marlon
Showtime / Universal / Passion Pictures
2015 / USA / 100 minutes
opens July 29, 2015 at the Film Forum in New York
opens July 31, 2015 at the Landmark in Los Angeles
national rollout to follow

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