Thursday 24 October 2019

Listen to Me Marlon review: 'Brando's private tapes make this documentary work'

Caught on tape: Marlon Brando recorded his innermost thoughts.
Caught on tape: Marlon Brando recorded his innermost thoughts.
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Late in his career, when Marlon Brando's weighing scales began to beg for mercy, it became fashionable to dismiss him as an overrated has-been, a histrionic and difficult actor who'd never really been all that good anyway. This sneering undercurrent was even detectable in some obituaries, where his failings were emphasised, his achievements questioned.


His chaotic personal life, the women, the children (lots of children), his mercurial on-set antics and wild financial demands were what grabbed the headlines in 2004, when it really seemed that his messy later career had totally eclipsed in the public mind anything he'd managed early on.

Eleven years after his death, this new documentary seeks to redress the balance and restore his reputation, and it comes fully armed with a secret weapon - Brando himself.

Throughout his adult life, Marlon Brando confided his innermost thoughts and worries to an audio tape recorder. Those tapes were carefully collected, and in making this documentary director Stevan Riley was given full access to them by the Brando estate. Word is they wanted the record set straight, though money perhaps was also a factor.

At the start of Listen to Me Marlon, a digital scan of the star's magnificent Roman head floats chattering and disembodied across the screen. Brando had it made in the 1980s, believing that all actors would one day be replaced by holograms. Used sparingly, the hovering head creates a disquieting sensation: Marlon is speaking to us, still brilliant, still eccentric, ranting and raving from beyond the grave.

Though Brando's life has been catalogued ad nauseum in countless biographies, Mr Riley's film provides a greater insight into his personality and talent for the simple reason that we hear it from the horse's mouth. And what a talent it was, for let's be clear - at his best Brando was the greatest screen actor there's ever been. And while there are a few other performers, like Spencer Tracy and Robert De Niro, Bette Davis maybe, possibly Al Pacino, who deserve mentioning in the same sentence as him, none come close to the intensity and raw veracity he was capable of in his prime.

In Listen to Me Marlon we discover that his contempt for fame and the vulgar vagaries of Hollywood were not affectations but profound resentments that over time managed to destroy his great love of acting. We also hear more about the awful childhood that scarred him for life. Both his parents were drunks and his dad was a sneering bully who delighted in telling his son that he'd never amount to anything.

Stevan Riley's film includes fascinating clips of Brando and his father playing happy families on 1950s chat shows, and Marlon Jr is seen to wince as if in pain while his dad damns him with faint praise.

His big escape would come through acting, and the crucial influence of method guru Stella Adler. He caused a sensation on Broadway playing the charismatic brute Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams' Streetcar Named Desire, and when the play was turned into a Hollywood movie, Brando became a star, an instant cultural icon, and a crucial inspiration for everyone from Elvis to James Dean.

But Brando loved acting, not being famous. Fame, he complains bitterly to his tape recorder, robs you of the right to live a normal life. Instead he roamed America and the world restlessly, bought an island near Tahiti, and "spread" his "seed" with commendable enthusiasm. In Listen to Me Marlon we watch him assailing with wolfish smiles and puppy-dog eyes two pretty young interviewers who clearly don't stand a chance.

But sex didn't seem to make Marlon all that happy either, nor did the comfort-eating that blew him up like the Michelin man. Acting was his one true love, and enough evidence remains on celluloid to prove he was pretty damned good at it.

Listen to me Marlon (15A, 103mins)

Irish Independent

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