HE WAS A CONTENDER New Marlon Brando documentary relies on the star's own cassette tape recordings.
Marlon Brando once said, "An actor's a guy who, if you ain't talking about him, ain't listening."
Compiled from a basket of cassette tapes Brando made as personal therapy, Stevan Riley's Listen to Me Marlon gives us the night thoughts of the greatest American actor of the 20th century. The visuals are a combination of news footage, interviews and impressionist camera views of the Southern California compound where Brando hid from the world. Also supplementing the narration is an early 3-D animated sampling of Brando's head as he speaks, a leftover from some digital experiment made years ago.
Brando had a battering father and a sensitive mother who was, he claims, the town drunk. His own children's lives were colored with tragedy. One son, Christian, killed the boyfriend of his half-sister, who later hanged herself. Brando's contempt for the demands of his profession added to his strain—he hated being thought of as a "mechanical doll."
The deadly paternal rumble of Don Corleone in The Godfather or the slurred, psychedelic muttering of Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now were Brando's strange gifts to the world. He brought an utterly masculine attack to Last Tango in Paris, and feline, mincing diction to Mutiny on the Bounty and Superman. In odd parts, he'd sweeten up this feminine side, just to shock the machos.
As he tells it to himself, Brando's success seems a blur, compared to places that seemed real to him, such as the American West and Tahiti. Brando was a vessel for elements so corrosive (gangster, mutineer, street tough, pervert) that it's not surprising that there was some cracking.
We still have Brando's influence to thank for how fine screen acting is today. To be an actor, Brando showed us, one doesn't have to be well-born or well-read; it's the gift for observation and intuition and fearlessness that matter.
'Listen to Me Marlon' is playing at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. 415.454.5813.