'Listen to me Marlon' lets us understand Brando the man

brando-streetcar.jpgFrom "A Streetcar Named Desire." Alamy/Courtesy of Showtime

While Richard Nixon may be the person most well-known for recording hours and hours of himself on tape, he is not the only one. A recent documentary, "Listen to Me Marlon," is based on tapes that Brando made over the course of his career, trying to make sense of himself and his life. Unlike Nixon's tapes of office conversations and political hijinks, Brando's are introspective musings by him alone. Billed as "a creative odyssey into the mind and motivation of an enigma," the documentary, which was written, edited and directed by Stevan Riley, uses the tapes to provide a fascinating backbone of the film. While Nixon's tapes facilitated his undoing, Brando's serve to illuminate his troubled life, giving us a window into the struggles that drove him and sometimes undermined his success.

Riley also learned during the filmmaking process that Brando had his face digitized in the 1980's. He tracked down the digital files and decided to augment them with new techniques of animation. The result is a very strange and often distracting 3-D rendering of Brando's head and face that accompanies the tapes and often looks like a disembodied head speaking with Brando's voice. The tapes are the main voiceover in the film, and they provide a fascinating and often haunting look inside Brando's mind, paired as they are with movie clips, interviews from the length of his career and police footage of his family's tragedies. Slowly, a picture emerges of a troubled man searching for the love denied him by his withholding father and alcoholic mother.

It's sometimes hard to reconcile this image with that of the dashing, flirtatious young Marlon tempting his female interviewers with that sly smile and macho magnetism. The film also elaborates on his work with the civil rights movement and his outspoken bravery in the face of our country's racist attitudes. He traveled often to the South in the 60's and participated by marching and speaking out against racism. The clip of Sasheen Littlefeather rejecting Brando's Oscar for his performance in "The Godfather" made me realize that, rather than a publicity stunt, the gesture came from Brando's deep disappointment with the film industry's portrayal of Native Americans. He was, in fact, ahead of his time in this regard but ridiculed rather than respected for it.

Ultimately, Brando was never able to live the life he hoped for. His own family succumbed to tragedy of its own despite the wealth he had hoped would melt his cares away. Instead, it only seemed to exacerbate his problems and his children's feelings of alienation and struggle grew. The last scenes of Brando facing the press after his son' Christian's murder of his sister's boyfriend, and the subsequent suicide of Brando's daughter Cheyenne, are heartbreaking.

As with any single-sourced story, there is a lot left out. For instance, the only children mentioned are Christian and Cheyenne, when Brando sired more than 10 children from many marriages and liaisons.

But Brando's thoughts on acting are revealing: "Acting is lying for a living, just making stuff up...If I was not an actor, I would have been a con man. I would have been a very good con man...A good con man can fool anybody. But the first person you have to fool is yourself."

In the end, there were many regrets: "Life is a rehearsal, an improvisation...I'm going to put a special microphone in my coffin, so when I wake up in there, six feet under the ground, I'm going to say 'Do it differently.'"

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