The suspicion that the rest of mankind is lying to you is a keen insight in an actor and, at the same time, a recipe for great personal unhappiness. “The most mistrustful man I’ve ever met and the most watchful,” said the screenwriter Stewart Stern of Marlon Brando, a man who raised screen acting to new levels of truthfulness but recoiled from offers of love or friendship as if they were a lie. It’s not that he was gifted but troubled. The gifts were the trouble. Brando saw through everything. “The face can hide many things,” he says in a new documentary, “Listen to Me Marlon”, directed by Stevan Riley and drawing on 300 hours of personal tapes found in the actor’s Beverly Hills home, in which Brando ruminates on his fame, his talent, his failings as a father, voicing regret for a life he feels to have been largely wasted. “I searched but never found what I was looking for,” he confides in that familiar, plummy rasp, like King Lear with a head cold. “Mine was a glamorous life but completely unfulfilling.”
The tapes are a performance, too, of course, maybe one of Brando’s best—by turns bawdy, wounded, sentimental, self-pitying, bewildered—much of it teetering on the edge of pseudo-philosophical profundity, like Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now”. “All of you are actors, and good actors, because you’re all liars,” he says at one point. “You lie for peace, you lie for tranquility, you lie for love.” Newly arrived in New York with holes in his socks, Brando would position himself on Manhattan street corners, collecting faces as they passed, trying to divine their hidden thoughts and feelings. Faces were masks for Brando, and the film turns his into one too, using a series of Cyberware scans he had made of his face before his death to re-animate him into a floating head. We first see it, rotating and fritzing like a radio signal from beyond the grave, reciting the “sound and fury signifying nothing” soliloquy from “Macbeth”. The effect is spooky, shamanistic—powerful enough to give you goose bumps.
The picture of Brando that emerges may well be the most revelatory documentary portrait of a screen actor ever made. The film proceeds more or less chronologically, from the 1950s to the 1980s, but Riley is something of an editing whiz, skipping around in pursuit of hunches and intuitions, leaning into the curves of the career at all the right points. We see colour footage of Brando touching up his own makeup on the set of “On the Waterfront”, together with an excruciating appearance with his father on “Person to Person” in 1955, in which Brando Sr expresses contempt for his son’s acting while Brando’s smile freezes on his face. We see him wadding his cheeks with cotton at his screen test for “The Godfather”, undertaken at the behest of a studio which doubted he could pull off the part. “I wasn’t sure I could play that part either,” he confides. “I didn’t want to be caught trying. I didn’t want to be caught afraid.” The threat of humiliation seems to lurk behind every performance, lending an extra acridity to his frequent catfights with his directors. “I saved his ass and he rewarded me by dumping on me,” he complains of Francis Ford Coppola, after the director bitched about Brando’s weight gain on “Apocalypse Now”, the actor now bigger than the movies in every sense: physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. He couldn’t fit himself through their fictions.
Brando’s was a revolutionary talent in the fullest sense. He played revolutionaries many times, from “Viva Zapata!” to “Burn!”, but his acting enacted its own revolution, hastening the end of an era in which the stars held positions as fixed as the stars in the sky—Bogart played Bogart, Gable played Gable—and ushering in the modern era of the actor-as-chameleon, morphing for the cameras like one big special effect. He was Hollywood’s Robespierre, and suffered much the same fate as all those who go looking for love in the movie business. Hollywood never loved him back to the degree Brando needed, because Brando’s need to be loved was, like that of Orson Welles, unfathomable and unfillable—a gaping hole left by his brutish father and beautiful, alcoholic mother, and which he later did all he could to fill with food. “If you’ve never been loved, you don’t know what it is,” he says. That Brando was clueless as to how to halt the cycle of neglect is evident in the tragedy that struck his own family, after his daughter Cheyenne committed suicide and his son Christian wound up on trial for murder. Brando’s Tahitian paradise became as spoiled as Kurtz’s jungle.
On screen, all his ambivalence and vulnerability, volatility, brutality and beauty was a mesmerising mix. “You want to stop that movement of the popcorn to the mouth,” he says, speaking of his audience. “You do that with the truth.” Some of his big emotional blows-outs have not aged well—his cry of “Stella!!” in “A Streetcar Named Desire” now seems sweaty with the histrionics of the 1950s, Stella Adler and the Method—but in his quieter moments, Brando gave us human beings as they had never been seen before, so present in their bodies and unperturbed by the commotion going on around them that they seem to have penetrated some underwater lair where they alone are king. “Listen to Me Marlon” grants us a momentary but delightful entrée to that kingdom, where Brando sits blowing bubbles on the ocean floor.
Listen to Me Marlon is available now on DVD