In the 1990s Marlon Brando made a prediction: he believed that in the future actors would become obsolete, replaced with digital avatars.
“Actors aren’t going to be real, they’re going to be inside a computer – you watch, it’s going to happen,” he argued. “Maybe this is the swansong for all of us.”
Digitized and reconstituted, Brando imagined actors would have a voice and life beyond themselves. He even had his head scanned and mapped onto a computer at one point by friend and visual effects pioneer Scott Billups, recording facial expressions so as to be replicated in the digital age.
Brando’s prediction was at least partly correct. We know this because he tells us these thoughts for the first time from beyond the grave, reanimated in Stevan Riley’s powerful new documentary “Listen To Me Marlon.”
Marlon Brando: In his own words
Raising the dead
During his lifetime Brando was a hoarder of many things, among them cassette tapes. Dyslexic, he would use a dictaphone as one would a notepad, recording to do lists and script annotations. But then there were the moments of introspection and self-analysis; the drunken conversations in bed with lovers. The rage at his parents and the tortured reflections upon his own troubled parenthood.
Hundreds of hours of audio, their reach stretching beyond that of any diary and touching upon what no biographer could. The cassettes collected dust after the actor’s death, before finding their way into the hands of Riley. They were the perfect source material.
Brought together in something of a bricolage by Riley and co-writer Peter Ettedgui, “Listen To Me Marlon” is a Frankenstein of a film, documenting the life of Brando almost entirely in his own words.
It is hard to say whether this is something he intended, argues Ettedgui. Despite audio recordings of Brando telling himself they were “no longer useful, chuck ‘em,” the tapes were left among his possessions and Ettedgui suggests “there was, to an extent, a sense of leaving things to posterity.”
In the film Brando muses on an idealized documentary made about his life: “It will be highly personalized…. We establish that he’s a troubled man, alone, beset with memories in a state of confusion, sadness, isolation, disorder… He’s collecting information and bits of film to help him explain, ‘Why are you feeling this way?’”
Ettedgui describes the editing process with Riley as “like there was three of us” in the room, and Brando’s abstract has a heavier hand on proceedings than either the director or his co-writer. He was, Ettedgui argues, “the ghost in the machine.”
The result is an intimate and revelatory new look at Brando’s life. Cut and spliced together alongside interviews into a cohesive quasi-autobiography, the interpolation of public and private reflections reveal a parallel narrative and a beguiling, conflicted mind.
Digging through memories
The mythologized figure of Brando was a notorious recluse: a man who spent most of his years away in Tahiti or ensconced in his Beverly Hills bolthole, insulated by the Hollywood elite he would call neighbors but struggled to call friends.
Riley’s film both confirms and denies these charges. Brando is a keen and excoriating narrator, all too ready to peel back the events in his life and expose the raw emotions they evoke.
Latching on to pop psychology, he claims “most people are simply getting over bad emotional habits established in the first ten years of their life.” There is ample evidence for Brando to support his case.
Childhood trauma is the root cause of much of his actions, according to the actor. He alleges his father, Marlon Sr., would beat him and his mother. A cold and distant man, he sent Marlon Jr. to a much-hated military school and never quite understood how his “ne’er-do-well son” could ever achieve such fame and fortune. His mother Dodie was “a town drunk,” Brando claims. The sense of abandonment he felt as a result is palpable in his tapes, though he doesn’t hold any of the enmity towards her that he did his father, who he once threatened to kill as a teenager for the abuse his mother received.
“If you’ve never known love, you never know where it is,” Brando argues. “You don’t know what it looks like or it sounds like… you look in the most unlikely places to find it.” His youth, he suggests, is the reason behind his serial infidelity, his failed relationships. And whilst never excusing his behavior, he appears to find solace in rationalizing it.
“Through introspection and the examination of my mind, I feel as though I’m coming closer to what it means to be human,” he argues. “Unless we look inwards, we will never be able to clearly see outwards.”
A man at odds with his industry
What is made abundantly clear is that Brando was never entirely comfortable with himself or his profession.
“Inferiority: I have been very close to it all my life,” says the double Academy Award-winner. “I was so embarrassed, so disappointed in my performance,” he laments of “On the Waterfront”, for which he won his first Oscar.
On “The Godfather” he is more complimentary of his performance as Vito Corleone, a role which “little by little [he] got in to.” It was, however, “demeaning to do a screen test” for the part. And any goodwill Brando felt towards director Francis Ford Coppola for the resurgence of his acting career soon dissipated in the wake of “Apocalypse Now.” Beset with production issues, Brando bore the brunt of the blame. “He’s a prick,” says Brando of Coppola, “a card-carrying prick… I saved his fucking ass and he shows his appreciation by dumping on me.”
Directors as a whole are given short shrift by the actor, burned too many times by on-set conflicts and altercations. “Don’t put your life in the hands of a director,” he warns. “They cover up a sense of inadequacy by being very authoritative, commanding things… Do not,” he implores, “ever be intimidated by directors.”
At times he is nihilistic about the industry as a whole. “There is no such thing as a great movie,” he says. As for Hollywood itself, “there are no artists. We are businessmen, merchants, and there is no art… Money, money, money. If you think it’s about something else, you’re going to get bruised.”
Lying for a living
Echoing the sentiment expressed by his disapproving father, acting is often demeaned. Those before him such as Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart were “absurd”, “a bunch of fruit loops… the same in every role.” Method acting was closer to life “and when it’s right it’s right! You can feel it in your bones.” But it was still lying, something that could and was done by everyone.
“Lying for a living, that’s what acting is,” Brando explains. “All I’ve done is learned how to be aware of the process… When you’re saying something you don’t mean, or refraining from something you really do mean, that’s acting… You lie for peace, you lie for tranquility. You lie for love. So we all act – just some people get paid for it.”
And yet elsewhere he argues for the restorative power that film provides: a fleeting moment of escapism, the pretense of fantasy actualized. “I realized, oddly enough, that actors make a contribution to peoples’ lives, giving us a gift that you can’t buy. Something that they can imbue with power and beauty and magnificence; something beyond themselves.”
These contradictions are what “Listen To Me Marlon” is most perceptively aware of. Brando is a paradox, uttering conflicting thoughts across the duration of his tapes; told with such conviction even Brando himself seems unaware of the dialectic raging in his mind. A lifetime of ruminations contracted into the space of 103 minutes, jostling and smashing against each other. And in amongst the rubble, the conclusion: that in spite of the abundance of insight, Brando is more of an enigma than ever.
He is at one the serial womanizer saddled with numerous child maintenance payments, but also a deeply family man. Uncomfortable with his celebrity and estranged from the public who stared at him “like an animal from the zoo,” he would also put his head above the parapet and risk actual bodily harm at marches, whether for the civil rights of black people or Native Americans.
Brando believed that if he failed to make it as an actor he would have become a conman. The differences were minimal for him. Like an actor, “a good conman can fool anybody. And the first person you fool as a conman is yourself.” Untangled and laid bare, the conflicted character of Brando can fool no one, least of all himself. Ettedgui admits that Brando “would be very uncomfortable” sitting through the film.
Whether mythologized by the media or self-mythologized in his tapes, Brando remains as inscrutable and enigmatic as ever. Inconsistent to the end, we may never quite know what was performance and what was real, and who he really was. But until now, no one has perhaps come closer than Riley.
“Listen To Me Marlon” is out in UK cinemas now, out on digital release from November 9 and DVD & Blu-ray November 30.