MARLON BRANDO'S life and career have been pored over and analyzed almost from the moment he took the stage in a 1947 production of A Streetcar Named Desire. The late method actor has been revered and admired, parodied and pilloried in every form of media imaginable: biographies, SNL, talk shows, video games.
No one, though, offered as much praise and critique on Brando's onscreen work and offscreen struggles than Brando himself. That is clear almost from the start of Stevan Riley's new documentary Listen to Me Marlon: The British director was given access to hundreds of hours of audio recordings, made by Brando, in which the actor prepared for his roles, interviewed family members and lovers, and lamented the state of the world. Mostly, though, Brando looked inward, attempting to recover from a miserable childhood and reckon with the tragedies of his life (in 1990, his son Christian was jailed for murder; five years later, his daughter Cheyenne took her own life).
Riley does an admirable job weaving these tapes in with clips from Brando's best and worst film work, as well as interviews and infamous moments like his decision to send a Native American activist in his place to refuse his Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather.
It makes for a complex portrait, but also a dour one. Brando's career highlights are almost always countered with the actor beating himself or the filmmaker up for terrible work. For someone who proved to be a capable comedic presence (the best role of his later years was a charming Vito Corleone caricature in the fish-out-of-water comedy The Freshman), there was apparently very little joy in his life. Riley may have given us an accurate portrait of Brando's 80 years on this planet, but that only makes it harder to wallow in the actor's misery and self-recrimination.