Movie review: New documentary has Marlon Brando speaking from the grave

Ed Symkus More Content Now
Marlon Brando as Johnny in “The Wild One.”

The late, great, reclusive, mysterious actor named Marlon Brando started out on the stage, became a Hollywood icon, helped make a masterpiece out of “The Godfather,” manufactured some controversy when he turned down an Oscar for political reasons, and appeared in most of “The Missouri Breaks” wearing a dress.

But any talk of Brando will usually get back to that reclusive and mysterious business. He seldom did interviews, and when he did, they weren’t very revealing. Who was the real Marlon Brando? Till now, that question couldn’t be answered with any authority. But when the 10th anniversary of his death, in 2004, was looming, some folks at the Brando estate decided to commemorate him. They would open up the vast archive of memorabilia he saved – papers, photos, awards, you name it – pour through it all, and perhaps come up with a film about him.

It was known that among all of the piled-high boxes there were some audio tapes that Brando had made in private, in which he had spoke about himself, his profession, and the people and world around him. But it wasn’t until documentarian Stevan Riley got to look through those boxes that anyone realized just how often Brando had sat down in front of his tape recorders. Riley suddenly had his hands on about 300 hours of Brando on Brando.

Some of it was of no use: business meetings, notes to the staff at his home in Tahiti. But some of it was pure treasure: verbal notes on friends and enemies, ideas for new projects or ways to approach scripts, things that were bothering him or making him happy. This had gone on for years, even extending into the extremely private territory of self hypnosis tapes, in which Brando referred to himself in the third person (the basis for the film’s title).

This is fascinating stuff, all of it accompanied by Riley’s choice of clips from different Brando movies, or by home movies of his happier times, or of classes with Brando’s mentor Stella Adler, whom he talks about glowingly.

Brando does a lot of talking in this film, and he does so quite freely, because he believed only he was going to hear what he said. Some is revealing, and some is shocking. “My mother had a great love of nature,” he says, matter-of-factly, then follows that with, “My mother was the town drunk in our small town.”

After admitting that he had a lot of energy as a young man, he casually remarks that upon landing the part of Stanley Kowalski in the stage version of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “suddenly there’s a lot more girls saying, ‘Hi, Mar.’ ” But Brando can’t leave it there. He continues with, “I was destined to spread my seed far and wide.” (Rumor says that he fathered 16 children.)

Watching and hearing “Listen to Me Marlon” becomes an exercise in slightly uncomfortable but entertaining eavesdropping.

“If I hadn’t been an actor,” says Brando, “I might have become a con man ... a good one!” Talking about his role as Johnny in “The Wild One,” he says, “People were looking for rebellion, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time and in the right state of mind, in the sense that it was my own story.”

Then it’s back to those self hypnosis sessions, and Brando quietly saying, “Relax, Marlon, and breathe deeply.” But soon after, he’s letting go with deeply personal information about “the beast aspect” of his life, and how that informed the way he treated women. Of “Mutiny on the Bounty,” he says, “It was perhaps my worst experience in making a motion picture.” But then he brings up “Candy,” and calls it “probably the worst movie I ever made,” then asks, “How could you do that to yourself? Haven’t I got any pride left?”

In the end, although the film provides a lot of insight, it also adds more layers of mystery to the man. But it’s the self hypnosis tapes that reveal the most about him. “Just think of all the good things you like,” he says, softly, to himself. “Apple pie, ice cream, brownies.” Then, after a slight pause, “But you must eat them not so often.”


Written by Stevan Riley and Peter Ettedgui; directed by Stevan Riley

With Marlon Brando


Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.