The visually sumptuous documentary, Listen to Me Marlon, made a big impression at this year's New Direction/New Films Festival. Especially noted was director Stevan Riley's achievement in making a biopic about a great subject, Marlon Brando, who, despite having died in 2004, nevertheless comes fully alive in his own voice. Eschewing most documentary apparatus, talking heads, for example, Listen to Me Marlon is crafted from 300 hours of Brando's audio tapes, some marked "Self-hypnosis." The critics so far have been in thrall. Now about to open in New York, the film's style was debated at this week's premiere at the Tribeca Grand Hotel.
Brando's life was complicated: his mother was the town drunk, his father abusive. Early in his career the actor was taken into Stella Adler's family. Several of her family members were present at the premiere.
The film limns many of Brando's iconic performances with his voice as voiceover, explaining his ideas about acting, his methods, and choices. For A Streetcar Named Desire, he says he hated Stanley Kowalski's brutality, but could muster it up, his cruelty a variation on his father's. Brando did not consider his performance in On the Waterfront his best. Much as the esteemed actor should not have to do so, Brando auditioned for The Godfather, but hated mobsters, and then concluded that he would have been in that world, if that had been his environment. For Last Tango in Paris, director Bernardo Bertolucci asked him to reach into himself autobiographically. The result angered Brando because he felt so exposed, naked. As to family, Brando's tears at the trial of his son Christian Brando, who shot his sister's boyfriend, and upon hearing the news of his daughter Cheyenne's suicide at 25 reveal a level of despair rarely glimpsed. The newsreel footage becomes especially poignant after hearing so much of Brando's ideals of childhood innocence.
At the post-screening Q&A, Stevan Riley, his producer John Battsek, and Brando's daughter Rebecca spoke about the intricacies of making it all work so seamlessly. Far from knowing his subject, Riley's work was a feat of discovery. Rebecca Brando's cousin Kelly was present too. Speaking for the family, she said the film could have used the input of family members or others who could tell more about Brando's life.
Stevan Riley said he interviewed many who knew or worked with the star, Harry Dean Stanton, for example. He spoke to Rita Moreno by phone. Famously, Brando had a long relationship with her. She tried to commit suicide when he broke it off. None of this material is in the film. Despite his copious research, Riley decided on this strategy, fashioning a film that allows Brando to speak. Unchallenged, Brando's pronouncements may veer from the truth as others know him. A conventional, "true" Brando portrait could not be as mesmerizing, and in any case, would be a different movie.
After the premiere, the director was off to L.A. but he will return to East Hampton this weekend for Summerdocs, the Hamptons International Film Festival series hosted by Alec Baldwin. The first doc screened in the series, Best of Enemies, featuring the televised William F. Buckley/Gore Vidal debates, also had a New York City premiere this week. The upcoming East Hampton screening of Listen to Me Marlon is tantalizing, with so many film insiders residing on the East End, and with Alec Baldwin to interview Riley. Alec Baldwin played Stanley Kowalski in a Broadway production of Streetcar, and subsequent movie remake; Baldwin will surely have lots to say about Brando's art.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.