The singular, earthquaking, mythically odd life of actor Marlon Brando does not lend itself to a straightforward, PBS-style documentary format. And so British director Stevan Riley’s dazzling Listen to Me Marlon (premiering Nov. 14 on Showtime) takes its cues from the acting icon, both by presenting itself as a vivid, nonlinear poem on the ethos of acting and stardom, and also by using the Brando’s own words.
For decades Brando recorded himself talking, most of the time alone. He amassed more than 300 hours worth of audio diary — his sui generis philosophies on love, pain, art, envy, therapy, even weight-loss — which Riley uses brilliantly as a running voiceover throughout the entire film.
Of course, the documentary includes generous clips from Brando’s films (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris, to name just a few), as well as movies from before he came on the scene, bolstering the case for the actor’s seismic influence on his profession. In one segment, we hear Brando talking about his unpredictable style of method acting and how it operated as an antidote to cliché. “When an actor takes a little too long while he’s walking to the door,” Brando says, “you just know he’s gonna stop and turn around and say…” — and the film cuts to Clark Cable as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, remarking “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
In the clip below, we see a 1947 screen test that Brando, intoxicatingly handsome and seeming almost embarassed by it, performed for Warner Bros. This was three years before his screen debut in 1950’s The Men, and a piece of trivia that the documentary doesn’t include is that Brando was reading lines for the role that James Dean eventually landed in Rebel Without a Cause.
“It’s one of my favorite scenes,” Riley says. “I’m not sure exactly why Marlon was smiling so much but my guess is that he couldn’t help flirting with the woman questioning him. He had inimitable charm and was relentlessly predatory in his pursuit of women.” (The film offers ample evidence of this as well, including a clip courtesy of the estate of documentary maestros the Albert and David Maysles, showing Brando coming on to a female interviewer with a brio that would break TMZ if an actor did so today.)
As the screen test plays, we hear Brando talking about the power of a movie close-up, and the performer’s responsibility to convey absolute honesty to the audience. “The screen test marks his arrival in Hollywood,” Riley says, “and his concerted attempt to revolutionize acting and bring a more truthful representation to cinema. In his opinion, the previous generation of screen actors were histrionic and even absurd. But, as he describes, when the camera is so close up, the face becomes the proscenium arch of the theater, 30 feet high. Under such magnification the slightest flinch or twitch will betray any false thought or emotion. And he wanted to relay truth onscreen as never before.”
Listen to Me Marlon premieres Nov. 14 at 9 p.m. on Showtime and Nov. 15 on Showtime On Demand.