Method to His Madness

Stevan Riley, Listen to Me Marlon, 2015, color, sound, 100 minutes. Marlon Brando.

IN “THE DUKE IN HIS DOMAIN,” Truman Capote’s notorious 1957 New Yorker profile of Marlon Brando (1924–2004), the writer observes of his subject: “The voice went on, as though speaking to hear itself, an effect Brando’s speech often has, for, like many persons who are intensely self-absorbed, he is something of a monologuist—a fact that he recognizes and for which he offers his own explanation. ‘People around me never say anything,’ he says. ‘They just seem to want to hear what I have to say. That’s why I do all the talking.’ ”

As the comma-deficient name of Stevan Riley’s latest documentary, Listen to Me Marlon, suggests, the totemic Method actor’s most captive audience may have been himself: The title is a self-exhortation culled from hundreds of hours of private audio recordings Brando made, segments from which form the spine of Riley’s portrait, whose other components include archival still and moving images and clips from the star’s films. (Occasionally these disembodied musings are “spoken” by a hologram Brando head; the 3-D body part was sculpted from digitized files of the actor’s face, which were created in the 1980s.) Although the labels of some of these tapes are sometimes visible—many are tagged “Self-Hypnosis”—the dates are not, and the opening intertitles never specify when the star began or ended his phonic diary.

“People invariably associate me with the part I play,” Brando says wearily at one point, his remark heard sometime during the first quarter of this one-hundred-minute-long film, which, despite occasional time-toggling, follows a fairly chronological arc. The complaint is common enough among performers, but when, exactly, did the man still frequently hailed as the greatest actor of all time utter it? During the early 1950s, the supernova era of A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront? The long slump that stretched from the late ’50s until the late ’60s, years during which his political activism grew? The annus mirabilis of 1972, when both The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris were released? Or during the last two decades of his life, when lurid personal tragedies and his escalating BMI overshadowed anything he was doing on-screen?

This lax matching of sight and sound, public and private—Riley is also the editor of Listen to Me Marlon—is most distressingly on display when the film indulges in the very conflation of performer and role that so displeased Brando. Juxtaposing the actor’s reflections on mortality, for example, with Vito Corleone’s death scene banalizes both. In fact, much of the visual footage here—the film-highlights reel, the Sacheen Littlefeather incident at the 1973 Academy Awards—is already so familiar that it dulls the pleasure of hearing Brando’s unfettered thoughts. (One auditory highlight features the weight-struggling actor giving voice to the cajoling pleas of the food—which he calls “always a friend”—in his fridge: “Come on, Marlon. Won’t you be a pal? Take me out. I’m freezing in here.”)

Among the archival footage Riley includes in his project are scenes of Brando behaving with gallant wolfishness toward his female interlocutors during a press junket. The clips are from Albert and David Maysles’s Meet Marlon Brando (1966), a roughly half-hour documentary that vividly illustrates what Listen to Me Marlon, at three times the length and with a trove of newly accessed material, only fitfully and superficially points to: the man’s enormous complexities and contradictions, his intelligence, his boredom, his beauty, his body anxiety.

Listen to Me Marlon plays July 29–August 11 at Film Forum; “Brando,” a ten-film tribute to the actor, runs at Film Forum August 7–11.