Just like Elvis Presley, there’s an old Marlon Brando and a young Marlon Brando.
Old Marlon muttered.
"I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse."
Young Marlon bellowed.
But those are the onscreen Brandos. The offscreen Marlon was something else. The new documentary “Listen to Me Marlon” gets a lot closer to the real man, in his own voice, in the personal recordings he made over 40-plus years. For those of us who knew him -- as I did, for most of the last decade of his life – the film's another reminder of what a brilliant, quirky, infuriating, tender-hearted, complex, and comical man he was.
The voice on those tapes is the same voice that came over my phone, midday or midnight. “It’s Mar,” he would say, or sometimes he’d just begin talking, because of course you knew who it was.
The playwright Tennessee Williams liked to tell about the time young Marlon came to his house to audition for Stanley Kowalski in the Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” When Marlon got there, the plumbing was backed up and the lights were out. So he fixed them. And then got the part.
Many years of renown later, when men showed up at Marlon’s house on Mulholland Drive to work on the pipes or fix the electrical system, Marlon was right there, asking them all about how it was done. When he decided to become an actor, I told him, the world lost a great plumber.
And boy, did he love his gizmos. Offer him a choice between a Rolex and a new magic trick -- he’d take the magic. Any kind of electronic device enthralled him, from ham radio to Tivo, reel to reel to CD. He even gave me my first cell phone. Once, he summoned me over urgently, and when I got there, he showed off his brand new miniature voice memo recorder, as tickled as if it were Christmas Day, and he was nine years old.
He’d watched me on television, it turned out, sizing me up long before he called me up. We bonded over dogs and books – anything but acting. He didn’t want to talk about acting. He didn't read "People" magazine; he read "Popular Mechanics." He wanted to talk about astronomy and archaeology, about Japanese culture and the Sand Creek Massacre.
Marlon may have had to scribble out his movie lines somewhere that he could see them as the camera rolled … but he knew by heart whole poems by Elinor Wylie and Matthew Arnold, long soliloquies from Shakespeare.
Sometimes, he’d let me have a go at reciting: maybe he’d forgotten, or maybe he was just checking to see whether I remembered as well as he did.
Perhaps even more than poetry, he loved music – Ellington’s “Satin Doll,” songs of Celia Cruz, and the folk tunes of the Auvergne. Harry Dean Stanton singing “Danny Boy” to him unfailingly brought him to tears.
But Marlon hated – hated – novelty songs. If I wanted him to hang up the phone so I could go to sleep, all I had to do was start singing something like “How Much is That Doggie in the Window?” and … click!
“Listen to Me Marlon” introduces the world to a man a few of us were fortunate enough to know. Ours was not always an easy friendship but it was, to the last, a true one.