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'Listen to Me Marlon' reveals the real Brando through the actor's voice

Marlon Brando with young Christian Brando in an archival still from the Showtime documentary, 'Listen to Me Marlon.'
Marlon Brando with young Christian Brando in an archival still from the Showtime documentary, 'Listen to Me Marlon.'
Mike Gillman/SHOWTIME
Marlon Brando with young Christian Brando in an archival still from the Showtime documentary, 'Listen to Me Marlon.'
Marlon and Cheyenne Brando in an archival still from the Showtime documentary, 'Listen to Me Marlon'
Mike Gillman/SHOWTIME

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“Acting is surviving,” Marlon Brando once said. And now, 10 years after the master actor died, his legacy continues to survive in a new documentary called “Listen to Me Marlon.”

The lauded actor was known for legendary roles in "The Godfather," "On the Waterfront" and "Apocalypse Now," as well as derided in films he made later in his career. But his personal life was marked by deep tragedy — in 1990, Brando’s son, Christian, killed his half-sister’s boyfriend in Brando’s own home. The actor's daughter, Cheyenne, subsequently committed suicide.

Even while Brando tried to keep his life private, he was recording himself, leaving behind hundreds of hours of audio recordings. Those tapes, along with film clips, home movies, TV appearances and a bizarre hologram of his head, make up the architecture of "Listen to Me Marlon."

Stevan Riley, the filmmaker behind "Listen to Me Marlon," was not an aficionado when he was asked by the Brando Estate to helm the project. When Riley joined us on The Frame, he talked about Brando's extreme self-criticism, the variety of tapes that the actor made, and piecing together a trove of audio to find "the real Marlon Brando."

Interview Highlights:

As you started doing research to better understand Marlon Brando, what did you begin to find?

There were different versions of him — versions from his friends, his ex-lovers, or his wife — so it was difficult to really pin him down and to find out who the real person was. So when the tapes were first made available to me, there were a couple that I picked up that were incredibly revealing where Marlon was speaking about himself and some of his early experiences.

There was a self-hypnosis tape that I got early access to, which was incredibly intimate. It felt almost intrusive listening to it. It was self-meditation and self-medication as well, because I think he was suffering a lot of trauma in the aftermath of his daughter's suicide in Tahiti, which was on the back of a killing that had taken place in Brando's own house.

That was deeply, deeply traumatic, and Brando was in the house for that, he was doing resuscitation on the man who was shot, and in the aftermath of all that and his daughter's suicide he was pretty much in bits. And he wanted to do as much as he could to repair himself from that pain, and part of that were these self-hypnosis tapes.

When you're listening to these tapes and comparing them to what's been written, what are the fundamental differences between how he had been perceived and who he really was as represented in these recordings?

The myth of Brando was one that had never been properly solved, and Brando was party to that — he was very good at putting up smokescreens and doing everything he could to remain private and not let people intrude on his personal life. But he felt severely misrepresented in all sorts of spheres.

If you think about how people remember Marlon now — if people had a passing thought as to who he was — they might remember he was overweight, he was reclusive, or how he was portrayed as a bit of a nut by the press. But one thing that actually became very clear while I was making the film was how lucid and philosophical a man he was.

He was obviously a private person and yet he makes these tapes. Without trying to psychoanalyze him, what was your theory about why he left these behind? Did he want somebody to listen to them? Did he want them to be shared, or were they just for himself?

It's worth bearing in mind that these were collected for many different reasons, and they weren't always to narrate his life or diarize his experiences. He'd take recorders into business meetings. He had bad experiences with some films like "Mutiny on the Bounty," where he felt like he was wrongfully accused of threatening the production, and there was a bit of a stigma that developed around him. He wanted to avoid being poorly treated by Hollywood, so he kept the recorders out to cover him legally.

At home he'd put his kids up to the recorders and record things for posterity. There's one several-hour tape where he's talking with his great aunt and getting her to recount her whole life story, because he wanted to record that before she came to the end of her life.

He would record his own musings and thoughts, and if he read something interesting he'd do entire tapes of nice phrases and vocabulary. And then there were the self-hypnosis tapes, and it goes on and on and on. So there's a lot of different stuff, like the creative preparation for roles. There was an assortment of tapes for very different reasons, and it was the compilation of them that made the film.

I think that people who loved his movies would be surprised to hear him disparage "On the Waterfront," "Last Tango in Paris" and "Apocalypse Now." He didn't hold those films or experiences in very high regard.

It's interesting for several reasons, but I think it shows his perfectionism that he felt that way about the famous scene with Rod Steiger, the "I coulda been a contender" scene. One thing he's not really given credit for is his ability as an improviser and a writer, and his whole approach to "I coulda been a contender," the show of disappointment rather than anger to his brother pulling a gun, that was all Brando.

But even with that innovation he felt that he let himself down and it wasn't a very good performance, which shows he cares and he wanted it to be better than it was. Of course, everyone reveres it as one of the best scenes in movie history, so it goes to show what his own standards could be like.

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