I went to see the new Marlon Brando movie last weekend. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d get to write again, but eleven years after his death, Marlon Brando is once again in theaters, “starring” in a new documentary directed by Stevan Riley. Listen to Me Marlon is not like other documentaries. There are no talking heads, no narrators, and no dramatic re-creations. But there is plenty of “new” Brando material—and it’s fascinating. Culled from endless hours of audio recordings Brando made of himself, Listen to Me Marlon offers a fresh and unfiltered look at the actor where the only talking head belongs to Brando himself. The resulting portrait offers a reminder that Marlon Brando remains the most complex and important actor of the last century.
Riley’s film is actually the second part of a one-two punch that attempts to recover Brando’s artistic reputation. The opening salvo came last year from Susan Mizruchi, whose biography, Brando Smiles, cut through all the Hollywood gossip and scandals in order to explore the relationship between Brando’s career and his personal library. In the book, she traces his intellectual development, often connecting the books he was reading and personally annotating with the roles he was playing. The book helped to restore the idea of Brando the artist, Brando the reader, Brando the intellectual.
Such hasn’t always been the case. Over the last few decades, the public image of Brando has seemed closer in spirit to the parody Chris Elliott used to perform on Late Night with David Letterman—overweight, narcissistic, and downright kooky. And sadly, it’s this baroque, superficial, cartoon image of Brando in his later years that our culture has largely adopted.
But in a sense, we’ve been getting Brando wrong for years now. In his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, Brando insists that he was miscast in his breakthrough role as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. At first, this sounds absurd—just another example of Brando the contrarian at work. Hadn’t everyone known from the beginning that Brando was, indeed, the volatile, inarticulate brute from Tennessee Williams’s play? Hadn’t he gotten the job, in part, because when Elia Kazan sent him down to Key West to read for Williams, Brando had wound up repairing the playwright’s toilet? It’s hard to imagine John Barrymore, Orson Welles, or Laurence Olivier holding a prize-winning script in one hand and a bathroom plunger in the other.
The Brando myth of the uncouth, rebellious artist only grew as he became more successful. He was the matinee idol who broke his nose boxing backstage during a performance of Streetcar, the Broadway star who roared through the streets of New York, not in a limo, but rather on a motorcycle. Those things were certainly true, but they only supplied part of the picture. For while the first of his many acolytes, James Dean, was trying to follow his image by driving a racecar, Brando was reading political theory by Hannah Arendt.
As Mizruchi’s book and now Riley’s film make clear, there was a lot more to what Marlon Brando was doing than simply striking a cool pose, but few seemed to be paying close attention. Of course, we’re also living in a culture that celebrates Albert Einstein as a dorm room poster—all crazy hair and protruding tongue—while simultaneously electing politicians who refuse to acknowledge established science. So maybe the idea that we would latch onto to a cartoon image of Brando shouldn’t be so surprising.
It’s as if we’ve taken the most superficial elements of the Brando image—rebellion and outrageousness—and stripped them completely of context and meaning until all that’s left are a few empty gestures. No wonder Riley begins Listen to Me Marlon with Brando reciting Shakespeare’s darkest reflection on emptiness and superficiality:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor playerThat struts and frets his hour upon the stageAnd then is heard no more. It is a taleTold by an idiot, full of sound and fury,Signfying nothing.
As I write this, the police have once again arrested journalists and civil rights activists in Ferguson, Missouri, while in Europe the tragic plight of Syrian refugees goes largely unheard. And all over the world, climatologists warn that the planet is facing a future of global climate change, mass extinctions, and shortages of natural resources. Yet, the American news media can’t seem to get away from the shenanigans of a former reality TV star who is theoretically running for President.
Which brings us back to Marlon Brando. For if Brando’s best work could be summed up in one phrase, it would be the search for authenticity. In Listen to Me Marlon, we hear him talk about how he used to watch people—strangers—carefully looking for clues to their inner thoughts and feelings. As he says, acting is a form of lying and we’re all actors because we all lie. We lie about everything and we lie for everything. We even lie for beautiful and positive things like love. But seeing the lies means also seeing the shallowness of most behavior, where everyone is like Prufrock, self-consciously preparing a face to meet the faces that he meets.
For Brando, this comes to define the artistic impulse. Picasso had to paint. Miles had to play. Einstein had to theorize. And Brando had to act. But the art of acting was to expose falseness, to open it up and examine it in a never-ending search for authenticity.
That’s why, in the film, you can hear him comparing Clark Gable to a box of Froot Loops. So many of the older movie stars from the ‘30s and ‘40s simply delivered the same façade in movie after movie, and as Brando notes, they were like breakfast cereals because you always knew what you were going to get.
But it’s easier to be a breakfast cereal. As the film explains, one of the reasons Brando left the stage after Streetcar was that acting in the theater—and doing it right—was just too hard to sustain. As he explains, whenever he had to get angry as Stanley, he had to go back to his childhood, revisiting the times when his father would abuse his mother. Revisiting such moments in an effort to capture authenticity for a scene in a film might be draining, but doing so eight times a week for hundreds if not thousands of performances was impossible.
Look at the dinner table scene from the filmed version of Streetcar when Stanley explodes at Stella and Blanche. Brando’s performance reveals far more than that of an actor who simply decides which word in the script to emphasize and how to throw a glass against the wall. When Stella insults Stanley for his bad table manners, there is a pause. It’s an uneasy pause, the kind we all feel when we get angry, as our body temperature rises, our mind races, and we feel our pulse beating on each temple, the rage trying to force its way out of our skulls. So Brando pauses, and as he pauses, you can feel him waiting … waiting for the emotion to come to him. When he finally slams his hand on the table and rakes his plate into the floor, it’s not just a flare of temper. It’s a choice—a demonstration to both Stella and Blanche of what he might be capable of doing. In other words, it’s a performance, and Stanley is performing just as certainly as is Brando.
There remains, throughout the scene, an uncertainty to his actions. A more superficial actor might give a stronger line reading: Now THAT is how I’m gonna clear the table! But Brando doesn’t punch the word “that.” In fact, he doesn’t punch any of the words. As he tries to finish chewing and swallowing his food, there is a quiver in his voice, and when he shatters his glass on the wall, he fidgets afterward, almost like a boy who knows he’s been naughty but is going to make a stand. Stanley is feeling his way through this moment, which is why when his words come out—Now … that is how … I’m gonna clear the table—he sounds quiet and unmannered. It’s also why he sounds chillingly authentic.
As the scene continues, you can hear the same halting rhythms as he searches for what to say next. When he finally decides to quote Huey Long about every man being a king, it’s clear he’s posturing, and Brando tellingly puts one hand on his hip, a phony pose that reflects Stanley’s momentary falseness. Despite all the anger and threats of violence, Brando draws out Stanley’s insecurity—the same insecurity that led Stanley to boast about being well connected in town with his “lawyer acquaintance” and his “jewelry acquaintance.” He’s overcompensating, well aware that as a poorly-educated son of Polish immigrants, he’s partly removed from the sense of “male privilege” he believes society has promised him.
All of which is to say, what makes Brando’s performance so powerful is that instead of playing the obvious notes, he chooses to play the subtext, the uncertainty, the hesitation. And it’s Stanley’s insecurity, not his bellowing or his bravado, that ultimately makes him dangerous.
But we don’t always stop to appreciate the search for authenticity. Instead, we just immortalize the superficialities—the violence and anger of Stanley and the bad-to-the-bone swagger of Johnny in The Wild One. Brando clearly struck a nerve in those early days and soon became the unofficial leader of a whole generation of actors—a whole artistic movement—and he would spend much of his remaining years trying to shake off the role, thwarting expectations by playing characters like Napoleon and Sky Masterson.
A similar fate awaited Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan, both of whom became unwilling leaders of their generation. Kerouac largely escaped to the bottle, while Dylan would turn on his worshippers, fighting back with an electric guitar and a mocking refrain, “How does it feel, how does it feel? / To be on your own, with no direction home?”
But for Brando, the artist dedicated to authenticity, this disconnect between perception and reality was particularly ironic. And the movie industry of the late ‘50s was ill equipped to continue such an ambitious exploration. There weren’t enough ambitious scripts, complex characters, and patient directors to sustain the work, and Brando showed little interest in being Sisyphus, rolling the boulder up the hill over and over again. He reasserted himself in the ‘70s, of course, with films like The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris, and Apocalypse Now, but he had already been forced to find fulfillment through other avenues.
Dean Martin once said about Sinatra, “It’s Frank’s world; we’re all just living in it.” But with apologies to Sinatra, in a lot of ways, we’re now living in Brando’s world. The superficial elements of the Brando myth that endure—the rebellion and the outrageousness—remain the easiest parts to emulate. Every time someone like Miley Cyrus shocks an audience at a an awards show or Kanye West interrupts a speech to talk about Beyonce, we’re seeing attempts to tap into the Brando spirit. However, in both instances, the rebellion and the outrageousness are merely empty gestures.
Yes, Brando once created a sensation at an awards show by refusing his Oscar, but unlike either Cyrus or West, whose actions seem mostly for attention, Brando turned down the Oscar for a larger purpose—calling out the film industry for profiteering from ethnic stereotypes of Native Americans. Brando objected to the lack of truth in such depictions, the lack of authenticity. And while many only remember Brando’s actions as an awards show stunt, his actions forever changed the conversation about ethnic stereotypes in the movies. It hasn’t ended the use of stereotypes entirely, but it’s made it impossible for anyone to be oblivious to their use.
That’s why, when books like Brando Smiles and films like Listen to Me Marlon can help us get closer to understanding Brando, they provide an immeasurable service. They help us do for Brando’s career what Brando often tried to do for us with his art. They give us a return to authenticity.
And that, more than anything, is why Brando matters.