One summer evening, while visiting the shooting set of Sam Peckinpah’s The Osterman Weekend, I found myself chatting with John Hurt, never a knockout in looks but always a terrific actor. The easy banter, the charming way he leaned to light my cigarette, the suggestive slide of his eyes—suddenly there was a spotlit place where an ordinary encounter had been heightened into the possibility of dramatic story and character. Then he was summoned by his director, to disappear from view behind a poolhouse door. As he emerged, pointing a gun, it was as though that door frame had been a camera wipe. Hurt was Other, lethal and hard, a slight man moving with the weight of his own history and the terror of the moment. Not sure how to convey how astonishing this alchemy was; Hurt had transubstantiated, shaping how he would be seen by the camera.
Acting is authentic mystery. Sure, you can say it’s just putting on a face and pretending to be somebody, something you’re not. A matter of craft, in the word’s positive and negative meanings. But beyond consummate liars and confidence men, there are those capable of unforgettable transformation. Such protean players look like magicians, able to access other selves, body and soul. Are they vampires—like Liv Ullmann’s hollowed-out actress in Persona? Do they dredge truth out of the dark well of their past, tap into collected memory, to illuminate characters that look and feel like us? And what’s the cost to the chameleon? Does it sear like flaying, or is there ecstasy in becoming wholly Other?
Such questions lie at the heart of Stevan Riley’s dream-poem documentary Listen to Me Marlon. Excavating and sorting artifacts from Marlon Brando’s life and career, Riley explores the seductive, dangerous business of acting, using one of its greatest and most conflicted practitioners as case history. Listen to Me Marlon is a deftly interwoven skein of reenactments, TV interviews, clips from Brando’s movies, vacation snapshots and more. Riley backtracks and advances through Brando’s complicated, miserable, triumphant life. But the dominant thread, the biographical path, is found in Brando’s distinctive voice, recorded over the years on his own self-hypnosis tapes, apparently obtained from the actor’s estate. That mesmerizing voice—smart, dulled by pain, velvety, mumbling, dreamy, sometimes shaping words with almost Shakespearean clarity—documents this troubled man’s lifelong drive to understand what he was, what acting had made of him. It’s in that testimony, reflections of an irreparably divided soul, that we find clues to Marlon Brando’s compromised genius.
Matt Zoller Seitz has noted the similarity between Riley’s striking choice of images and editing style and Terrence Malick’s method of netting childhood memories that shape the adult, letting past epiphany elide into presentday reality, imagination collide with reality. In Listen to Me Marlon’s spreading tree of life, Brando’s mother flickers in and out of sun and shadow. Childhood object of love and desire, town drunk, she was the woman who abandoned him long before he left the many mothers of his 11 children behind.
Brando’s dad looms as villain, cold-hearted wife- and child-beater. Shocking to see Brando’s naked, puzzled horror as he gazes at his father during a TV interview. You can tell the son sees in the elder Brando’s face a venal and sleazy soul. The man might be a smalltime grifter; he displays no generosity of spirit when it comes to his son. If mother was a fallen angel, Brando’s father came to be identified as “a beast,” a beast that the actor felt also lived within him. It could be conjured and used to create characters like the brutal Stanley Kowalski. But, for Brando, freeing the beast came at the price of shame.
There’s always danger when you begin to search for patterns and reasons and truth about someone’s life, particularly when that person is a consummate actor, capable of fooling even himself. Riley’s carefully, brilliantly curated flow of images and recordings can sometimes seduce us into believing that complexity of character and art can be cookie-cuttered. Bernardo Bertolucci, that much-psychoanalyzed master, knew better. Though Brando believed that the director of Last Tango in Paris had stripped him “naked,” and that the film’s biographical content constituted “a violation of my innermost self,” Bertolucci’s primal exposure of Brando arguably stands as his finest performance. Paradox, indeed.
From all the evidence, Brando was always ambivalent about the power of performance. In the beginning, especially under Stella Adler’s tutelage, he saw it as a path to honesty, a mirror that Everyman could hold to see himself clearer. The young actor burned up the stage in A Streetcar Named Desire. In the filmed version there are moments when he approaches the camera—us—with such sexual charisma and command it seems he must ravish the audience. He was beautiful; Bacchus-like, he gave his face up to every hungry eye; and after every heady performance, he felt spectacularly “whole.”
But he also hated the character of Kowalski—too much of his father?—and said that incarnating that primal, vulnerable man caused him “pain.” Instead of wholeness, he felt more and more lacerated by the characters he created, the very act of making faces. When success came—and it came like a tsunami—Brando seemed deeply embarrassed, alternately tongue-tied and roguish in interviews with pretty young reporters. He began to hate his emotional exposure; “My soul is a private place,” said the actor whose art lay in revealing souls. He began to see performance as empty illusion, finding fault with the authenticity of his Oscar-winning role in On the Waterfront because, he said, audiences did all the work by imposing their own feelings on him. Anyone would have done.
Brando apparently came to believe that everyone was a player, a liar. Living was a matter of lying, necessary to keep civilization from flying apart. In one inane interview, we watch his face in closeup, and it’s a marvel how masterfully he deploys a whole repertoire of expressive moues and masking devices. That beautiful, vulnerable visage had begun to close up, the sensual, almost womanly mouth thinning, the flesh becoming heavier, coarser, like armor. No wonder then, that during the making of the disastrous Mutiny on the Bounty, he fell in love with the “unmanaged” faces of the Tahitians whose innocence seemed to him the antithesis of Hollywood’s phoniness and greed.
He gravitated to those “innocents”—blacks and Native Americans—whose faces and color exposed them to exploitation and abuse. For Brando, crafted performance, once revelation that made men whole, had become a degrading act, a cheap lie practiced three months out of the year to pay the bills. To escape exposure, his treacherous beauty, he built a fortress of fat. He became a grotesque, master of mutant beasts on The Island of Dr. Moreau, mocked by a mini-me dwarf and Val Kilmer, an actor trying on his idol for size.
Throughout Listen to Me Marlon, Riley periodically frames digitized images that Brando, who believed actors would eventually be replaced by CGI, had made of his own face. A cold white bust comprised of moving lines and pixels floating in black space, Brando’s captured head is eerily fluid, its parts disintegrating and reconstituting in digital flux. Various emotions give the visage momentary form, the disembodied voice speaks Shakespeare:
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
The choice of those well-worn lines may be a bit too apt, too close to easy epitaph. But the visual impact of Brando’s countenance is tragic, emblemizing the reason Brando always refused to talk about Marilyn Monroe’s death: “It would be like disemboweling a ghost.” Is this what remains of one of the most gifted players ever, so richly alive and yet imprisoned in his mutable flesh, to become a ghost in the machine, the “mechanical doll” he always feared acting made of him?
Not so. His best movie faces give the lie to this reductive reading. The mystery of his genius holds. Better to remember Brando’s larger-than-life features and voice projected from crystal and ice, Superman’s father intoning an actor’s greatest legacy: “You will carry me within you all the days of your life.”
Copyright © 2015 Kathleen Murphy