“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” —Don Vito Corleone, The Godfather
“Stella! Hey, STELLA!” —Stanley Kowalski, A Streetcar Named Desire
“You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” —Terry Malloy, On the Waterfront
“Go, get the butter.” —Paul, Last Tango in Paris
When fifteen hundred American Film Institute jurors voted on their top one hundred memorable movie quotes of all time, taking into consideration how often they use the phrases in their own lives (“cultural impact”) and/or how much they evoke the memory of a treasured American film (“historical legacy”), quotes from Marlon Brando characters ranked second (The Godfather) and third (On the Waterfront), topped only by Clark Gable’s “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Brando’s position on that list—and in the movies in general—cannot be overstated.
Mr. Mumbles is a nickname he came by honestly, but Brando has, without question, left an indelible mark on cinema, from his larger-than-life portrayals of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now and Jor-El in Superman, to Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls and Carmine Sabatini in The Freshman (a parody of his Don Corleone role). Early in his career, Brando earned Best Actor Oscar nominations an unprecedented four years in a row for ’Streetcar’ (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), Julius Caesar (1953), and On the Waterfront (1954). And, of course, he famously declined the 1972 Best Actor statuette for his towering performance in The Godfather as a statement against Hollywood’s mistreatment of Native American people.
So when we learn that throughout his lifetime Brando made hundreds of hours of private audio recordings, none of which had been heard by the public, our interest is piqued.
Selected sound bytes from those audio tapes form the soundtrack of Listen to Me Marlon, Stevan Riley’s fresh yet ultimately frustrating documentary about the iconic Hollywood star. What kind of person makes hundreds of hours of private recordings throughout their lifetime anyway (the actor died in 2004)? A sad man, yes. Brando’s father was abusive—he’d slap his son around for no good reason—and his mother, who taught him to love nature, was the town drunk. A bad man? Sometimes; Brando’s hell-raising exploits are well documented in tell-all books such as Bad Boy Drive by Robert Sellers. But a deep man? Not from what we hear him say.
And that’s the film’s biggest disappointment.
While it’s lovingly constructed as a rich mosaic of film clips, candid photographs, archived television interviews, and other newsreel footage, the film’s raison d’etre is the revelation of the unheard Brando. Unfortunately, his words, recorded in part as a self-hypnosis technique, are less compelling. Even in a radio interview when he’s asked if he enjoys his profession, Brando inanely replies: “I think that people do what they enjoy or else they don’t do it. People do what they want to do. If there are adverse conditions surrounding my work they are not adverse enough to make me change activity.” Frankly (my dear), Rhett Butler said it best at the end of Gone with the Wind, and Clark Gable’s words are an apt if sad summation of Riley’s ill-advised exercise in style over substance.
Listen to me, Marlon. You’re lovely to look at, but there’s little worth hearing here.
(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth