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Even In His Own Words, 'Listen' Only Scratches The Surface Of Marlon Brando

Alamy/Courtesy of SHOWTIME
An archival still of Marlon Brando as seen in 1951's 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'

Maybe Marlon Brando is the best actor in the history of the movies.

Think the raw creative and destructive energy of A Streetcar named Desire and On the Waterfront, and the implied potential energy of The Godfather. What's certain is that the figure of Marlon Brando is still enigmatic. He avoided publicity and left a legacy full of ambiguities. In 1966, the great Albert and David Maysles filmed Brando being interviewed by a string of journalists. They got no straight answers. But he's charming – and he's beautiful.

In Listen to Me, Marlon, director Stevan Riley seems to know from the start that he's not going to nail down some definitive biography of this elusive man.

Riley had access to a trove of audio tapes that Brando had recorded of his thoughts and fragments of biography, and with pure filmmaking genius Riley has made a film out of it. The title quotes Brando's own words as he engaged himself in a long-running dialogue. Maybe Brando really only knew how to talk with himself.

People who worked with Brando were not neutral on the subject. Actor Rod Steiger, who played Brando's brother in On the Waterfront, thought Brando was self-indulgent and ungenerous. Brando developed a reputation for being difficult on set, but Eva Marie Saint who also starred in Waterfront, says Brando only balked when he thought the work could be done better, and she loved him for his gentlemanly kindness. Elia Kazan, who directed Brando in Streetcar and Waterfront supposedly called Brando the gentlest man he knew.

Listen to Me, Marlon doesn't judge Brando; it tries to describe him. What you get is a picture in constant motion that demonstrates how difficult it was and is to define him – he still can't be tied down or domesticated.

In the recordings, snippets of thoughts lead to thoughts lead to thoughts and so on. With those fragments come photos of Brando as a boy in Nebraska, clips from a film, then a bit of news footage – images that bounce around in time. He's young; he's old; he's young again.

There's a sequence from the great journalist Edward R. Murrow's sleazy television show Person to Person, with Brando in a living room in a suit and tie. His father enters and sits down so the two can converse stiffly with off-camera Murrow. You already know that Brando's father was a rat and Brando hated him, and the animosity trickles through the politeness as they make nice for television. It's a fabulous moment because it's so thoroughly conflicted.

Most of the film clips in Listen to Me, Marlon show Brando in motion. A truck chases Brando and Eva Marie Saint down an alley in On the Waterfront, or he kisses her for the first time in an eruption of simultaneous frustration, rage, pure desire and his first experience of love. He jumps up from a poker game and rushes over to make Vivien Leigh shut up in A Streetcar named Desire; he's gunned down on the street in The Godfather.

The word is "mercurial," and like the god Mercury, Brando lives in a torrent of instability.

In the Maysles film of him in interviews, Brando is like a boxer. He bobs and weaves to evade the intent of questions – because most of the questions are idiotic celebrity baloney – and he moves in with little mocking jabs. He flirts with the women and flashes that irresistible smile that feels like it could bite you if you weren't careful around him. He's at the same time affable and dangerous. And a moment later comes a news clip as he weeps in front of the press after his son has killed his daughter's boyfriend.

As Listen to Me, Marlon shows, Marlon Brando never figured out how to be a private artist in a celebrity world. He says he would have liked to be a counterman.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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