When he was alive, Marlon Brando used to tape record himself talking. (No word on whether he continued this in death.) Writer/director Steven Riley and co-writer Peter Ettedgui have fashioned a fascinating documentary about a man some would call the greatest film actor of the 20th century, using primarily his own words. (The words that are not his are those of interviewers, and Bertolucci when we get to Tango, but there is no other narration, except for the occasional title card.)
Brando was an interesting guy with a severely dysfunctional background, and the looks and talent to turn that background into a supremely dysfunctional life. This isn’t a movie with a lot of biographical detail. We hear of two of Brando’s children, but he had at least, well, double-digits. Five from his three wives, three from his housekeeper, three others by different women.
We do learn that his mother, whom he adored, was a drunk, and his father, who he hated, was a rambling man. He struck out on his own as a teen and fled to New York City where he was cared for by one of the teachers at The Conservatory (?); Stella Adler, I think. No mention of any other sort of relationship with her, it’s described her as more of a maternal, selfless thing, which Brando was unused to.
My dad had a theory that The Method, for all the often good results it had, was very, very hard on a person. (Recall Laurence Olivier’s advice to Dustin Hoffman on the set of the Marathon Man: “Why don’t you try acting?”) Of course, selection bias is strongly in play here (Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman) and we’re dealing with actors to begin with, but if you needed an example, Brando would probably be a good one.
It’s rather compelling, and a little humorous, just because it’s almost like listening to Brando’s Colonel Kurtz, from Apocalypse Now for 90 minutes. (Brando’s ranting actually was improvised for that movie.) He was not without insight, perhaps the greatest of which was that the famous Brando was not him. You get the sense that with a little more to draw on in terms of familial or community support, he might’ve been okay, even happy.
But if he’d had any of that, would he have been the same Brando that ran away from home and lived on the street, and gave himself to his art?
On the three point scale:
1. Material. Interesting enough. Ultimately, I suppose books and movies get made of boring actors, but Brando is a worthy topic both for generational significance and sheer oddness.
2. Style. Very sparse. You get some filmed images, and footage of his old estate, as well as from the movies he worked on, as he discusses the various problems (there were always problems) associated with them. But this is largely an auditory experience.
3. Bias. There must be some bias at play here, just by virtue of having sifted through hundreds or thousands of hours of tape and selecting the interesting tidbits, but I think it’s not just forgivable but necessary.
Not a by-the-numbers biography at all. You may not know anything more about his life coming out than you did going in. But you’ll have some sympathy for the man.