Film

A New Documentary Explores What Marlon Brando Thought of Marlon Brando

We talked to the director Stevan Riley and Brando's daughter Rebecca about the legendary actor's life and titanic legacy.

by Janaki Challa
30 July 2015, 4:10pm

An archival still from the Showtime documentary 'Listen To Me' of Marlon Brando in 'A Streetcar Named Desire' (1951). Photo: Alamy/Showtime

How do you construct a portrait of a man who tried to deconstruct his own image at every turn? That is the feat undertaken by director Stevan Riley in his boldly imaged new documentary, Listen to Me Marlon, which plots the coordinates of the legendary actor Marlon Brando's complex and, at times, contradictory psyche.

Riley's aspirations aren't so much to eulogize Brando's story as to let it be told, albeit posthumously, by the man himself—at times through a nearly holographic, talking 3D head from when Brando had his face digitized in the 80s. The result is an impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness pastiche from Brando's archives: feature films, private home videos, and interviews set against an aural bevy curated from hundreds of hours of audiotapes. Though a self-proclaimed atheist, Brando was drawn to mystical strains of Jungian psychotherapy after Brando's son was convicted of murdering his sister's boyfriend in a drunken episode, after which she committed suicide. The paired tragedies shattered the Brando household—something the media would later dub, scathingly, the "House of Pain." The already reclusive and eccentric star drew further into his own mind for reconciliation and relief.

I thought the film's synopsis of self-analysis sounded very in tune with the psychoanalytic trends happening at the time, especially with young and holistic therapy, like stream of consciousness.
Stevan: He was actually a lot into Eastern religions. He said he could relate more to Buddhism and Daoism than a lot of Western thought. There's one quote in the film where he says, "We spend all of our life trying to fix the bad habits picked up in the first ten years." He said whether you're a Catholic going through rosary beads or doing Hail Mary's—repetition, repetition, repetition to rewind yourself and change your behavior—or doing yogic mantras, or meditation, only with a superhuman amount of effort could you change yourself. So I find it really encouraging that by the end of the self-hypnosis series of tapes, when he was saying the system has worked for [him]. He thought he had cured a lot of his symptoms of stress.

Rebecca: I do have memories of him telling me to take deep breaths. Well, first of all, he called himself an atheist. He would give me books on Krishnamurti and Jung. He wasn't a big fan of Freud.

Marlon Brando with his daughter Cheyenne in 'Listen to Me.' Photo by Mike Gillman. Courtesy of Showtime

Stevan: It's interesting because there's so much of his analysis of his own life, which is Freudian.

Rebecca: But he relied a lot upon meditation. I remember my sister telling me that she had fallen asleep in his bedroom, lying down on his couch, and in the middle of the night she woke up and he was sitting on the floor meditating and she was calling to him and he wouldn't answer. I remember we would go into the sauna, and it would be really hot. He and I would quiet our mind so that we wouldn't feel the heat. And then we'd jump into a cold tub, which was like 56 degrees. He would help me to meditate, mind over matter, and not feel this bone-chilling freezing temperature.

Stevan: He said he could control his heart rate and blood pressure well towards the end, that he reached a very high yogic state. It's complete blissfulness. He said that he'd actually achieved that a couple of times. In a way Taoism feels to me like a form of atheism. I remember when I was doing Chinese at university, I read the Taoist texts that said, "The path that can be explained is not the real path," or "The God that can be explained is not the real God"—that's the first line of the Tao Te Ching, and I'm translating that. That was the first time a religion spoke to me as well. You can have a sense of the ineffable, the magnificent, and I think that's what Brando was feeling.

"At restaurants the press would be outside. If we had to come out of the driveway from his home in Beverly Hills, he would hide in the trunk. People would be waiting to photograph him." –Rebecca Brando

I want to segue now into your own experiences with your father Rebecca, being a child of this huge Hollywood celebrity at the time, and a still massive cultural icon now. How was that for you?
Rebecca: I think we grew up in a humble environment. My mother [Movita Castaneda] grew up in the Depression and that's how she became an actress because nobody was hiring in Los Angeles except Hollywood. She actually lied about her age and said she was 18 when she was really 17 when she did the first Mutiny on the Bounty. For my father, we didn't talk about his career at all. I only knew that my dad was as big as he was because of the way people treated us outside, like at school, or we would be photographed on the streets, or when we went [out] to dinners, which was rare. At restaurants the press would be outside. If we had to come out of the driveway from his home in Beverly Hills, he would hide in the trunk. People would be waiting to photograph him. We as children were not allowed to get into the business either—not at all. My mother thought it was a great career because you get to travel and meet people and it's a wonderful way to explore who you are as a person. My father did not encourage us to follow the business.

Do you think that today with activism and movements like Black Lives Matter—would he have been active or interested in social justice causes?
Rebecca: Probably. I think any time anyone was oppressed or treated unjustly, he would definitely step up. He did help Mexican immigrants who were escaping the police and who were beaten brutally—that's why he went to Larry King. He asked to go on the show, despite his distaste for public life. He was trying to find ways to help the Palestinians get some kind of earnings so they could feel good about themselves. He was also very curious about my ex-husband, who was Israeli. He was constantly interested in people's ways of life.

Stevan: Marlon's sense of empathy with these disaffected groups [was because he also] felt like he was an outsider. They'd go to a place and sometimes be treated with suspicion by local communities because his mum had problems with alcohol, and clearly there were family issues going on there. As a kid, he was unkempt and wasn't always wearing the cleanest clothes. He felt incredibly lonely—he would walk the railroad tracks for hours. He was an outsider and he could relate to outsiders.

Listen to Me Marlon is now playing at Film Forum in New York.

Follow Janaki on Twitter.