The contender, part 2

Stevan Riley on the demons that shaped Marlon Brando.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Stevan Riley's look at Marlon Brando in Listen to Me Marlon:
Stevan Riley's look at Marlon Brando in Listen to Me Marlon: "Art was often paralleling his life. Guys and Dolls reflected his need for levity."

At the Sundance premiere, James Franco, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin attended screenings of Stevan Riley's Listen To Me Marlon. In New York, Stevan and I discussed Marlon Brando's self-hypnosis tapes, political involvement, lying for a living and his ability to be a mimic in films such as The Teahouse Of The August Moon, The Godfather, Mutiny On The Bounty, The Young Lions, Viva Zapata! and Sayonara.

A soft wind blows and Marlon hypnotises himself back to a time when he was very young, walking down the sidewalk in Omaha or sitting in the shade of an old oak tree. If only his mother hadn't been "the town drunk" and if only he didn't hate his father so much, this could have been paradise.

Cheyenne with Marlon Brando:
Cheyenne with Marlon Brando: "There were other parts of his life he neglected. He was an absent father."

Anne-Katrin Titze: His political involvement didn't seem to be a gimmick, as it is with some celebrities.

Stevan Riley: He was always the pioneer in social causes. There's big questions about the meaning of life, but also how can we serve our fellow man. Him being his brother's keeper. He was genuine. There were other parts of his life he neglected. He was an absent father.

AKT: You make that very clear.

SR: It was not that he was an angel. He had lots of regrets. I think he had a genuine affinity for the underdog because of his upbringing. Being scruffy and unkempt - he felt outcast and that made him relate to those who were outcast.

AKT: At the same time, you see his beauty, which is stunning.

SR: Let's face it, if he stepped out of that screen today, he'd be a superstar. His look is timeless. I don't know any other actor, and I invite anyone to try and name an actor, who has played such varied roles as he has and varied cultures. He likes switching culture and race. He played a "Chinaman" in Teahouse Of The August Moon, Italian in The Godfather, a German officer in The Young Lions. He played Englishmen plenty of times in Burn! and Mutiny On The Bounty. He played a Mexican in Viva Zapata! Even the top actors today, if they're playing a foreigner, they keep their own voice. They don't attempt to mimic. Brando did and got Oscar nominations for two of those transformations [Sayonara and Viva Zapata!].

"He was the most attractive man on the planet and he was always afraid that women would leave him."

AKT: You bring up his demons. The relationships with women, with his children, and also with food in his later years. Pies and sweets linked with childhood.

SR: There were so many layers that were crucial to telling the entire story. In terms of breaking this narrative down, I kept it in three tracks: the boy, the actor, and the old man. You cannot understand the old man without understanding the little boy and you couldn't understand a life without understanding all of his obsessions.

AKT: As much as you put in this documentary, I am sure there are always people coming up to you pointing out what you didn't include, aren't there?

SR: Oh, yeah, there's always those! I can tell you some of them. Elia Kazan and why is he not in there? I've done that beat with Stella. Or One-Eyed Jacks [which Brando directed]. It's not a ten volume biography. It's an emotional journey as well. My dispensation is that it's Brando delivering the story and I was following in many ways what was most important to him.

AKT: Tell me about his self-hypnosis tapes!

SR: He was going through a lot of pain, severe pain in the last years of his life. He was parenting himself. He's going back to a point in time when his mind was troubled and tried to comfort the young boy as an older man as a way to reconcile the pain.

AKT: Is this where the title comes from? Listen To Me Marlon?

SR: Yeah. One of the first tapes I picked out coincidentally, at the same time the estate was opening boxes, pulling things out of the archive. I found [the tapes] fascinating in issues of trust and jealousy. He was a very jealous person and he had massive trust issues. He was the most attractive man on the planet and he was always afraid that women would leave him. On these tapes, he was always addressing himself as Marlon. "Listen to me, this is a voice you can trust. " As if the one person he could trust was himself.

Christian with Marlon Brando:
Christian with Marlon Brando: "It's an emotional journey as well."

AKT: That's the child of an alcoholic speaking.

SR: Exactly. He had a real abandonment complex. That his mother would leave, that his father would leave, that women would leave him. That trust element was addressed with the title. It is in direct conversation with himself.

AKT: When he speaks about On The Waterfront, he says, everybody feels that way. That they could have been a contender. "You lie for a living, that's all acting is," is another quote you highlight.

SR: You picked on actually really a crucial quote. I was thinking about whether to call the film that. That was another possible title for the film - Lying For A Living. It was too negative, it didn't show his full journey. He got to a point where he thought that acting was a lie. And that we lie in our everyday lives too. All our interactions have an element of manipulation. We want to regard the other person, anyone we meet, as the sponsor of the view that we want of ourselves. Very existential.

AKT: That's how he phrased it, "the sponsor of the view that we want of ourselves?"

"The contradictions - it took me a long time to unravel that."

SR: Bearing in mind that he thought acting was truth, that acting could display truths, could educate us all, there was a point when he said, in his most cynical moments, he would wrestle between being the artist and the cynic. How do you present those myths in a real way? I think he was still fascinated by that. To his last days he was interested in human behaviors. What made us tick? What made himself tick? I don't know if we'll ever get a combination of an actor who brought the life-experience that he brought, the looks, the sense of sensitivity and empathy, the detail obsession with human behavior, the ability to be a mimic - all those things combine in Brando.

AKT: I asked myself a few times while watching the footage of Brando, if James Franco, wasn't trying to copy Brando's mouth.

SR: Oh really? That's interesting. At Sundance, James Franco came to one of the screenings. Someone said he was in the audience. Well, if I were an actor, I probably would want to listen what Brando was all about. Jane Fonda was there as well, the Fonda family knew the Brando family, and Lily Tomlin.

"It was not that he was an angel. He had lots of regrets."

AKT: You are bringing Brando back into our awareness. He died ten years ago?

SR: Yes, it was actually for the ten-year anniversary that there was talk of a documentary and so this came out.

In part 1, Brando the myth, childhood and contradictions, the Group Theater, Stella Adler, Guys And Dolls, Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris and how Listen To Me Marlon came about.

Listen to Me Marlon is in UK cinemas from October 23, Digital from November 9 and on DVD & Blu-ray from November 30.

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