"You have to have men who are moral and, at the same time, who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion ... without judgment — without judgment — because it's judgment that defeats us."
That's Marlon Brando, as Col. Walter E. Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Apocalypse Now. Kurtz is one of many iconic roles to which Brando, considered by many to be the greatest and most influential screen actor of all time, lent his gifts. And it's one of the many you'll hear dissected by Brando himself in Listen to Me Marlon, a documentary pieced together from the actor's personal recorded tapes. The film opens Friday for a limited engagement at the Cedar Lee (and was also the first film screened at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque's new auditorium earlier this month).
Like most documentary biographies about famous people, this one follows the chronology of Brando's life, from his childhood in Omaha, to his New School acting days with Method Acting pioneer Stella Adler, to his splashy cultural hits of the '50s — A Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild One — to his box-office bombs of the '60s — Mutiny on the Bounty, oh my! — to his comeback in the '70s — The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris — and finally, to the cameos and character roles near the twilight of his career, when he considered acting less an art form than a commercial exchange.
"We are merchants," he says, not only of actors, but of the entire Hollywood machine.
Brando was famously involved in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and various Native American causes throughout his career. The film shows clips from the 1973 Academy Awards, when Brando won for his performance in The Godfather. His statuette was accepted by a Native American woman on his behalf to protest the stereotyping of Native Americans in Hollywood.
It's unclear what exactly fame did to Brando, but he preferred the island life of Tahiti, where no one knew he was a movie star. He fathered a child there, Cheyenne — one of 14 that he sired under the motto: "The penis has a mind of its own" — and hoped that she might grow up in peace. (She did not.) The film is structured, in part, around the criminal trial of Brando's son Christian, who shot and killed Cheyenne's boyfriend at Brando's home in 1989. The film can't help but focus on the personal strife that attended Brando for much of his life.
After all, Brando narrates the film himself. Like Col. Kurtz, Brando is present in the film foremost as a voice. Some of the tapes are labeled as "Self-Hypnosis," in which Brando invites himself to remember his youth, to calm down, to stop eating so much. Others are reportorial, in which Brando sounds off about Coppola in Apocalypse Now or the studio that used him as a scapegoat in Mutiny on the Bounty.
There are no interviews with friends or associates to comment on his profound impact on cinema. This one's all Brando. And by turns reedy, mumbly, drunk and deliberate, Brando's account is an audio-centric entry in a particular artistic subgenre: the self-portrait.