Through most of his life, Marlon Brando was as acclaimed as he was perceived as eccentric, if not difficult, if not perhaps out of his mind — a reclusive and reluctant genius, eventually wasting his copious talents. That’s not how Rebecca Brando, one of his 16 children, saw him. She knew a loving, selfless father and a radical pioneer, who willing to help his fellow man as he was to prank them.
That side — articulate, thoughtful, restless, funny — is on display in “Listen to Me Marlon,” a new documentary that uses never-made-public audio recordings he made to let the actor tell his own story. In fact he’s the only one who says anything about Brando; it has no interviews, and no talking heads, apart from an eerie digitized version of his actual head Brando made in the 1980s. The film doesn’t just set certain records straight, but it allows many to see a new side of him.
“I’m just relieved that it shows my father as a person and not just this superstar,” Rebecca says of the film, directed by Stevan Riley. In the past, Rebecca wound often find people assumed the worst about her father, to her face. “I would go over to friends’ house and the parents immediately wanted to see me and talk to me, about his eight issues or tell me, ‘Your father’s not very pleasant on sets.’ They weren’t sensitive that, hey, he’s my father. To them it was just some story they saw in the newspaper.’”
Besides, Rebecca sees the line about him as argumentative and disruptive on sets differently. “He saw something more in the script, that you could do more with it. With ‘Mutiny on the Bounty,’ there was never even a finished script. He helped finish it. ‘Apocalypse Now,’ he changed the ending and made it that much better. And it took time. Those things do take time.”
“Listen to Me Marlon” also sheds a sympathetic light on his political actions, which were sometimes lauded (his work with the Civil Rights movement) and sometimes belittled (his having Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather accept his “Godfather” Oscar).
“He always had great ideas to make things better, not just for movies but in people’s personal lives,” Rebecca says. He worked with UNICEF and stood with Martin Luther King Jr. After Bobby Hutton was killed by police, Brando spoke at his funeral. “The Panthers trusted him, because they believed his sincerity. My dad would do unprecedented things like that. He was one of the first white men to stand up for people who were vulnerable and oppressed.