Sunday, May 22, 2016


This is the greatest documentary on Marlon Brando to date and it's hard to see how it might be bettered. 

The film-makers who, previously had made the wonderful 'Searching for Sugarman', were already signed up to do the documentary, were researching it in cooperation with the archivists of the Marlon Brando estate. but as yet had no clear idea how it would be done.

One of the questions that they asked the archivists was what new material do you have that hasn't been seen or filmed before. 

By chance at that time the archivists were unpacking a lot of boxes which contained hundreds of audio recordings that Brando had made during his life with dictaphones and cassette recorders, most of which had never been heard before.

This raised the question as to whether it would it be interesting to use these tapes as the narrative voice for the whole film. This idea gained traction because,after a certain point, Brando gave very few interviews and strenuously tried to protect his private life and the private life of his family. They weren't sure whether it would work and the 'Making of..' short film shows the extraordinary amount of effort that not only went into transcribing all the tapes but also tagging all the subjects and points of interest. 

The basic narrative arc of Brando's life is already well-known. He shot to fame with 'A Streetcar Named Desire', gained cult status with 'The Wild One' and won the Best Actor Oscar for 'On The Waterfront'. He went on to make a significant number of other greats but circumstances and bad judgment led to a decline in his fame and fortune. His triumphant second-act return in 'The Godfather' and 'Apocalypse Now' sealed his legendary status.

The film-makers have used this trajectory but keep looping back to this childhood as his first 12 year or so were marked by the abuse he received from his alcoholic father. Embedded in this sensitive child were tropes that haunted and scarred his adult behaviour. His was an extraordinary life, Shakespearean in its scale and grandeur, lived in the glare of a thousand paparazzi flashbulbs. Like Gaugin and Robert Louis Stevenson before him, Brando was drawn to Polynesia where he created the ultimate hideaway on the remote atoll of Tetiaroa.
Since his death in 2004, few would doubt that he should be considered the greatest modern film actor. 'Listen to Me Marlon' is a moving tribute to a main man.




This essay by Susan Mizruchi the author of 'Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought, and Work' (W.W. Norton, 2014) was posted on on April 3rd 2014. It says some important things about Brando's social conscience.

Marlon Brando was born ninety years ago, and though he is best known as an icon of the 1950s—the Biker in The Wild One; the New Jersey longshoreman in On The Waterfront—and 1970s—the Godfather; the subversive Colonel Kurtz ofApocalypse Now—the man behind the image would have been very much at home in 2014.  
Brando was devoted to innovation: one of the first in Hollywood to own a personal computer, he used his private island in Tahiti to test methods of sustainability, from ocean-farming and discovering new food sources to air-conditioning via seawater technology.  
An avid reader of popular science, he recognized the democratizing potential of the information age to reach across cultural boundaries. It was Brando, for instance, who insisted that the southern air force pilot he played in Sayonara (1957) marry his Japanese lover at the film’s end, anticipating that their prospective offspring—“half Japanese, half American, half yellow, half white, half you, half me” – would become commonplace.  He was equally ahead of his time in the 1960s when he became the first leading actor to play, in profoundly sympathetic terms, the role of a closeted homosexual military officer in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967).
Brando and Dylan
But there was no aspect of our contemporary culture that Brando knew better than the power of the press and the destructive nature of celebrity.  Launched into fame unexpectedly at the age of twenty-three by a bravura performance on Broadway as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1946), Brando was thoroughly familiar with the costs and benefits of stardom.  Brando’s disdain for the celebrity that transformed his life was motivated by his bohemian tendencies and democratic politics.  Like Emiliano Zapata, whom he played in film, Brando believed that the masses were doomed when they projected their own power onto idealized objects of worship.  No one was worthy of such idolatry—least of all actors and entertainers.
As was his habit when something interested him, he collected dozens of books on media and censorship for his personal library, which numbered over 4000 volumes.  In an interview on the Today Show in 1963, Brando lamented that his refusal to share his private life with the “a multimillion dollar industrial complex” of gossip had made him “an enemy of the people.”  Still, he never stopped celebrating the exceptionality of America’s free press.
Indeed it was Brando’s basic faith in American values and principles that led to his outrage when they were violated.  This included the threats posed by government surveillance, whose dangers he recognized, from first-hand experience.  Brando’s vast FBI file extended from the 1940s, when he was helping to raise money for the Zionist Irgun (an offshoot of his performance in Ben Hecht’s A Flag is Born), through the 1950s and ‘60s, when he was among the first white actors to be part of the Civil Rights movement (one of the first among white actors to do so).  He was an ardent activist for Native American justice from 1963 to the end of his life.  His willingness to participate in acts of civil disobedience to publicize Native American grievances and claims made him a target of phone tapping and gained him visits from FBI agents.
Thus, Brando befriended Senator Frank Church, not only because of Church’s ongoing participation in hearings on Indian Fishing Rights, but because of his inquiries into the operation and abuses of U.S. intelligence agencies (published in 1975 and 1976 as the “Church Committee Reports”).  Noting his long discussions with Church, Brando marveled at how close the United States had come to “having a police state under the control of the FBI.”  Such insight went into his reading and preparations for his role as the renegade Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979), a movie portraying the horrors of Vietnam. 
Sacheen Littlefeather at the Oscars 

Brando’s commitment to alleviating injustice and his contempt for celebrity coalesced powerfully in one of the most notorious but misunderstood events of his career: turning down the Academy Award for best actor in his role as “The Godfather.”  Brando knew the world would be watching the Academy Awards show on March 27, 1973, which was why charges that he should have appeared himself to turn down the award on behalf of Native Americans, missed the point.  The replacement of himself—the ultimate Hollywood icon—with an unknown Native American woman was designed to give Native Americans the worldwide audience he had been struggling for over a decade to provide.  It also supported his longstanding critique of a profit-driven media and the base cravings it fed.  The situation was ideally suited to redress Brando’s complaint that people ignored the problems of Native Americans, while feasting on every titbit they could get about Hollywood stars.  If he won the Academy Award, he could force them to listen to what he believed they should hear.  “It was important for an American Indian to address the people who sit by and do nothing while they’re expunged from the earth,” Brando later explained, “It was the first time in history that an American Indian ever spoke to 60 million people.  It was a tremendous opportunity and I certainly didn’t want to usurp that time.”
Brando’s films will endure for generations to come.  What we have begun to learn since his death in 2004 is how much this had to do with the values and aspirations of the man who starred in them. 

We've all got our memories of Brando and, for me, several of these are bound up with my time at the NME working as Dick Tracy. The first came when I was asked to run the film section and I wrote my first ever film review -  'The Missouri Breaks' starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson and directed by Arthur Penn - which was published on 19th June 1976 when I was 26.

 THE MISSOURI BREAKS is the latest example of that breed of nouveau Westerns which began with Butch Cassidy and was picked up by Peckinpah's Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid. The hallmark of them all is a brace of super-stars backed by a top director. They combine authentic backgrounds with '70s jive to produce a new kind of synthesis between the Old West and the New in the same way that modern country bands have kept the notion of the frontier alive. 

For my money Missouri Breaks is the best of the bunch. Set in Montana of the 1890's, the Breaks in the title refers to the badlands around the Missouri river where rustlers and other assorted outlaws eke out their last days of their life-style. Nicholson plays Tom Logan, the chief brain of an ornery hunch of good-natured horse thieves who are making a bare living snatching horses from David Braxton, a wealthy local rancher. 
Braxton, a cultured cattle baron with a library of 300 volumes of English literature and a passion for law and order decides he's had enough when he finds his ramrod hanged from the same tree he had used to string up one of Nicholson's gang. He hires a regulator to wipe them out. 
Marlon is the regulator Lee Clayton, a character as far away from the standard notion of a hired gun as it's possible to get. Always immaculately dressed and soaked in lavender water, his cultured, even gay, exterior hides a humourus psychotic who carefully snuffs out his victims with quiet pride. 

Original film still. Nicholson and Brando were neighbours in LA for many
years. When Brando died, Nicholson wrote an article for Rolling Stone. He said; 'Marlon Brando is one of the great men of the 20th and 21st centurries, and we lesser mortals are obligated to cut through the shit and proclaim it.'

Brando plays this quirky character for all it's worth, talking whimsically to his horse in a soft Irish Brogue, dressing up as a vicar and a pregnant woman to trap his victims and generally stealing scenes. Although he doesn't appear until some way into the film and is on screen almost less than any of the other characters, his presence is felt throughout. Add ten more stars to the Brando legend. 
Nicholson, by contrast, is equally good but distinctly more low key. He plays the character of Tom Logan as an outlaw with a warm heart, a quick wit and a likeable smile. After he robs a train, him and the boys buy a ranch right under the nose of Braxton, and while the gang are away rustling horses from the Mounties in Canada, he falls in love with Braxton's daughter Jane. 
This. is where some of Nicholson's real class shows through. Love scenes are notoriously mawkish, but Nicholson and the beautiful Kathleen Lloyd play them like's there's no tomorrow. 
Their relationship is funny. and believable, and there's a lot of chemistry between them. All in all, Nicholson earns marks for sensibly allowing Brando to strut his stuff while exploring the full range of his own character. 
While we're handing out the credits, a word for the script which is a real boneshaker. I'll admit to being biased towards Thomas McGuane who I rate as one of the best American novelists. but he has really excelled himself this time. The whole plot and characterisation is fast, funny and unexpected and ,there are enough smart-assed one liners to keep NME letter writers in album tokens for a year or more. 'He's more slippery than snot on a Doorknob' is among the . gems.
Penn, the director, once again proves his professionalism. and skill and adds more credits  to his already impressive track record which includes The Left-Handed Gun, The Chase and Bonnie and Clyde. Bordering on the realms of he metaphysical, packed with incident and marvellous conversation, and backed against some beautiful scenery, The Missouri Breaks successfully combines taste with box office potential. It is the best Western you'll see all year.'

The next story is more impressive. Its about the time when I almost interviewed Marlon Brando. 

It was 1977 and Brando was in Britain filming Superman. For some weeks or maybe months I was in touch with the press department of the film studio trying to tie something down. My strategy was simple. I said I didn't want to talk about the film, rather the interview would focus on Brando's involvement with the American Indian Movement (AIM). First it was in, then it was off. This happened several times and, during this period, I moved house and was out of touch with the office for some five days (no internet, no fax, no mobiles - how did we manage). When I got back to the office a week later there was a message for me that Marlon Brando was waiting for me at a hotel room in central London. I went into a small room full of grey filing cabinets and kicked the shit out of them.

Original film still from EMI Press Pack

My final story connects with Apocalypse Now. I had been documenting the troubled progress of the movie for more than a year I would say and I arrived in Los Angeles in late 1979 the week that the movie was opening on Hollywood Boulevard. I'd just arrived at Barry's flat, fresh from the airport. It was mid-afternoon and I was introduced to Lance (I think it was) who was lead singer of The Motive, a punk band that Barry was managing. Lance was born on Hollywood Boulevard and later took me on a special guided tour. Anyways up, I was just getting a cup of tea down me and trying to acclimatise after the long flight when Lance said did I want to watch Apocalypse Now.  I said sure I was thinking of going to the cinema to see it while I was there. He said "no man, I've got it here" and he put on a pirate video of the film that had somehow been sneaked out the studio. When I heard the whirr of those helicopter blades my paranoia levels started to rise ! That night, helicopters with searchlights were patrolling the skies of LA. As someone told me: 'San Francisco is the jungle but LA is the zoo.'

Producer-director Michael winner discusses a death scene with Marlon Brando on the set of 'The Nightcomers' [Films and Filming. 1971] THE GENERALIST ARCHIVE

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