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'Listen To Me Marlon' Explores Brando's Life In His Own Words


Two words - Marlon Brando.


MARLON BRANDO: (As Stanley Kowalski) Hey, Stella.


BRANDO: (As Terry Malloy) I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody.


BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse.


BRANDO: (As Colonel Walter E. Kurtz) The horror.

BLOCK: That's the Marlon Brando we know from his famous screen roles. And now we have an intimate sense of how the reclusive actor thought. It comes from a new documentary film titled "Listen To Me Marlon." The movie draws from hundreds of hours of audio recordings the late actor made.


BRANDO: Marlon, listen to my voice. Just let go - just letting go. Drift...

BLOCK: Some, like this one, are self-hypnosis tapes. In other recordings, Brando talks about his troubled childhood, his civil rights activism and about the craft of acting.


BRANDO: Figure out a way to do it that has never been done before.

(As Johnny Strabler) You got to put something down. You got to make some jive. Don't you know what I'm talking about?

You want to stop that movement from the popcorn to the mouth.

(As Stanley Kowalski) Hey, Stella.

The truth would do that.

BLOCK: Stevan Riley directed the film and joins me from New York. And, Stevan, these are tapes that you got from Marlon Brando's estate - hundreds of hours of them. Why was Marlon Brando making all of these recordings?

STEVAN RILEY: Well, you know, there was all sorts of reasons. He would do copious amount of talking, reels and reels of creative notes for many of his roles, where he would be preparing parts and studying his characters, which does debunk the idea - the myth that he was unprepared. Also he would have a Dictaphone out for business meetings, so there were plenty of tapes of just that. There were tapes which I think were, you know, for his children and for posterity. He'd invite his kids or members of his family. There was something of a two-hour tape he did with his elderly aunt just getting her to talk all about her life experience. I mean, I think he wanted to catalog that in a genuine way. You know, he'd - jottings - verbal jottings on vocabulary or phrases from books that he liked and that was all recorded as well. So it was a medley of materials that I had at my disposal.

BLOCK: You do get a strong sense through these recordings that Marlon Brando is trying to figure himself out and especially figuring out his childhood, which he comes back to over and over. He talks about being an unwanted child with an alcoholic mother who causes him deep pain and also an abusive father.


BRANDO: My old man was tough. He was a firefighter. He was a man with not much love in him. He used to slap me around and for no good reason. And I was truly intimidated by him at that time.

BLOCK: Stevan, how did that drive Marlon Brando as an actor?

RILEY: I think it was incredibly formative. And he felt that he was trying to correct a lot of the negative habits which were established in the first 10 years of his life. He felt, in many ways, abandoned by both his mother and his father to his mother's alcoholism and the fact that his father was often absent. And when he was around, he was very abusive to Marlon and his mother. And put in Marlon - instilled in Marlon a deep sense of inferiority.

BLOCK: And it does seem like he drew on that abusive past in some of his roles, I mean, in particular Stanley Kowalski in "Streetcar Named Desire."

RILEY: I think so. I mean, Marlon, of all actors, could really enact rage onstage and on screen. And that - in the scene in "Streetcar" where he slams the table, I mean, you can - I mean, that's a visceral moment, and you can see - you can feel the pent-up energy.


BRANDO: (As Stanley Kowalski) Now, that's how I'm going to clear the table.

RILEY: He even describes how for those moments he'd think about the moment - the times when his father used to hit his mother when he was a boy. And I think he was accessing that as the method impelled him.

BLOCK: Along with the iconic movies that made Brando famous, we might forget that he was in a lot of real dogs, really lousy, lousy films. And he's brutally honest about that in some of the tape of him that we hear. And I want to play you a scene where he's talking about the movie "Candy."


BRANDO: (As Grindl) What is your name?

EWA AULIN: (As Candy Christian) Candy.

BRANDO: How can you do that to yourself? Haven't you got any [expletive] pride left? I've lost the audience.

BLOCK: Stevan, did you get the sense that Brando was really worried about that, about losing the audience that had come to love him, view him as an icon?

RILEY: I think this was among his many contradictions. You know, as much as Marlon, you know, tried to cultivate - and certainly more so towards the end of his life - this idea that other people didn't matter, I think, you know, he was equally obsessed with what he felt was the necessity for us to, in some way, be recognized as a protection against an enmity. And that, you know, maybe it's something really ingrained within the human psyche and with ourselves as social creatures that we do, in some way, need approval of society.

BLOCK: I do love the moment where Marlon Brando talks about creating the voice of Vito Corleone for "The Godfather."


BRANDO: I got some cotton and I put some here - a little bit of cotton down there. And the first thing you know I'm talking like this - like I took a shot in the throat or something. I mumbled my way through it.

BLOCK: (Laughter) There you go. That's what it took.

RILEY: Yeah, definitely. And, you know, a bit of irony from Marlon there 'cause he knew that everyone considered him to be the mumbler. But - you know, he really...

BLOCK: (Laughter) Even without the cotton, right?

RILEY: Yeah, even without that. But, yeah, he really had to find his way into that character. And it was interesting how much he was bringing to the script of "The Godfather" and how much value he was bringing in terms of his own interpretation of the part. And it was, you know, his thought that how about we don't play this character in an obvious way, that, you know, he is the villain, but rather he's a - you know, a gentle man caught in very difficult circumstances.

BLOCK: Did you come to understand something different about Brando, in particular about his connection with the civil rights movement and with Native American rights, as you listened to these recordings that he'd made for all these years?

RILEY: I did. You know, I kind of got to understand a bit better the foundation of why he was a supporter of the civil rights movement. He was very active in that. And he was always - you know, one of the first - it's fairly popular these days for, you know, celebrities to use their fame to bring attention to causes. And Marlon was one of the first to do that. But the foundation for any of his supporting of the underdog really went back to his own childhood again, where he'd felt like he was the outcast and he felt like he - as though he was the outsider. And because of that, he always had a lot of sympathy for people who were on the edge of society and empathized with them greatly. And that's why he - I think he supported these causes so passionately.

BLOCK: That's Stevan Riley. He directed the new documentary film "Listen To Me Marlon." Stevan, thanks so much.

RILEY: Thank you.


BRANDO: Acting is just making stuff up, but that's OK. Life is a rehearsal. Life is an improvisation. I'm going to have a special microphone placed in my coffin so that when I wake up in there, 6 feet under the ground, I'm going to say, do it differently. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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