You should hear how Marlon Brando tells it.
In the new documentary Listen to Me Marlon, audiences will have a chance to hear from the legendary actor's own lips, thanks to director Stevan Riley, who had access to a large cache of Brando's self-recorded musings.
"My pitch (to make the film) was Brando on Brando," says Riley, who was given access to more than 300 hours of Brando's private audio tapes, including his self-hypnosis, from the family estate. Prior to his death in 2004 at age 80, Brando had focused on recording thoughts on his life in hopes of shaping his official biography.
In Listen to Me Marlon, which directs the audience to hear Brando's side of the story, "I thought it would be amazing to tell it entirely in his own voice, especially because he was so private," says RileyThe documentary — which opens in select theaters Wednesday in New York and Friday in Los Angeles, followed by its Showtime debut later this year — begins in Brando's childhood, revisiting the actor's tough relationship with his alcoholic mother and abusive father before diving into the ebb and flow of his remarkable career.
"It was a Freudian study" of the actor, known as one of the most influential of all time, says Riley. "He was in psychotherapy most of his life. His life was characterized by his youth. He didn't want to be like his father but it was inescapable."
Of course, many of Brando's iconic roles are highlighted, including his star-making, Oscar-bound turns in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. "When you hear method (acting), it's Montgomery Clift, James Dean and Marlon Brando," says IMDb.com senior film editor Keith Simanton.
But then came the '60s, a decade in which Brando's star lost its luster as he retreated to his French Polynesian private island. By the time Francis Ford Coppola was casting The Godfather in 1972, Brando's name had become so tarnished that studio executives made him audition for the role.
"He really was desperate in a way for a part," says Riley, noting that Brando was only paid $50,000 for the film. "He had lots of dependents (Brando fathered 16 children, three adopted), he had his island to look after. He had to really take it on the chin. … It was humiliating for him, but I think he knew he wasn't calling the shots at that point."
And then there's 1979's Apocalypse Now. Brando calls early drafts of the script "stupid" and "awful." Coppola, frustrated with the film's epic delays, publicly blamed many of the project's problems on Brando, a notoriously difficult actor who had arrived for the film grossly overweight, "reading poetry for hours on end with them just rolling the cameras," says Simanton.
Though Apocalypse Now is now regarded as a masterpiece, in the aftermath, Brando "felt he was a target," says Riley. "I have the tapes of Brando by himself, investigating (why Coppola turned on him)."
His family life was marked by tragedy, particularly when his son Christian, a drug addict, shot to death his sister's boyfriend in 1990 at Brando's Los Angeles home (the son went to prison where he died of pneumonia in 2008). Brando's daughter Cheyenne tried to commit suicide, lost custody of her baby and eventually killed herself in 1995 in Tahiti, where she had been born.
By the time the documentary reaches 1972's Last Tango in Paris, the reclusive actor is found resenting giving a far-too-autobiographical performance in the Oscar-nominated film, which sees him battling issues with women, self-loathing and insecurity. "I realized, you know, you're naked, Marlon," Brando says on a tape.
Ultimately, Listen to Me Marlon is "a human story," RIley says, calling Brando the prototype of the modern-day celebrity. "The fascination with Brando and the hysteria preceded any icon of the 20th century."