He made some of the most famous films in film history. He was hailed as the greatest actor that ever lived. He made heads turn, and eyes widen, but, in between his artistic highs and self-destructive lows, Marlon Brando had a story that he never fully revealed. Countless biographers would insert a disclaimer, stating that the man was a mystery – hard to read.
But then a filmmaker named Stevan Riley came along. The director of the 2015 documentary Listen to Me Marlon told the extraordinary tale of a man whose life was kept hidden. For any of you who have heard the rumors, the myths, the tales of Marlon Brando, let this be the exposé that you’ve been waiting for. Let this be the final reveal that Brando himself deserved, even if it’s after his death. After all, it’s better late than never, right?
A filmmaker by the name of Stevan Riley became very close friends with Marlon Brando. The thing is, by the time their intimate friendship began, Brando had already been dead for 10 years. Riley was first introduced to Brando when he got a phone call in 2012 from a man named John Battsek, the documentary head of Passion Pictures.
Battsek asked Riley, “What do you know about Brando?” Riley responded, “Not a lot.” Battsek then asked him another question: “Well, how’d you like to direct a feature on him?” And, just like that, a filmmaker with little to no knowledge on the master film actor started a riveting journey down Brando lane, so to speak.
Riley knew that Brando was universally hailed as “the greatest actor of all time;” it was something he instinctively understood, having seen him in The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris, and Apocalypse Now. Most people who have seen him in movies will give him a collective thumbs-up. But then there are the rather negative tabloid headlines (many from the UK), which reduced the actor to a “circus oddity,” as Riley put it.
Brando was labeled “elusive” and “eccentric.” He was deemed difficult to control, and, with time, he became ostracized by Hollywood as a rebel with an addictive personality. He had the reputation of a heartless womanizer, leaving numerous broken hearts and suicides behind him.
Riley had also heard of some terrible family tragedy that transpired in Brando’s household. There was a murder perpetrated by his own son, followed by his daughter’s suicide, which only accelerated his “exile” from Hollywood. The final media coverage on Brando depicted a troubled outsider who seemed to be wrestling with demons.
He was said to have been on a path of self-destruction through overeating – something that completely contrasted his famous youthful beauty. Despite all the biographies on the mysterious actor, the full picture was still cloudy. Every author of his biographies, even those who knew Brando, made a point to maintain that the actor was unreadable, a man of mystery. The only candid accounts were from abandoned exes or angry employees – people who were basically biased against him.
Given the assignment to make a documentary about Brando, Riley was initially hoping to celebrate the man. But, as he was doing his research, he was starting to wonder if he would even like the guy at all. Regardless of the outcome, he headed out on tour across the US, hoping to chat with members of Brando’s family, his friends, and fellow actors and staff.
He was expecting that they would help disentangle the narrative mess that was Marlon Brando. Riley went on to have conversations with 40 or so individuals who were in Brando’s circle. Thanks to these people, the seemingly one-sided story started to get some much-needed balance; Brando was being cast in a more favorable light.
His kids, Rebecca and Miko, spoke candidly of their father. Despite being absent often, he was still loving and attentive. When singer Harry Belafonte spoke of Brando, he fondly remembered a “brave champion” who had “extraordinary empathy” for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Brando’s neighbor, actor Harry Dean Stanton, described the actor as a deeply spiritual man.
So, if those closest to him saw in a positive light, where did it all go wrong? Many parts of the Marlon Brando jigsaw puzzle were still missing. It looked as though Brando led a compartmentalized life. Apparently, he kept his friends separate, befriending, and breaking up with them with disturbing regularity.
What also became clear to Riley was that Brando seemed hypersensitive to the smallest of fallouts and the pettiest of betrayals. In his later years, many of his relationships were maintained over the phone from his Mulholland home. As Riley was interviewing people for his film, he faced a growing dilemma: few people in Brando’s life were around him for long enough to give him a real insight into Brando’s true character.
Riley was getting the impression that Brando was the one creating all the mystery surrounding him. Early on, he made an enemy of the press, rarely giving interviews and weaving an elaborate yet fabricated web of his past when asked about it.
Riley was lucky that, during his research, Brando’s estate was being unpacked and his personal possessions – things that had been boxed up and sitting in storage since his death in 2004 – were being inventoried. Among his things was a small collection of audiotapes and showreels. Riley just happened to be at the right place at the right time.
Riley had the privilege of being the first to watch and listen to these hidden tapes. It was what he heard on one tape that gave him his first clue that there was some buried trauma in Brando’s past. Listening to the tapes, Riley was basically eavesdropping on a private conversation Brando was having with himself.
“Marlon, listen to my voice,” he said. “This is a voice that you can trust.” Apparently, the tape recording was of a regressive hypnotherapy session. In the session, he was accessing painful memories from his childhood. “Remember the times you were upset and frightened. Pull them out of their hiding places.”
After listening to these tapes, Riley understood why Brando made such an effort to keep the curtains closed on his past. There was indeed a lot to be kept secret. In the tapes, he described a dysfunctional household with alcoholic parents. He made his hatred for his tyrant father very clear. He spoke of his father being physically abusive to both him and his mother.
But Brando’s psychological bruises were darker, as his father would relentlessly criticize him, instilling in him a real inferiority complex. His mother, although beaten by her husband, was no less guilty. She would abandon her children, finding comfort in the bottle. “I’d have been better off in an orphanage is what Brando stated on tape.
Brando’s life started to make more sense once these tapes were heard. You could compare his issues with authority to his struggle with his father. His failed romances were a consequence of his mother’s neglect. Rather than wait for his girlfriend to walk out on him, Brando would beat them to the punch and cut off the relationships himself.
Brando stated, “I would probe and test women to find their breaking point, at which they would tell a lie and show weakness.” All the clues to the Brando puzzle led back to his childhood. He even recited the famous Jesuit motto: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”
Riley heard Brando define his life’s mission, which was to resolve the bad habits and behaviors he picked up during his most formative years. For him, acting became a survival tool. From an early age, the young boy developed a knack for performing skits and role play. It was all an attempt to revive his mother from her drunken trances.
These hidden tapes proved just how insightful Brando really was. The tapes revealed that it was through his relationship with his father that he gained his skills in mimicry and accents – they were tools to gain his father’s attention. Brando picked up on an early instinct that people like to see reflections of themselves.
Brando’s voice droned when he said, “When what you are as a child is unwanted, you look for an identity that will be acceptable.” As Riley was listening to the tapes and essentially learning about Brando in such an intimate way, the filmmaker started to think that perhaps the documentary should tell his story in his own words.
After all, who better to tell the complicated story of Brando than Brando himself? Riley admitted to feeling very protective of Brando’s privacy, knowing that he never took interviews on personal matters. But in a tape from the 1980s, Brando did describe his plans to make a documentary showing his true self – not the myth that he had become.
Riley said he made it his goal to fulfill Brando’s wish. When it came to how he would construct the documentary, he decided to ditch the “talking heads” approach completely. He chose to create a custom-made visual layer to coincide with Brando’s words. The way he saw it, it would be more of a visual poem – an “odyssey into Marlon’s deep psyche” – than a typical biography.
Before Riley could bring Brando back to life on screen, he needed to rescue as many of those audiotapes as possible and have them transcribed. And they kept on coming. It became clear that Brando was an archivist or hoarder; he kept audio records of pretty much anything and everything. He kept tapes about business meetings, to-do lists, phone calls, and conversations with famous friends.
All in all, there were over 300 hours of material to document, filling 10 huge folders, which Riley had to scan through with his screenwriter Peter Ettedgui. As this sort of “autopsy” continued, more and more myths about the actor were debunked or, at least, explained. But no one had known, since these tapes had been hidden for decades.
For a long time, Brando was compared to his onscreen character Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire, an inarticulate, brutish figure. The truth is, Brando was indeed a rebellious kid and high school dropout. He took a train from Nebraska, initially sleeping on the streets of New York when he was 18 years old.
But his story was way more complex than that. The man was really a “raw genius with desperation to learn and seek the truth,” as Riley put it. From early on, Brando observed people’s behavior – as only the best actors do so well. He would wander the streets studying people: bankers, laborers, and the homeless.
When he finally joined the warm and inviting environment of Stella Adler’s acting class, he seized the moment and decided to educate himself. He fell in love with books and academia – a hobby that would last a lifetime. Brando learned from Adler the revolutionary “method acting” technique, which urges the actor to use his or her own memories and experiences.
That way, they can create a much more realistic portrayal of the character. With an upbringing such as his, he had a reservoir of past emotions that ran deeper than most, proving himself to be a gifted student. That electrifying stage performance in A Streetcar Named Desire? That was a re-enactment of his own traumatic memories.
For two years, the Broadway play A Streetcar Named Desire was a sell-out sensation. That is until Brando suddenly abandoned Broadway and headed for Hollywood. The rumor was that he was driven by money alone, but the tapes revealed that it was much more of a bid to save his sanity.
Having to reenact his father’s violence every night on stage drove him to the point of a nervous breakdown. Brando made it in Hollywood immediately. He burst on to the screen with inspired performances, earning him an Oscar for the film On the Waterfront in 1955. His performance in Reflections in a Golden Eye and Burn! reveal a man with inner conflict, battling between idealism and disappointment.
He was a far cry from the rumors that he was unstudied and lazy. The audiotapes revealed a methodically prepared artist and idealist. All he wanted was to depict the truth in his movies. He preached into his personal microphone, in the privacy of his home, that film ought to be a “force for good” – to educate people on the irrationality of human nature.
He wanted to show his audience the tendency for humans to discriminate, hate, and be prejudiced. But his determination to bring such a message to cinema wasn’t something that fit into Hollywood’s commercial agenda. For his 1962 film Mutiny on the Bounty, Brando insisted that it should be a philosophical exploration of making a perfect society. But, instead, he locked horns with the producers, who turned him into a scapegoat for an overflowing budget that nearly bankrupt MGM.
In his tapes, Riley noticed that Brando was in a meditative mood, questioning the idea of truth and authenticity in his profession. “Any pretension I’ve had of being an artist is now just a long, chilly hope. Actors are just merchants, and there is no art,” he stated. He seemed to be struggling, at the time, to cope with being in Hollywood’s “goldfish bowl.”
He didn’t know who he could really trust. He was seeing lies everywhere and started to lose touch with reality and even his sense of identity. He was also dealing with the more practical pressures of being an actor. Although he was one of the highest-paid stars, he was still constantly on the brink of bankruptcy.
By the mid-‘60s, his wandering eye left him with three families (including 11 children) to support. He was faced with legal bills and alimony payments, and he was barely staying afloat. By the early ‘70s, he desperately needed a job. But considering a run of 19 box-office flops, his future in acting was bleak. Luckily, The Godfather was right around the corner, and it would mark the biggest cinematic comeback of all time.
As the Academy was prepared to award him with his second Oscar, essentially welcoming him back into Hollywood, Brando wasn’t the typical appreciative “thank you Lord” kind of recipient. Brando was in no mood to please. Comeback? What comeback? According to Brando, the studios just wanted money and the chance to pat themselves on the back.
Brando declined the Best Actor award for The Godfather, making him the second actor to refuse the award (after George C. Scott for the film Patton). Brando boycotted the ceremony completely and devised a stunt, instead, for the acceptance speech. And chances are, you’ve either seen it or heard about it. He sent indigenous American rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather in Apache attire to not only refuse the award but also denounce the depiction of American Indians in Hollywood.
It wasn’t that far-fetched. His hypnotherapy tapes showed a young boy, very sensitive to the suffering of others. He remembered a kid in his neighborhood who was stigmatized in his community because of the sins of his parents. He would skip school to roam railway tracks alone.
In the tapes, Brando took a sort of Freudian journey into his childhood to analyze fundamental questions like “Do we ever live long enough to take proper heed of life’s lessons?” and “Are we doomed by our genetics and upbringing to repeat the mistakes of our parents?” As Brando was attempting to right the wrongs of his past, Riley found himself rooting for him to find the happiness he was desperately searching for.
But Brando’s life script was already written, and the damage was already done. In May 1990, Brando’s son Christian shot Dag Drollet, his sister Cheyenne’s boyfriend, to death in the family home. According to Christian, Cheyenne was being abused by Drollet. Yes, alcohol was involved.
Family violence wasn’t something Brando could just put behind him or write off. His son Christian also grew up in turmoil, the victim of a bitter custody battle between Brando and his first wife, Anna Kashfi. Marlon cried for his son’s fate, which was something he blamed himself for. “Christian was burdened with emotional disorders and psychological disarray, the kind of trouble that I had in life.”
The same could be said of Cheyenne, who also struggled with grief and depression. The poor thing took her own life five years later. She was battling mental health issues for years, having been diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was only 25 when she died.
The Brando estate never interrupted or interfered in Riley’s filmmaking process. In a rather unexpected and even atypical manner, the estate trustees trusted them to handle Brando’s legacy. And so, by the time the film was finished and ready to be screened, Riley and John Battsek (of Passion Pictures) braced themselves for the reaction of his family and the estate.
Rebecca and Miko Brando expressed gratitude, saying that the film was what their father would have wanted. As you can imagine, it was music to the filmmakers’ ears. Riley wanted to capture enough of Brando’s essence and purpose in life to provide an honest reflection – so that others could see him properly, too.
In the last self-hypnotherapy session, Brando spoke of being in a peaceful place. It sounded as though his meditations served their purpose, enabling this insightful, elderly man to parent his younger self and forgive his childhood fears. “I was happy for him,” Riley said. He realized how fortunate he was to have participated in such an extraordinary, examined life. “I would miss his company and humor.”
By the end of Brando’s life, his notoriety, troubled family life, and obesity gained more attention than his acting career. It was during the ‘70s to mid-‘90s that he gained a large amount of weight – weighing over 300 pounds and suffering from Type 2 diabetes. He attributed his history of weight fluctuation to his years of stress-related overeating and dieting.
Brando had earned a reputation for being difficult on the set. He was said to be either unwilling or unable to memorize his lines, less interested in taking direction, and more keen on confronting the director with demands. His last role came during the last year of his life: voice tracks for the character Mrs. Sour in 2004.
The animated film Big Bug Man was never released, though. Not only was it his last role in the industry, but it was also his only role as a female character. Another thing people may not know is that Brando was a longtime close friend of Michael Jackson. He would regularly visit the Neverland Ranch, staying there for weeks at a time.
Miko Brando was actually Jackson’s bodyguard and assistant for a number of years, as well as a friend of his. “The last time my father left his house to go anywhere, to spend any kind of time, it was with Michael Jackson,” Miko stated. According to Miko, his father loved it – the 24-hour chef, 24-hour security, 24-hour help, 24-hour maid service.
Miko also revealed that Jackson was “instrumental” in helping his father through the last few years of his life. Brando had difficulty breathing in his final days and was on oxygen most of the time. Since he loved the outdoors so much, Jackson would invite him to his ranch for some “R and R.” Miko described how Jackson even got Brando a golf cart with a portable oxygen tank for him to drive around and enjoy Neverland.
In April 2001, Brando was in the hospital with pneumonia. Then, in 2004, Brando signed with Tunisian film director Ridha Behi for a project that was supposed to be called Brando and Brando. Up until a week before his death, he was working on the script. The goal was a July/August 2004 start date, but Brando passed away on July 1, 2004.
Behi continued the film as an “homage to Brando,” and a new title was given to the project: Citizen Brando. Aside from diabetes, Brando was also suffering from liver cancer. Brando was cremated; his ashes scattered with those of his good friend, Wally Cox, and longtime friend, Sam Gilman. The ashes were scattered in both Tahiti and Death Valley, California.
Before his death, and despite the fact that he needed an oxygen mask to breathe, he recorded his voice as Don Vito Corleone for The Godfather: The Game. He was only able to record one line due to his health, so an impersonator was hired to finish the rest.
Despite all the hate from Hollywood big wigs and ex-lovers, Brando was still one of the most respected actors of the postwar era. In 1950, the American Film Institute listed him as the “fourth greatest male star whose screen debut occurred before or during 1950.” Uninterested in the gossip, critics respected him for his memorable performances and charismatic screen presence. Thanks to Brando, method acting became a popular technique.
Brando’s first screen role was playing a bitter paraplegic veteran named Ken in the 1950 film The Men. The method actor spent a month in bed in Birmingham’s Army Hospital in Van Nuys, preparing for the role. The New York Times said Brando as Ken “is so vividly real, dynamic and sensitive that his illusion is complete.”
According to Brando, it was likely because of this film that his military draft status was changed from 4-F to 1-A. It started when Brando’s father sent him to Shattuck Military Academy in Minnesota. There, he excelled at theater and did well overall. But, during his final year in 1943, he was put on probation for being defiant to an army colonel.
Brando was then punished and confined to his room, but he snuck out into town. He was eventually caught, and the faculty expelled him. Although he was invited back the following year, he decided to drop out of high school instead. Brando then had to find a job and start worrying about making a living. He worked as a ditch-digger for one summer, a job which was arranged by his father.
When he tried to enlist in the Army, his induction physical revealed that a previous football injury at Shattuck left him with a trick knee. He was thus classified 4-F and not inducted. Later on, he had surgery on that knee, meaning it was no longer physically debilitating enough to be excluded from the draft.
When Brando arrived at the induction center to fill out a questionnaire, he put his race down as “human,” and his color as “Seasonal-oyster white to beige.” It looks like aside from his unwillingness to be drafted into the army this time around, the man also had a sense of humor. Brando told an Army doctor that he was psychoneurotic.
The draft board then referred him to a psychiatrist, to whom Brando explained that he was expelled from military school due to his severe problems with authority. As it turned out, the psychiatrist knew a doctor who was friends with Brando. The actor ultimately avoided military service during the Korean War.