"I'm in the Marlon Brando business." -- Marlon Brando
A nearly three-hour retrospective of the mercurial actor's life, Brando proceeds chronologically from his unrequited attachment to his distant drunk of a Nebraska mother to a post-war rise through the ranks of New York theater and fortuitous pairings with Stella Adler and Elia Kazan, to unexpected movie stardom, to has-been movie stardom, to political activism, to a measured critical rebirth and finally to an increasingly sad elderly life marked by erratic jaunts onto shows like Larry King Live and an elaborate prankishness that poorly camouflages an exhausted lothario's boredom with old age. "The first two-thirds of Marlon's life was in his body and the last third was in his mind," someone tells us, the implication being that Brando felt cheated by that trade-off and spent his final years playing with the only toy he had left, his celebrity. We hear about him summoning one well-known actor to his house on the pretense of collaborating on a film, only to tell them when they arrive that he's discovered a way to power his house with electric eels.
Since much of his life is old hat to the target audience, the pleasures of Brando mostly derive from the little moments snuck in here and there -- new memories from a fellow actor or new takes on one of his films, and so on. One the most interesting sequences, for my money, is a somewhat negative reassessment of Brando's role in Apocalypse Now. Robert Duvall, in his interview, feels obliged to point out that the performance is something of a non-starter because Kurtz was obviously supposed to be a military type, whippet-slim and muscled-up, while Brando practically had to be wheelbarrowed onto the set. It's also made clear that Coppola confided to the cast that Brando showed up for the film without having done any kind of mental preparation either. Dennis Hopper gets in a good jab, noting that "Marlon didn't care about your money" and digging up the old story about Brando demanding $75K for a five-minute close-up that was needed immediately after the point that he was no longer contractually bound to be there.
As you might expect, there's hardly anything new to say about The Godfather at this point, but the filmmakers did manage to track down Sacheen Littlefeather to riff on her infamous stunt of refusing Brando's Godfather Oscar, on behalf of American Indians. Littlefeather says that, on arriving at the ceremony, she was told she'd be arrested if she actually attempted to read the speech she brought. We also hear about John Wayne having to be physically restrained by security as he attempted to bound on stage and attack Littlefeather. Some tales from Mutiny on the Bounty -- referred to as the ultimate "anti-Marlon story" -- are also recounted. It appears that the producers of that film actually did sign a deal with Brando that gave him huge bonuses if the film ran over schedule ... and then were surprised when the film ran way over schedule. To the credit of Brando's director, these little segments are never hurting for archival footage or visuals in general -- there's never a sense here that you're watching a film made on the cheap.
Because the idea here is to chronicle Brando's whole life, there's never much time to go truly in-depth on Brando-related subject matter like method acting or 'actors in politics' or the 70s film renaissance. Still, the collected interview snippets and the informational tidbits are sometimes hard to resist. For example, Last Tango in Paris -- a film which Pauline Kael claimed to be so good that it altered the art form -- is portrayed here as a project that Brando found completely perplexing and had no regard for. "I never could figure out what that movie was about," we see him telling an interviewer. We also get some new thoughts on One Eyed Jacks, the film Brando attempted to direct but eventually got bored with and abandoned for others to finish. This is one of the running themes that emerges in Brando -- at one point, we see Brando's Tahitian son talking about a marine biology facility that Brando planned to build on the Tahitian island he purchased. That project also died on the vine when the actor's infamously short attention-span waned.
The wreckage of Brando's personal life is recounted toward the end, with his son's trial, a daughter's suicide, and the rest of it fitting in thematically with his slide into his final role as the beached white whale of Beverly Hills, a moo-moo wearing shut-in spending his days playing telephone games and collaborating on fantasy film projects. Brando covers the spectrum of the life, and admirers should find it an enjoyable trove of memories. My favorite moment would have to be an early one, of Brando performing a screentest for Rebel Without a Cause -- he's unquestionably awful in it. That scene by itself makes you reconsider the popular notion of Brando as a selfish savant -- a Mozart of acting -- who neither understood or cared to understand his gift and resented those who took it seriously. The real Brando must have somewhere along the way acquired a passion to learn, to improve his craft and take it to a higher level, but somehow life and celebrity ended up making it a cross to bear. I'm not sure if Brando's is a sad story or not.