Listen to Me Marlon, an engrossing documentary portrait of Marlon Brando, has more than its share of awkward moments, but none more so than its 1955 clip of the 30-year-old actor appearing on Edward R. Murrow’s CBS interview series Person to Person alongside his 60-year-old father, Marlon Brando Sr. When Murrow asks the father if he’s proud of his son—who has just won an Oscar for On the Waterfront—Marlon Sr. replies, “Well, as an actor, not too proud, but as a man, why quite proud.” Murrow doesn’t follow up on this odd remark, asking instead if Marlon Jr. was difficult to bring up. “I think he had probably a little more trouble with his parents than most children do,” the father replies, as Marlon Jr. grimaces. Given the chance to respond, the actor smiles: “Well, I really don’t feel I need to defend myself. I can lick this guy with one hand, so . . . let it go.”
The segment stands out because Listen to Me Marlon, while primarily concerned with an actor’s creative journey, climaxes with the tragic 1990 murder case involving Brando’s own son, Christian. While living in Brando’s home in the Hollywood Hills, 32-year-old Christian shot and killed Dag Drollet, the boyfriend of his half sister, Cheyenne. Brando himself called 911 after hearing the fatal shot and gave the victim mouth-to-mouth, to no avail. Christian Brando’s life had been an endless drama of bad behavior and substance abuse, set off by his parents’ acrimonious divorce and ongoing custody battle over him in the 60s and 70s. “I think that perhaps I failed as a father,” admits Brando, gray and portly at age 66, as he testifies at the trial. “Certainly there were things I could have done differently if I had known better at the time.” More than a Hollywood bio, Listen to Me Marlon is a story of demons being passed from one generation to the next.
The title notwithstanding, Marlon talks and we listen. Like Colonel Kurtz, the mad warrior he played in Apocalypse Now, Brando liked to tape-record his philosophical musings, and he left behind hundreds of hours of audio, which screenwriters Stevan Riley and Peter Ettedgui have woven together with archival interviews to create a first-person narrative of his life and career. The chronology begins with Brando arriving in New York City as a young man in the late 1940s, but flashbacks reveal the traumatic childhood that may have inspired his performances. When the filmmakers arrive at A Streetcar Named Desire, clips from the 1951 movie version show Stanley Kowalski bullying Blanche DuBois while, on the soundtrack, Brando remembers, “My old man was tough. He was a bar fighter, he was a man with not much love in him. . . . Staying away from home. Drinking and whoring all around the midwest. . . . He used to slap me around, and for no good reason.”
According to Brando’s numerous biographers, Marlon Sr. was abandoned by his mother at age four and raised by various aunts. After serving in World War I he married Dorothy Pennebaker of Omaha and worked as a traveling salesman while she gave birth to two daughters and then Marlon Jr. in 1924. The family moved to Evanston in 1930, and up to Libertyville in 1938, but wherever they went they became objects of gossip: Marlon Sr. was constantly on the road, and “Dodie” was a hopeless drunk. Marlon Jr. would accompany his sisters to local dives to collect his mother. He acted out at school, ran wild around town, and made a name for himself as a troublemaker. Marlon Sr. never missed an opportunity to denigrate his son. When Marlon Jr. was classified 4-F during World War II, his father snapped, “Is there anything else you could fail at?”
Those taunts would come back to bite him when Marlon Jr. succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. “I was making more in six months of work than he made in ten years,” Brando recalls in Listen to Me Marlon. “He couldn’t understand how this ne’er-do-well son of his could possibly do that.” Brando may have gotten the last laugh, but when he became a father himself, he would prove similarly neglectful. Christian was the eldest of his 16 children, born in 1958 to Brando and his first wife, actress Anna Kashfi; that marriage ended amid Brando’s serial affairs, and the exes battled for years over custody of the boy. Kashfi drank, and Christian was experimenting with drugs and alcohol by age 13. According to biographer Stefan Kanfer, Brando told his son that “if he was going to drink bourbon and smoke pot, he could at least do it at home, ‘in front of me.'” As a parent Brando would spoil Christian but then forget about him, tending to his movie career and burgeoning political activism.
“One time my old man was punching my mother,” Brando relates in Listen to Me Marlon. “And I went up the stairs and I went in the room, and I had so much adrenaline. And I looked at him, and I fucking put my eyes right through him and I said, ‘If you hit her again, I’m going to kill you.'” His voice lowers to a whisper on the soundtrack, at which point director Riley inserts sound effects of a gunshot and a siren to jolt us into the events of 1990. This explicit linking of two violent impulses is the most daring moment in the movie, equating Christian and Marlon Jr. as neglected sons driven by rage. On the night of May 16, Cheyenne told Christian that her boyfriend had been beating her; according to Christian, he was trying to intimidate Drollet with his .45 when they struggled and the gun went off.
Given all the psychologizing in Listen to Me Marlon, it’s odd that the filmmakers never connect Brando’s public performance during the murder trial to his best-known role, as the powerful, loving, but rueful patriarch of The Godfather (1972). Certainly people’s fascination with the case turned in part on their identification with Brando as a bereaved and confused father, devoted to his children but forced to reckon with their flawed characters. Cheyenne committed suicide in 1995, at age 25; Christian served five years for manslaughter and ultimately died of pneumonia at age 49. “Christian was burdened with emotional disorders and psychological disarray, the kind of trouble that I had in life,” Brando says in the movie. “I never tried to be like my father, but one inadvertently takes on the characteristics of one’s parents.” In the closing moments, Brando delivers a soliloquy to himself that turns out to be the source of the movie’s title, but his children may have been the ones who couldn’t make themselves heard. v