Meet Marlon Brando (1966) by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin
Review by Dylan Moore
There is a paradox built in the title and premise of Meet Marlon Brando. A charming short doc by Albert and David Maysles, Meet Marlon Brando follows Brando as he navigates through an all day marathon of press interviewers for the movie Morituri (1965). The Maysles brothers capture the day in a rough, observational way (full of noticeable zooms and pans to reframe and follow the conversations, shot in gritty B&W--see image at the top--and no music) that creates the sensation that you are in the room with him as he pokes reporters with sarcasm and self-deprecates (he compares acting to hula hoops and his singing to a kangaroo’s).
The paradox, in part, comes from the assumption of the title, "Meet Marlon Brando," that we are being (re)introduced to Brando. See him as he is. But Brando jabs at a reporter when they say, "You know this is, uh--this is sort of your whole personality in a capsule...not to believe--" with, "How do you know what my personality is?" and they respond, "well, because I have met you and yo-you radiate your personality." Brando responds with a reflective "really?"
Another part of the titular paradox comes out of the way that, though you get the feeling that you are in the room with him, Brando jokes and jabs at the situation that the press are there for him to sell his movie to the public. His response to a reporter asking him about actors and acting helps reveal this tension, "I think actors are created...that the psychology of acting is created early in youth--I mean we're all actors. You're sitting here and the way you conduct yourself in this interview is not the way you conduct yourself at a bar with friends you're much more relaxed and, uh--and by the same token,...uh,uh...actors don't, uh...one is able to adjust oneself to a situation." And Brando goes off on that for a minute when a reporter asks why he gets called uncooperative in working with producers and directors by the press and why that seems to get so much press:
"People don’t realize that a press item, a news item is money, and that, uh, news is hawked in the same way shoes or toothpaste or lipstick or hair tonic, or anything else, and if you, uh, put something in the paper about ‘Lizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton everybody’s gonna buy it. You know, everybody wants to know about that. It becomes an item and it becomes a sellable item...and its, its--its, uh, merchandising aspect of the press is, uh, not really, fully recognized by the public. When you don’t cooperate with those merchandising systems of people who sell news...and if you don’t cooperate with those people and tell them about the, uh, intimacies of your personal life, then, uh, you’ve broken the rule and, uh, you have to be publicly chastised for it...and uh, that’s the way of the world out there...I’ve found by and large people make up their own minds.”
This coming from one of the most respected Hollywood actors at the time, feels like a biting start to what we see in just about every supermarket store checkout aisle, the tabloids. And a consistent thread throughout the doc is Brando urging that “people make up their own minds.” Whenever the journalists go on and on or rave about Morituri even when they admit they haven’t seen it, he presses them them about making up their own minds and not buying into the “propaganda.” And actually it feels like he is actively antagonizing the promotional notion from the very start: "I suppose we have to talk about Morituri," an interviewer leads. "No, let's don't. Do we have to?" is Brando's response.
Brando even interrupts the interviews with compliments to his interviewers. Those compliments give a sense of presence that he is actively with his interviewers and not just interested in promoting his movie: "What consumes your thoughts in your spare time?" an interviewer asks. "Well, uh...I am interested in your face..." Brando replies. Interviewer smiles and laughs to the camera. Or less flirtatious: "You've got the longest fingernails of anyone I've seen." The interviewer surprised, "Oh uh...only on one side you see, I play classic guitar." "Oh really?" Brando's interest seems to pique.
A few times in the film though, an interviewer breaks the light tone with a serious question and Brando gets very solemn and reflective. For instance, an interviewer asks him about his concern for “the American Indians” and Brando takes a moment and responds carefully with,
“You know, I liked to, uh...we’re having a lot of fun and that’s uh-uh that’s really not uh...something I can be flippant about...it’s not something that I really could go into here, but I’m sure that we’re all...uh--I mean I found that when I talk--I’ve talked about the American Indian to people I’ve been amazed about how little anybody knows about it and uh...nobody knows that, for instance--that, uh, the mortality rate of Indian children is 5 to 1 in comparison with any other minority group here in America. I think it would benefit all of us to realize what the American Indian is, what his position is...I hope to make a film on the subject.”
It is surprising to see a seed of this here considering that Brando controversially asked Sacheen Littlefeather go in his stead as he refused to accept the award for his performance in The Godfather at the 1973 Academy Awards. Here’s a link to her appearance.
So, even with him actively poking at the reality of his situation and a handful of times having to confront serious questions because he is in the context of promoting his film, it becomes clear how little we must be seeing of Brando in this 30 minute, edited window--no matter how familiar he feels to us and upfront he is about his thoughts and feelings. It reminds me of the opening from Gone Girl of a POV shot of Ben Affleck’s character staring into the eyes of Rosamund Pike, who plays his wife, asking, “What are you thinking?”
Within this tension of rapport and what he jokes as "huckstership," Brando helps create a sense of the unexpected and almost uncanny for the interviewers (and us) and their expectations of a simple press promotion. This would be a great double feature with the documentary Listen to Me Marlon that came out last year. That film is built out of the introspective tapes Marlon recorded for himself in part as a method of therapy about his life and work as an actor. The intro and outro of the film is of Brando's voice finding visual expression through a dotted CGI recreation of his face creating one hell of a spooky sensation of the uncanny.
In this short documentary Albert and David Maysles put together before their more well known and fleshed out observational works, Salesman and Gimme Shelter, they were able to capture a curious and charming reintroduction of the attentive actor, as a person, acting.
I watched it through Fandor, which seems like the main way to stream it. And if you are interested in Listen to Me Marlon, it looks like the main way to watch it is through Showtime which streams stuff through Hulu.