Actor Marlon Brando was an enigmatic figure. You see, whilst being a big star he kept his personal life as private as possible. And that personal life was sometimes nightmarish: his son was a criminal, and he outlived his mentally-troubled daughter. But throughout it all Brando kept tapes of his thoughts, and eventually they saw the light of day.
Yes, the contents of the tapes were revealed to the world in the 2015 documentary Listen to Me Marlon. And the director of that documentary, Stevan Riley, had known little about Brando when first asked to make it in 2012. However, he immediately got to researching and was amazed at what he’d found.
In October 2015 Riley wrote for The Telegraph, “It was serendipitous that at the exact time I was doing my research, the estate was unpacking and logging Brando’s personal possessions that had been boxed in storage since his death in 2004. Among this trove was a small collection of audio tapes and reels, to which I had the privilege of first listen.”
Riley continued on, “What I heard on one tape provided my first clue about some buried trauma in Brando’s past. I eavesdropped on a private conversation he was having with himself. ‘Marlon, listen to my voice,’ he said. ‘This is a voice that you can trust.’ It was the beginning of a regressive hypnotherapy session, in which he was accessing painful memories as a child.”
But even before the documentary was made, it was known that Brando had had a difficult childhood. In those days, he had the nickname “Bud”, and times were hard. His parents, Dorothy and Marlon Sr., were both heavy drinkers. Furthermore, Marlon Sr. cheated on his wife, so his son claimed, and was all-round emotionally absent.
Indeed, in his 1994 autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me, Brando wrote about the relationship his mother and father had. He remembered, “My parents seldom fought in front of us, but there was a constant, grinding, unseen miasma of anger. After we moved to Evanston, the tension and unspoken hostility became more acute.”
Then there was Brando’s school life. He wrote in Songs My Mother Taught Me that he was “a bad student, chronic truant and all-around incorrigible.” He also said, “I always had friends, boys as well as girls, but I was anathema to many of my teachers and the parents of many of my friends, some of whom treated me as if I were poison.”
Furthermore, some of the events in Brando’s adult life were likewise well documented. For you see, one particularly unpleasant story made the headlines in May 1990. Yes, Brando’s adult son Christian took a gun and shot his sister Cheyenne’s boyfriend Dag Drollet, killing him. Then Christian claimed to cops that Cheyenne had told him earlier that day that Drollet had been abusing her. Brando himself gave Drollet mouth-to-mouth, but it was pointless.
And there was more. Christian claimed to the police that he and Drollet had fought, and the gun had gone off accidentally. But Drollet was found slumped on the sofa with the television still on and a bullet hole in his head. To add to that, Cheyenne, who had a mental illness, said that actually Drollet hadn’t been abusing her after all.
In any case, Brando acted quickly, possibly in an attempt to protect his children. Yes, he sent Cheyenne away to France where she soon checked into a mental hospital. Christian on the other hand was put on trial for first-degree murder, and Brando took the stand in his defense, sobbing as he did so. In February 1991, almost a year after the death, Christian was jailed for murder.
Tragically, Cheyenne took her own life just a few years afterwards. Yes, at the age of 25, she was found dead at her mother’s house in 1995. To add to that, Christian descended into mental illness and drug abuse after being released from prison. He died in 2008, four years after his famous father passed away.
Now you see, the relationship between Brando, Christian, and Christian’s mother had been rough from the beginning. For Christian was born in 1958 to Brando and a woman who went by the name of Anna Kashfi. But that wasn’t her real name, and nor was she the ethnicity she’d initially claimed to be. She was really a Welsh woman called Joan O’Callaghan.
In fact, Brando only found out about his bride’s true identity just days before they were married. From there things got worse. When Christian was born, Brando allegedly named him after one of his male lovers, infuriating O’Callaghan. Through Christian’s childhood she would only ever call him by his middle name, Devi.
After Christian’s arrest for murder, Brando made it clear to the world that he considered himself a poor parent. He told the court during the trial, “I think I perhaps failed him as a father. The tendency is to blame the other parent. But I am certain there were things I could have done differently.”
So it’s fair to say there were already a number of revelations about Brando’s personal life out in the open. But what about the secrets that he’d hidden away from the world? Riley set out to uncover them via the tapes. Eventually, he wrote in The Telegraph article, “Over 300 hours of material would eventually emerge, filling ten large folders, which I trawled through with screenwriter Peter Ettedgui.”
Now, in October 2015 Riley and some other key players in making Listen to Me Marlon gave an interview to The Guardian newspaper about the documentary-movie. And Miko and Rebecca Brando, the actor’s children with second wife Movita Castaneda, talked about their late father to the publication.
Rebecca said, “I didn’t know the tapes existed. I’d see [my father] talk into the dictaphone sometimes, but he would stop as soon as he saw me and say, ‘Hi, darling, how are you?’ He’d put it away and I just thought, ‘Oh, he’s memorizing lines or preparing something for work.’ But I hadn’t known there were hundreds of hours of audio tapes from over the years.”
Brando’s daughter went on, “Making these tapes, I think, was a way to self-analyze. My dad loved to talk to people and he would call people in the middle of the night and talk about anything and everything, about life, nature, business and inventions. So when people weren’t available, he would talk into these dictaphones.”
Meanwhile, John Battsek, the producer of Listen to Me Marlon, said of Brando’s parenting skills, “He says it himself: he wasn’t a good enough father. I feel he was very self-aware, and he went to a thousand therapists, and yet he just couldn’t stop himself from acting out his failings and doing it repeatedly.”
But Rebecca said of her father, “He could be moody and distant, but for the most part he was fun and funny. He had such a presence, even his silence was just impactful. You always wanted to know what he was thinking because he was just so charismatic and magnetic – even to his own children. You just wanted to be with him all the time.”
Rebecca added, “I didn’t know my grandparents, and he rarely talked to me about them. But, towards the end, he expressed how your parents are only going to do as good as they can with the tools they have. And you can’t blame your parents for their shortcomings. So I know he tried to be a better parent than his parents were to him.”
Miko Brando agreed with his sister. He said, “He never spoke bad about his parents to us or put them down. And he’d always say to me, ‘Miko, you learn by your mistakes.’ I guess what I’m trying to say is that he never made us feel the way supposedly his father did him. He always made us feel number one and happy and cherished. Loved.”
Unsurprisingly, Battsek said that there had been intense interest in the movie. He said, “This is the only film I’ve made where every week I would get a call saying that one of the 30 most famous actors in the world would like to see the film, how can that be arranged? Every week someone contacts us: ‘Can Warren see the film?’ ‘Can Jack see the film?’ ‘Can Jake see the film?’ It’s non-stop.”
And according to the Brando children, the movie had done their father justice. Rebecca told The Guardian, “The first time I saw it, I had to walk out of the theatre. Then we had a screening for family members and there were tears from some parts but also a lot of pride, because it does set the record straight.”
On the tapes, and in the movie, Brando spoke about everything from his family to his acting ability. He mused, “We develop the technique of acting, very, very early. Even from the time we’re a kid, where we’re throwing our oatmeal on the floor, just to get attention from our mothers. Acting is survival.”
In fact, Brando’s father might have been the reason the actor honed his survival skills so well. At one point Brando discussed the sort of parenting he’d been subjected to, saying, “My old man was tough. He was a firefighter. He was a man with not much love in him. He used to slap me around and for no good reason. And I was truly intimidated by him at that time.”
One incident on the tapes in particular indicates what life was like for the young actor. Brando remembered, “One time my old man was punching my mother. 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 f*****g put my eyes right through him and I said, ‘If you hit her again, I’m going to kill you.’”
And Brando might have drawn on the troubles with his father later to spur him forward as an actor. He said, “If I had a scene to play and I have to be angry, there must be within you – trigger mechanisms that are spring loaded – that are filled with contempt about something. I remember my father hitting my mother. I am 14.”
But somewhat surprisingly it came out in the tapes that Brando generally disliked the industry of moviemaking. He believed Hollywood was focused on making money, not art, and “we are businessmen, merchants.” Also, he appeared to not think much of directors, saying “They cover up a sense of inadequacy by being very authoritative, commanding things.”
That’s right, and one director in particular was singled out for criticism by Brando. This was Francis Ford Coppola, who directed him during the troubled production of Apocalypse Now. Brando said bluntly on the tapes, “He’s a prick, a card-carrying prick… I saved his f***ing ass and he shows his appreciation by dumping on me.”
What’s more, it transpired that Brando didn’t even like his own performances sometimes. For instance, he won an Academy Award for On the Waterfront, but on the tapes he says, “I was so embarrassed, so disappointed in my performance.” He was even harsher about the film Candy, saying, “Probably the worst movie I’ve ever made in my life… How can you do that to yourself?”
The documentary also delved into Brando’s activism. For you see, the actor supported Martin Luther King and stood up for the rights of Native Americans, even at a time when such a thing would leave him open to criticism. In fact, Brando had lots of thoughts on equality in general.
On his tapes the actor said, “This is life and death. This is really life. We’re talking about human relations. We’re talking about human rights, racial issues, and that’s why I care.” But another quote from him seemed to sum up his whole ethos: “I’ve always hated people trampling on other people.”
Interestingly, Brando had an absolute fascination with Tahiti – indeed his third wife, Cheyenne’s mother, was Tahitian. To him, it seemed to be a sort of paradise. On one tape he said, “I had a lot of loneliness. I spent most of my time, up in the library reading the National Geographic Magazine about Tahiti. I was entranced by the expressions on their faces.”
Brando went on, “They had unmanaged faces. No manicured expressions. A kindness. That’s where I want to go. That’s where I want to be.” He added, “If you took some kid and you put him up in Tahiti, he’s a completely different kid. He wouldn’t have this cruel, mean society killing him every day, killing the life out of him. All these kids of mine are filled with love from Tahiti.”
Naturally, the sad case of Christian Brando is mentioned in the movie. At one point, Brando recollected the day he first met his son. He said on the tapes, “The day [Christian] was born I said it to myself, with tears in my eyes in the hospital, that my father is never going to come near that child because of the damage he did to me.”
But of course, things didn’t work out how Brando had hoped. Later on in the film comes a saddening quote, “Christian was burdened with emotional disorders and psychological disarray, the kind of trouble that I had in life. I never tried to be like my father, but one inadvertently takes on the characteristics of one’s parents.”
However, there was an indication that Brando might have forgiven his father, to some extent. At one point he says, “When my father died I imagined he was slump-shouldered, walking to the edge of eternity. He looked back and said, ‘I did the best I could.’ Finally I forgave my father as I realized I was a sinner because of him, and he was a sinner because his mother had left him before. He didn’t have a chance.”
Anyway, come July 2015, Riley told website The Frame about why he thought Brando had made so many in-depth recordings about his life. He said, “It was self-meditation and self-medication as well, because I think he was suffering a lot of trauma in the aftermath of his daughter’s suicide in Tahiti… And he wanted to do as much as he could to repair himself from that pain.”
In any case, the things Brando went through were hard to overcome. Perhaps that’s what he meant by another quote from the tapes, “Acting is just making stuff up, but that’s okay. Life is a rehearsal. Life is an improvisation. I’m going to have a special microphone placed in my coffin so that when I wake up in there, six feet under the ground, I’m going to say, ‘do it differently.’”