Marlon Brando’s impressive legacy gets an impressive once-over by way of the recently released documentary Listen to Me Marlon.
The acclaimed film about Marlon Brando (1924-2004) was produced by R.J. Cutler, a Great Neck North High School and Harvard University graduate. Cutler has turned two of his passions—theater and journalism—into an eclectic career that includes directing Kevin Spacey in a Playwright Horizons stage production (Right Behind the Flag); creating a Peabody Award-winning radio show for National Public Radio (Heat); and producing the seminal documentary about 1992’s U.S. presidential campaign (The War Room).
Listen to Me Marlon, narrated by Brando, debuted on Showtime on Saturday, Nov. 14 and offers a fascinating look at one of the 20th century’s biggest movie stars. Cutler explained in a recent interview that several boxes of audio tapes, featuring 300-plus hours of Brando’s recordings, provided the film’s source material. It also gave writer and director Stevan Riley extraordinary insights into the famed actor’s professional and personal life.
Born in Nebraska, Brando had no formal education beyond high school when he arrived in New York City in the late 1940s, shooting to Broadway stardom after his portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. The film adaptation of that play, and Brando’s reprisal of his Kowalski role, led to his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Brando would win that honor after starring as Terry Malloy in 1954’s On the Waterfront.
“He was an actor when acting was considered a high art, so much so that his fame and triumph as a performer were as much a credit to Stella Adler as to him,” Cutler stated. Adler was Brando’s influential acting coach.
Listen to Me Marlon’s archival footage shows what a sensation Brando was in the 1950s, as he starred in a number of the decade’s other major motion pictures, such as Viva Zapata and The Wild One. “What people tend to forget is that Brando was the Beatles before the Beatles,” Cutler said.
In the 1960s, while filming Mutiny on the Bounty in Tahiti, Brando met his third wife and began a lifelong fascination with the South Pacific, the film illustrates. Director Francis Ford Coppola, another Great Neck North High School alumnus, revived Brando’s career in the 1970s, casting him as Vito Corleone in The Godfather, for which he won another Academy Award for Best Actor, and as Colonel Walter Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.
The documentary pulls no punches when exploring Brando’s chaotic personal life—his multiple marriages, troubled children and relentless seductions of whomever caught his eye at the moment. “Before there was a critique of celebrity culture, Brando was living celebrity culture,” Cutler observed.
When I asked him about the producer’s role on a project like this, Cutler said, “It involves fundraising but there’s also a fundamental creative role. It is always different.” His Los Angeles-based Cutler Productions has a few television shows in development at CBS and the CW, he added. But his company is also involved in scripted films, with Cutler currently adapting one based on James Ellroy’s memoir, My Dark Places. Ellroy’s mother was murdered in 1958. Her son revisited the circumstances surrounding her death in 1994. To lighten the mood, I am pleased to report at this point that R.J.’s mother, Shirley, is alive and well and living in Great Neck.
In addition to having a place he can stay in Great Neck, Cutler has a home situated under California’s Hollywood sign, to which he can escape if Cutler needs a respite from the dark places to which Brando and Ellroy occasionally take him.
Mike Barry, vice president of media relations for an insurance industry trade group, has worked in government and journalism. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the publisher or Anton Media Group.