The new Brando documentary reviewed.

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May 1 2007 5:25 PM

Brand Brando

The greatest film actor deserved a weirder documentary.

Marlon Brando. Click image to expand.
Marlon Brando, circa 1951

Nothing against John Turturro—a welcome presence whether galumphing for the Coen Brothers or ambling through a Spike Lee joint—but why on earth does he get so much screen time in Brando (TCM, Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET)? While his appreciations of Marlon Brando are as cogent as any other in this reflection on the greatest actor in the history of film, whatever real connection there is between the two remains bafflingly obscure.

I would guess that the filmmakers took a shine to the Vito Corleone impersonation Turturro confected for She Hate Me—the sole redeeming element of Spike Lee's worst movie—but that would be odd, and Brando doesn't really do oddity. No, the documentary is sober, straight on, sparing in its retreats to speculation and armchair-psychoanalysis, avoidant of both cliché and hagiography, and, ultimately, far more coherent than its subject's career.

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While Brando is a fine primer—running, with clarity and care, through Stanley Kowalski, Marc Antony, Terry Malloy, Sky Masterson, and onward to Don Vito, Col. Kurtz, and poor old Jor-El—it also gives pause to the long-standing fan. A sweet and lyrical sadness blooms when the documentary lets Brando speak for himself—by way of a semi-autobiographical monologue in Last Tango in Paris—in outlining his Nebraska boyhood. Viewers who counted themselves sophisticated moviegoers might get caught short when the film nods toward the sensitive actor's irritation at being confused with the anti-sensitive Kowalski: Maybe you take a step back and recognize how you've been making some version of that error forever, and wonder at your other misjudgments regarding the distance between art and life. To bounce you out of that moment, the movie offers old footage of Brando, a genius of rhythm, jubilantly slapping at bongos.

Despite some art direction that goes heavy on abstract-expressionist slashes and streaks—macho and mythic reminders that our guy, like Jackson Pollock, was reinventing his medium in the Freudian '50s—Brando never flies away into any grandiose windiness about the Method. We do, however, get a glimpse of Stella Adler's head shot, and the ache in the eyes of Brando's acting teacher says more about naturalism than another hundred squinty lectures from Dennis Hopper, kept here on a mercifully short leash. The film spends a happily ample sum of time on Truckline Café, which was Brando's Broadway breakthrough, and contextualizes the triumph of Streetcar better than Brando's own autobiography. And, considering the many moments of pyrotechnics that constitute the foundation of Brando's legend—the high-decibel outbursts and shuddering—it's instructive to see him praised for his underacting, with the specific and revelatory example of his nonchalant petting of that cat near the beginning of The Godfather.

Many riches, but, alas, no oddities. While we can only thank TCM for shying away from anything like sensationalism, Brando's last three decades passed in such a thick fog of weirdness that it could have been profitable to explore them. It might have made for illuminating fun to linger on the captivatingly awful Island of Dr. Moreau or even a straight-to-video curiosity like Free Money. It would have been nice had a talking head or two guessed whether the weight problems of later Brando more closely resembled those of Elvis (with his overstuffed ego) or Orson Welles (who wore the bulk of a troubled prince of exile). But no one even ventures to guess how he passed all those days in Tahiti. Instead, we get—with, admittedly, a lot of charm—his friends reminiscing about his late-night phone calls from that island redoubt. Very well then: Hi, Marlon! It's great to hear your voice.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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