Hollywood Docs: Marlon Brando, Ingrid Bergman and Evel Knievel Get Personal

Ingrid Bergman - H 2015
Courtesy of Rialto Pictures

Ingrid Bergman - H 2015

From Brando's self-hypnosis tapes to the film that nearly broke McQueen, personal footage from this year's documentary front-runners explore tragedies and triumphs of entertainment icons.

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When filmmaker Stevan Riley set out to make a documentary about Marlon Brando, he had no idea about the secret stash of hundreds of hours of homemade audio tapes that the actor had recorded at various points of his life. Riley came across them almost by accident. "When we approached the Brando estate, they produced all his personal effects, boxes and boxes from a Hollywood vault," says the British documentarian (whose last feature was Everything or Nothing, a well-reviewed history of the James Bond franchise). "There were all his personal documentation, his books with notes in them, scripts with notes. And then there were also a bunch of tapes with very interesting material — especially Brando's self-hypnosis tapes. They ended up providing the title of the film."

Steve McQueen in The Man & Le Mans, which includes production footage from the movie that nearly broke him. 

Listen to Me Marlon, a Brando documentary literally narrated by the actor himself, isn't this year's only film about a Hollywood icon that makes fresh use of long-forgotten archival materials. Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, which premiered at Cannes in May (it will be released Nov. 13), also features audio from private tape recordings as well as never-before-released production footage from the set of Le Mans, the 1971 racing film that was the movie star's longtime passion project — and, in the end, the bane of his existence. Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, a Swedish doc made with the permission of the actress' descendants, all but plunders her diaries and private family movies to present the most intimate view yet of the screen goddess (this film also premiered at Cannes, where Bergman was literally the festival's poster girl). And Hitchcock/Truffaut dusts off half-century-old audio recordings from the famous 27-hour interview that Francois Truffaut conducted with Alfred Hitchcock in 1962, adding commentary from such Hitchcock fans as David Fincher, Richard Linklater, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich and Wes Anderson, to name a few.

Another entertainment icon, Tab Hunter, working with Jeffrey Schwartz, turned his 2006 coming-out memoir, Tab Hunter Confidential, into a documentary this year, adding new interviews with Debbie Reynolds, Portia de Rossi and George Takei, among others. "I wanted people to get it from the horse's mouth and not from some horse's ass after I'm dead and gone," the 84-year-old told THR of the motivation behind the film, which premiered at South by Southwest in March.

Hunter, the bobby-soxer heartthrob of the 1950s (who came out as gay in 2006). 

Then there are the docs that celebrate slightly less elevated Hollywood icons. Jackass star Johnny Knoxville narrates Being Evel, about the life of famed motorcyclist Evel Knievel, who made a career out of spectacularly ludicrous stunts (like the time he tried to jump the fountains at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas — and missed). I Am Chris Farley explores the short, drug-fueled life of the late Saturday Night Live comic. And Brand: A Second Coming chronicles British comedian Russell Brand's personal journey from entertainer to political activist (Brand reportedly was unhappy with the film and didn't attend its South by Southwest premiere).

A couple of this year's industry-centered docs don't fall squarely into star-biopic territory. Kevin Pollak's Misery Loves Comedy takes a philosophical look at what drives comics to the microphone, featuring interviews with Amy Schumer, Judd Apatow, Whoopi Goldberg and scores of others. Bobcat Goldthwait directed a film, Call Me Lucky, about his mentor Barry Crimmins, a largely forgotten but hugely influential comedian of the 1980s who later in life gave up stand-up and became an activist against child pornography. And one of the more ambitious entertainment docs of the year wasn't about a celebrity at all, but rather a magazine. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon chronicles the backstage dramas — and too-frequent tragedies — among the team who put out the satirical monthly that, through the 1970s, shaped the sense of humor of an entire generation (and groomed half of SNL's original cast, including Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and John Belushi). "It's a great movie," promises director Douglas Tirola. "It's like a Tom Wolfe book meets a Proust book and they had a baby."