Marlon, up for grabs
Behind the scenes
He was the greatest film actor of all time - and the most reclusive. Now, a year after his death, the auction of his estate offers a unique insight into Marlon Brando's true character. Anthony Haden-Guest muses on an actor's lot
Sunday May 1, 2005
Marlon Brando was so uncomfortable as an icon and so reflexively private a man that rummaging through his things made me feel less a reporter than a voyeur. The things in question, namely the estate of the actor, who died at 80 on 2 July 2004, were on basement shelves in Christie's at the Rockefeller Center, New York, which was where the auction house's head of popular arts, Helen Bailey, a young Brit with a buzzcut, was researching them and sorting them into lots for a 30 June sale. Bailey flicked her hand across several lines of dangling mother-of-pearl chimes which, she said, were 'hanging there to be disentangled'.
'They look disentangled,' I pointed out.
'Well, they are disentangled now,' she said, dryly.
Everything in the sale has been recovered from the property on Mulholland Drive - known as 'Bad Boys Drive' for the presence there of Warren Beatty and Brando's next-door neighbour, Jack Nicholson - into which Brando moved in 1960. The shell chimes, with their cheery suggestion of a suburban patio, were a good fit with the rest of the goods, which are half career memorabilia and half personal. A red Japanese programme was a memento from The Teahouse of the August Moon, but the Japanese paper fan and stack of kimonos seem just to have been stuff the actor liked. A couple of shelves were given over to what Bailey called 'knick-knacky things' - a potbellied Buddha in polished wood, an effigy carved from pinkish-orange soapstone, a Mayan mini-ziggurat in grey sandstone, three bare-bottomed figures in wood, a polished horn, a black and white ceramic dolphin, various lions and rams - objects which held enough meaning for Brando for him to have organised them on a recessed shelf in his bedroom into what Bailey calls 'a sort of shrine'.
Also included were a couple of pieces of furniture that the actor had designed and made himself, including a bench with a polished burlwood seat that had stood outside the kitchen door. Certain items are so mundane as to be intimate, such as Brando's American Express cards and his membership cards in the Screen Actor's Guild - he was 00003839 - and one odder card recording his enrolment in a programme of tear gas training for citizens (confidence in the effectiveness of this course is undermined by the fact that the card gives Brando's weight as 5ft 9in and his height as 250lb).
I had not expected to find oblong frames containing squiggly Brando cartoons with captions that suggested words that he had overheard, maybe too often. In one, an earnest youth says: 'Man I don't play rock anymore. I am rock.' In another, an elderly fellow says: 'I've been out of work quite a spell and I was wondering if ...'
A game of table football was clearly a personal effect. But this folksy statue? 'That's an aboriginal-style fertility statue,' Bailey said. 'I don't think it's authentic. It was a present from Val Kilmer. I think it's fairly obvious it's a fertility statue from the appendage.' Kilmer starred with Brando in 1996's The Island of Dr Moreau. Does that make the piece movie memorabilia?
All in all, Brando's possessions seem as personal, as unpretentious as those of Marilyn Monroe, which had also been sold at Christie's, six years before. Monroe was just two years Brando's junior and the look is a reminder that both came from a time when movie stars did not tend to have high-end decorators, personal shoppers and art advisers. The sale of Katharine Hepburn's effects at Sotheby's, New York, in June 2004 also gave the sense of a life lived pre-media saturation. Of that generation of sacred monsters, Marlon Brando must surely be the last.
The Monroe sale, which had a pre-sale estimate of $2m, made $13m. The Brando sale is estimated at 'in excess of a million'. It includes such career elements as contact sheets for Last Tango in Paris, a stack of publicity shots, awards, such as a blue Wedgwood Bafta for Julius Caesar, and annotated scripts of The Young Lions, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Chase and The Godfather, but there are no such museum pieces as the white dress in which Monroe sang happy birthday to JFK. Lacking, for instance, are the motorbike and black leather Brando wore in The Wild One, to say nothing of the granny dress and bonnet he affected in The Missouri Breaks. Also missing, inevitably, is the Oscar he won for The Godfather, but declined, via Sacheen Littlefeather, to protest against the ill treatment of American Indians (the actual statuette intended for Brando was economically recycled and presented posthumously to Charlie Chaplin).
These elements, by their very absence, draw attention both to Brando's ambivalently iconic status and the eccentricities for which he was far better known in latter times than for his unnerving talent. The poster boy for macho virility had ballooned. Three times married and spending much of his time on his Tahitian atoll, Tetiaroa, he was the father of 11 acknowledged children, one of whom, Christian, killed Dag Drollet, the lover of his half sister, Cheyenne. Who later killed herself.
His latest biographer, Patricia Ruiz, created tabloid headlines by claiming that her quarry was broke, living in a one-room bungalow on social security, a Screen Actors Guild pension and residuals. In fact, post-mortem, Brando's estate was valued at $21.6m.
Such was the mass of information and misinformation generated by this intensely private man that researching this story has involved searching websites with names like findadeath.com, rotten.com, crimelibrary.com and, of course, defamer.com (which predicted 'double digits of bastards'). My real project, though, was to get a sense of how this man lived his life not from the gossipy echodromes of cyberspace but from solid belongings left behind on his death. And there they were - in the catacombs beneath Christie's.
One of the earliest items in the sale, touchingly, is a small cardboard box with 'Bud's medle' written on it in a childish hand. 'He used to be called Bud. That was probably one of his sisters,' Bailey says. The medals were awarded to the youth for canooing, boxing and dancing. There are school books. And here is a crate of drums. 'He always used to say that if he hadn't been an actor he would have wanted to be a drummer. He patented a way of tuning conga drums. This piano [she indicates a black Yamaha] was in his bedroom. He had instruments all over the house ... his congas, bongos, maracas, flutes. No, scrub that! No flutes - didgeridoos, harmonicas, all manner of percussion instruments.'
An acting award, the Donaldson of 1945-46, for his role in the play Truckline Cafe, denotes a breakthrough. The director Elia Kazan was supposedly in the audience. It was Kazan who suggested casting him as the inarticulate Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. A Streetcar playbill marks this second breakthrough, as do a pair of much-used black boxing gloves. Brando, who liked to spar during breaks, once joined Jessica Tandy on stage with a nosebleed.
He got an Oscar nomination for his second movie, Kazan's screen version of Streetcar, and finally won when he was nominated a fourth time, for On the Waterfront. The nomination certificate is estimated at between $7,000 and $9,000.
'It's a bum's life,' he said in 1960. 'The principal benefit acting has afforded me is the money to pay for my psychoanalysis.'
Would I find clues to this loathing for his own gift in Christie's? It was his over-the-topness as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty that signalled to his fan-base that his career was going off the rails. During this shoot, though, he fell in love with both Tahiti and his co-star Tarita, who he married, and who is the mother of two of his children, one of whom was Cheyenne. Which is doubtless why he kept a model of The Bounty in his television room. That's in the sale, too, estimated at $300 to $500.
A letter from Mario Puzo signals the actor's comeback from his long wallow in the ditch of box-office poison. 'Dear Mr Brando,' it goes, 'I wrote a book called The Godfather which has had some success ...' The letter is estimated at $800 to $1,200.
'I got very excited when I saw this,' Bailey says, pointing at an evening suit. She had thought it was the one, Don Corleone's magisterial DJ, no less; but watching the key scenes over and over, she noticed a small seam on the collar. This was not on the Christie's dinner jacket. 'I realised it was a replica made for The Freshman,' she said. The item worn in the Mafia spoof movie is estimated to fetch between $4,000 and $6,000. Rather more is expected for the black velvet tunic from Berman's & Nathan's, the theatrical costumier in London, which Brando wore as Jor-El, Superman's father. He got $3.7m plus 11.4 per cent of gross receipts for 13 days of filming and was on screen for just 10 minutes.
Brando's girth was swelling along with his pay packet and this seems to have bothered him a bit more than he usually let on. Karl Malden, a friend since both were in Streetcar on Broadway, alludes to it in a letter in the sale: 'Dear Marlin [sic], Last night I went to see A Dry White Season and I don't care if you are 500 pounds or 50 pounds. You are a fucking genius.' There are some books about healthy eating on the shelves and a Total Body Work-Out tape, and another, Integral Yoga Hatha
Videos are necessarily a relatively new component in this kind of auction and Brando's both confirm expectations and confound them. It was hardly surprising to find movies about American Indians, a Discovery Channel series on psychology and a tabloidesque six-part series about purported military and political shenanigans, called Hidden Agenda: real conspiracies that affect our lives today. Nor that there was a whole batch of movies, including musicals like Singin' in the Rain and such relatively recent ones as Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown. But who could have guessed that the brooding and reticent - except when preachy - man would be so in love with comedy? That he would own wodges of Abbot and Costello, Richard Pryor and the Best of British Comedy, to say nothing of well over three dozen cassettes of Laurel and Hardy?
It was the shelves of annotated scripts and books, though, that suddenly brought one nose to nose with Marlon Brando in person. Sometimes he will be Brando the pro, as in notes on the characters he was to play. Here is a succinct scribble on a page of a Godfather script as he built the character of Don Corleone: 'Through The Nose High Voice Nose Broken In Youth To Account For Difference'. There are five pages of notes to The Chase and he strikes a political tone in them from time to time. 'It might be of use if Calder's wife was Mex Anglo American and his daughter and wife was subjected to ... the ills of our caste system,' he proposes.
Brando also annotated many volumes in his library. Some of the notes are casual, as when he has scribbled a French telephone number for Roman Polanski on the last page of George Seldes's The Great Thoughts. Other notes are self-interrogatory, or simply strange. On a page of Robert Pirsig's Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a cult book of the Sixties, he has written in red ink: 'What are you thinking? Oh just the usual debris.' Magic Lantern, in which Ingmar Bergman dissects his parents' marriage, is fiercely scored and lined. 'Horseshit!' Brando has written above a passage in Eric Hoffer's In Our Time
On the title page of another book he has copied, or remembered, one of Prospero's speeches from The Tempest. He begins: 'Our revels now are ended' and takes it all the way to 'For we are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep.' Brando, who once upbraided his countrymen for being unable to get Shakespeare, signed his text ANON.
Most of these books and videos were found in the house on Mulholland Drive, as were the personal effects, but almost all the career memorabilia was recovered from outhouses used for storage in the grounds. 'There was only one thing in his home that related to his film career,' Helen Bailey told me. 'It was a framed picture of him with Rita Moreno taken when they were making The Night of the Following Day in 1968. A love scene. She's naked. It was hanging in the study.' The shot - it's a still so does not appear in the movie - is estimated at $600 to $800. 'It was strange,' Bailey added. 'Just looking around the house, you wouldn't have been able to guess what his career had been.'
That was the way Marlon Brando wanted it, of course. Might he have guessed that the image he had tried to destroy would engulf him? Did he care? I found few clues at Christie's, except perhaps for the presence in the heap of videos of some of his own best work, such as The Wild One, Guys and Dolls and his only outing as a director, One-Eyed Jacks on tape along with DVDs of Apocalypse Redux, On The Waterfront and The Godfather. For a man who so consistently sabotaged his own career, so savagely trashed his gift, this seems - at the very least - rather curious.
· The catalogue is available at www.christies.com. Bids can be left, but it isn't possible to bid live online