2020s

Rich Man, Poor Man: Keith Maitland’s ‘Dear Mr. Brody’

Director Keith Maitland (Tower, A Song for You: The Austin City Limits Story) returns with another engrossing and sharply made documentary in Dear Mr. Brody, the quirky tale of margarine heir Michael James Brody Jr. Not long after the subject turned 21, he grabbed his 15 minutes of fame at the dawn of the 1970s when he publicly announced plans to give away his estimated 25 million dollar fortune — in a variety of small and large amounts — to those who contacted him directly. Predictably, requests for cash poured in by the thousands. The contents of those letters, many of which are opened and read for the first time on camera in Dear Mr. Brody, run parallel to the whirlwind biography of the “hippie millionaire,” all of it woven together by the filmmaker in a moving mosaic of unrealized hopes and dreams.

At one point, prolific producer Ed Pressman (who met the heir in the early 70s in New York City) intended to transform Brody’s story into a feature film starring Richard Dreyfuss, but the project never came together. Other scripts by aspiring storytellers were written, but Pressman — who serves as an executive producer and appears in Dear Mr. Brody — acquired about a dozen large boxes filled with an avalanche of the subject’s mail. Those North Pole-like messages sat in storage in Los Angeles until they were rediscovered by Pressman’s then-assistant Melissa Robyn Glassman, whose own curiosity and empathy are a major force behind the film’s central quest: locating letter writers, or their surviving family members, and recording their reactions to what they had to say all those decades ago.

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Dear Mr. Brody supports multiple readings, but there is little question that Maitland gravitates to the earnest and sometimes heartbreaking personal reasons offered by many of the people who asked Brody for money. The subject himself is much harder to figure, even though Maitland spends plenty of time in conversation with members of the heir’s inner circle. Was the young philanthropist genuinely interested in using his resources to establish world peace or was he using the cash giveaway as a publicity stunt to attract the attention of the media and further his recording career and his fame? Was he a poor little rich boy or a con artist?

Maitland’s sense of graphic design and visual organization are chief pleasures of Dear Mr. Brody. The movie sparks with a rapid-fire cascade of images, including plentiful stock footage, perfectly grainy stagings and re-imaginings, a wealth of archival Brody news stories and appearances on TV (including a visit to Ed Sullivan’s show), colorful animations and a multitude of close-ups of the handwriting, photographs, documents (which include everything from poems to hospital bills to invention schematics) and artwork that adorned both the inside and the outside of the envelopes delivered to Brody’s home or office.

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Key players in the saga, led by the clear-eyed and contemplative Renee DuBois Brody — who married Michael after knowing him just a few weeks — provide helpful context and connect events of more than half a century ago to today by showing how the more things change, the more they stay the same. Incredibly, the original duration of Brody’s offer lasted less than two weeks before things fell apart, but not before he squeezed in a meeting with John Lennon and offered a joint to Walter Cronkite. Brody’s brief moment anticipates the instant celebrity cultivated today via the reach of the internet. The money, privilege and power that he enjoyed stands in contrast to the sadness of so many who hoped in vain that the heir would be true to his word.

Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is a professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.