It was a pretty intense ten days.
Fifty years is a long time, so you must forgive those who’ve forgotten they wrote to Michael Brody Jr. in the first place. A lot of people did, though. Why wouldn’t they upon hearing how the twenty-one-year-old heir to a margarine fortune was publicly giving it away in a bid for world peace? Brody and his wife Renee‘s faces were plastered on magazine covers, newspapers, and TV thanks to Ed Sullivan. Americans from coast to coast were clamoring to get them on the phone or through the mail so they could explain why they deserved some of his money. New Yorkers even drove to his office to wait in line for a chance to talk in-person, their hopes and dreams seemingly hours away from finally being fulfilled.
That’s the image the media presented at least. That’s what most people who remember Brody’s name probably believe too. One could ask whether many do at all considering the circus surrounding that declaration lasted less than two weeks. It isn’t, however, the truth. Not completely. Because the events of those ten days need a lot of more context to begin seeing the full picture—context stumbled upon by Melissa Robyn Glassman when visiting the storage unit of her boss, film producer Edward R. Pressman. There on the top shelf were boxes labeled “Brody” full of unopened letters postmarked January 1970. In those envelopes were the prayers of tens of thousands of Americans in desperate need of the love their potential savior was offering. And yet none were heard.
Documentarian Keith Maitland sets out to discover why with his latest film Dear Mr. Brody. More than a deep dive into those wild days or even Brody himself, this is a look at a country in disrepair. Because regardless of whether this over-zealous hippie was a saint or a charlatan, those people and their stories were very real. Parents who couldn’t feed their starving children. Children who couldn’t stop their parents’ abuse. Passionate souls with grand ideas they know will succeed if only someone believed in them enough to stake the seed money. One gentleman even sent Brody a check for two dollars to help the cause. Sure, there were some crackpots and opportunists reaching out for greed rather than necessity, but most were genuine pleas for help.
And it appears Brody knew this. Maitland may unravel his film with a carefully planned narrative structure that purposefully hides certain details to paint an ever-devolving picture of his subject, but Brody’s mission to end hunger and strife is consistent throughout. He meant it when he said he was selling love rather than money. He tried to steer the conversation away from what he was doing towards why he was doing it by focusing on the government’s failure to accomplish the same things. Even in 1970, though, altruism didn’t sell papers or ad-space. The media and its audience wanted entertainment. They sought chaos. And Brody serving himself on a platter by giving out his address provided it in spades until his cheery demeanor inevitably shifted into dark exasperation.
I don’t want to ruin Maitland’s measured reveals, though. I knew nothing of the story going in and I think that’s the best way to fully experience its complexity. There are drugs, newspaper hit-pieces, armed robbery, and a run-in with Secret Service. There are record contracts, devout followers, and embellished numbers. Whenever something seems too good to be true, someone arrives to prove legitimacy. But does that legitimacy extend to Brody’s endeavor or just that single example? Is someone desperate for a couple thousand dollars to get on their feet going to care about that nuance? No. They’re going to shoot their shot and hope for the best. They’re going to post that letter and let fate decide. Who knew someone would finally answer half a century later?
It might not be Brody reaching back through time, but you cannot deny the power of Glassman serving as his surrogate. She’s not giving these people the money they requested, but she is giving their voices the forum to be heard. And those voices are familiar because they’re the same ones leaving messages on the answering machines of congresspeople and senators despite being a few generations removed. The battles that were being waged behind their closed doors are still unfortunately being waged today while billionaires get ever richer during a global pandemic. But that’s not even the most resonant part of the whole since those letters are also personal time capsules ready to unleash a flood of emotions from their authors and descendants. Their pain and love coexisting.
So, while Brody’s story proves wildly entertaining and tragic in ways you cannot imagine when first hearing his confidant charitable promise, Dear Mr. Brody‘s real value is in the people he touched even if he never met them or read their words. It’s the doodles on envelopes. The safety pin staples. The photographs and secrets and naked vulnerability. Brody said he’d give them all a piece of himself, but it is them who gave us a gift with their honesty and the opportunity to look inside ourselves to maybe pay it forward in whatever way we can for those who are still struggling to survive. Because as one gentleman says in an interview while waiting in line at Brody’s office, someone will always be hurting worse than you.
courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment