Michael James Brody Jr.’s legacy is not widely known today, in part because it’s so tough to parse. In 1970, the shaggy-haired 21-year-old heir to the Jelke oleomargarine fortune publicly declared his intention to give away his millions to anyone who asked, inviting a flood of letters and impassioned pleas from around the country. Three years later, he was dead by his own hand.
Brody was a hippie millionaire devoted to saving the world, but he was also a mentally ill drug addict with a Messiah complex. That conflict remains a messy tangle of questions 50 years later, but director Keith Maitland’s enlightening documentary “Dear Mr. Brody” works through the paradox, suggesting that the tragedy of Brody’s fate is matched by the window into the American dream catalyzed by his offer.
Brody’s story has many layers, and Maitland sometimes struggles to unite the disparate pieces. The heir was an overnight media darling until his checks started to bounce; then, he went into hiding. Decades later, his wife, son, and close friends wrestle with the experience of living in his shadow. We also meet many of the people (and their offspring) who begged Brody for cash. “Dear Mr. Brody” can feel unwieldy as it jumps between those exhumed letters and the story of Brody’s downward spiral, but eventually finds a way to bring fresh resonance to a saga that deserves the extra context.
Brody never seemed to understand exactly how much money was at his disposal, and inevitably misled the public. Even so, his offer catalyzed an outpouring of voices that provide a remarkable collage of American society. A few years ago, producer Melissa Robyn Glassman found many of these unopened letters in the archives of producer Ed Pressman (who once wanted to make a movie about Brody, and has a producing credit on this one). The authors were a hodgepodge of children, housewives, and fledgling business owners with big plans; Glassman and Maitland find many of them.
Maitland, whose 2016 debut “Tower” used animation to recreate the infamous sniper incident at UT-Austin in 1966, again employs an inventive approach to give new resonance to a little-known chapter of American history. After Brody made his offer on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” thousands of letters sped his way, many of which remained unopened. The film presents many of these pleas with actors reading their demands into the camera and while the device doesn’t always work, the letters have the power to upstage even Mr. Brody himself.
Brody himself was a larger-than-life figure who made euphoric declarations to the media at one moment and deranged, violent threats the next. Like ill-fated “Grizzly Man” protagonist Timothy Treadwell, Brody’s such a fierce on-camera defender of his crusade that you want to believe in it. Maitland circles around the enigma of Brody through the people who knew him best, including his wife, Renee Dubois, who’s still not sure how to process their sad story. Set to the typical pile of counterculture music and psychedelic animation, these recollections highlight the nostalgia and heartbreak at the root of a strange and quixotic rise and fall. Brody’s outrageous schemes always fell short when reality intruded and he was a liability even before the full extent of his illness became clear.
By the time Brody boards a helicopter in a reckless attempt to land on the White House lawn, it’s clear he has no plan aside from challenging a system too vast and complex to bother with his idiosyncratic agenda. That peculiar adventure could stand on its own, but it feels shoehorned into a movie that’s more invested in his letters’ sentimental appeal. Maitland’s an innovative non-fiction storyteller, but the decision to cast actors to recite the letters (using blurry 16mm footage and distorted audio to match the period) doesn’t always click: Their monologue performances fluctuate in quality and in a movie driven by a weird-but-true hook, often stand out as artifice.
“Dear Mr. Brody” counteracts these weaker links with tearful contemporary interviews as aging figures read their words (or, the words of their loved ones) many years later, revisiting moments of staggering uncertainty. As we hear from Black women whose mothers wanted to start a business, an Indigenous woman eager to escape impoverished reservation life, and a 12-year-old who just hopes to help her deaf brother, it’s clear that Brody unlocked a collection of underrepresented voices. As their handwritten scribblings fill the frames in later passages, “Dear Mr. Brody” builds to a remarkable kind of emotional catharsis — stories lost to history, unleashed for future consideration.
Brody’s story may have been, as one figure calls it, a “classic ’60s situation.” However, that sensationalist reading doesn’t encapsulate the phenomenon created by his brash idealism. He was a sick man who needed help, not the superhero the world needed for its salvation. The movies envisioned about him while he was still alive would never have captured as much. With the riveting selection of stories from the people who reached out to him, “Dear Mr. Brody” makes the poignant case that this story is far from over.
“Dear Mr. Brody” was originally set to premiere as part of the 2020 Telluride Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.