Celebrity Yard Sale
Thursday, June 30, 2005
NEW YORK Awalk through the exhibition of actor Marlon Brando's belongings, on display in the main-floor galleries of Christie's auction house, is akin to Dumpster diving. Instead of emerging covered in the stench of last week's dinner, one stinks of tabloid voyeurism, impropriety and mortifying fascination.
Brando died last July at the age of 80, and his furniture, clothing, memorabilia and detritus will be auctioned off today. The grotesque cultural obsession with celebrity has come to this: Lot 64. A man's Gideon Bible, with his own personal scribblings in the book of Revelation, is up for sale. Here is the Good Book in which a man might have found solace from his personal demons; here is an emblem of his spirituality; here is the place where his soul might have found peace. Who will be the highest bidder? Perhaps the lady in the pink tweed suit inspecting the remains with a magnifying glass?
The Bible is housed in a vitrine and is flipped open to reveal a circled passage -- Revelation 18:12.
"The merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stones, and of pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet, and all thyine wood, and all manner vessels of ivory, and all manner vessels of most precious wood, and of brass, and iron, and marble . . ." Pop psychologists, street-corner ministers, literary deconstructionists -- have at it.
The Bible is part of a grouping dubbed "religious objects" and is estimated to sell for $700-$900. It includes a second Bible embossed with his name -- Marlon Brando Jr. -- as well as a crucifix and a small Pieta. Brando's St. Christopher medallion is listed in a separate lot.
In life and in death, Brando has been celebrated as a mesmerizing actor who altered and ultimately elevated the craft. He won Best Actor Academy Awards for his roles in "On the Waterfront" and "The Godfather." He left a legacy of fictional icons such as Stanley Kowalski and Don Vito Corleone. And he was one of the film industry's first tabloid rebels and eccentrics. He was known for his support of American Indian interests and civil rights, his numerous children by various wives and paramours, his derision for the profession that made him so famous, his Tahitian wanderlust and his morbid obesity.
In a 1989 letter on display, the actor Karl Malden writes: "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 [bleep]ing genius." Now that's a friend.
Scattered throughout the exhibition is paraphernalia that film buffs and movie historians will be thrilled to study. There is an undeniable frisson of excitement in viewing Brando's working script for 1972's "The Godfather," a film that many call the best movie ever made. It is Lot 247 and estimated to sell for $10,000-$15,000. And the letter from author and screenwriter Mario Puzo, in which he tells Brando of having gone to the mat to have him cast in the title role, is a reminder that the actor's career had flagged, in no small part due to his difficult personality.
Actors and filmmakers could surely gain insight into character development -- and how a star's demands can push a film over budget -- from reading the extensive notes Brando made, on yellow legal paper, in preparing for 1962's "Mutiny on the Bounty." And it is a revelation to any filmgoer to see the list of writers and revisers on the "current draft" of a script for 2001's "The Score," Brando's last film.
Some lots confirm what was already known about the actor's interests and passions. A letter from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. discussed his involvement in protest marches. The books culled from his shelves include "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," the collected works of Toni Morrison and a 10-book set titled "International Library of Afro-American Life & History."
There are innumerable pieces of jewelry described as American Indian "artifacts," which makes one wonder what distinguishes them from just plain old handicrafts, since their selling point is neither their age nor cultural significance. Rather, in at least one case, that Brando wore them in a People magazine photograph.
From the articles on display, one also learns that Brando used Crane's stationery. He owned a multitude of hats including a particularly distressing crusher-style covered in gold sequins. He saved shells and driftwood, and his DVD collection included numerous volumes of "The Carol Burnett Show." He had rather conservative tastes in kimonos.
To the great convenience of voyeurs, Brando lived much of his life before the world went paperless. Colleagues wrote him letters to keep him abreast of a film project's development. Friends wrote letters and sent telegrams of congratulations and encouragement. "I heard you're sick," wrote Elizabeth Taylor in 1976. "You shouldn't eat pili-nuts and ice cream at the same time. I should have warned you. I'm terribly sorry. Please get well soon."
(Dearest celebrities, for your sake, to protect the privacy of your friends and to save your fans from their darkest tendencies, please buy a paper shredder and begin using it at the first sign of ill health.)
Perhaps if the contents of Brando's closets and junk drawers had been delivered to an expert in popular culture, a folklorist or a biographer, they could be pieced together into some coherent exegesis on the man's life or the times during which he lived. Instead, his belongings await tourists who wander in from Rockefeller Center plaza -- where they have spent the morning waving cardboard placards and shrieking for the "Today" show cameras. They hover over the glass cases with expressions of bemusement, periodically chirping "Amazing!" which really means that the items aren't surprising at all. (Surely, it is the most overworked interjection.)
They can look at his California driver's licenses; he took a fairly respectable photograph. They can stare at his American Express card and note that he had a gold one but no platinum or black Centurion card. Brando belonged to Price Club and so visitors can envision Col. Kurtz, in his bald "Apocalypse Now" chiaroscuro, pushing pallets of Charmin to his car. (Lot 198: A 1992 Lexus LS400. Estimated price $4,000-$6,000.)
Stare into a case labeled "various objects" and one realizes that this is a technical auction term for "junk that would have been thrown out if not for its provenance." A wood carving of three monkeys -- see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil -- is part of a group of tchotchkes expected to sell for $600-$800.
The galleries include Brando's wooden garden furniture, his SAG prescription drug card, size 13WW women's pumps, oil paints and the February 2002 issue of Talk magazine with Sean Penn on the cover. There is even a metal sign plucked from his property, warning: "Do not leave car. Sound horn. Attack guard dog on property." The sign has an estimated value of $800-$1,200. Its wooden post comes complete with bits of dirt, moss and cobwebs.
The exhibition may not provide insight into the heart of Brando, but if the auction is successful, the old garage sale adage will have to be revised. One man's trash may be another man's treasure, but a celebrity's garbage is ridiculously overpriced.