Film Studies: The price of disappointment - Brando's real legacy to the world

The announcement that Marlon Brando died with an estate valued at $21.6m has revived a great deal of innocence and ignorance about Hollywood. "Look at that huge number!" some writers have cried, bitter over the reports just before his death that Brando was effectively broke, and living off small residuals from some of his pictures and his Screen Actors Guild pension. I know that $21.6m seems like enormous wealth, but in truth it doesn't eliminate the possibility that Brando was at the end of his rope.

His house and estate on Mulholland Drive was valued at $10m. And why not? The buildings are not large or luxurious by the standards of that location, and it's possible that Brando had neglected repairs and maintenance in recent years. But the setting of the house provides extensive and commanding views of the rest of the city, with the curve of ocean to the west.

Mulholland Drive (in that section) is a very desirable place to be, and this estate will surely draw $10m just because of the Brando connection, no matter that the new resident will likely raze the buildings and start again.

The other chief item in the Brando estate, the island of Tetiaroa and other small islands in Tahiti, is another matter. Brando bought that romantic escape in 1966-67 for "only" $270,000. But over the years he had ploughed so much more into the property: enough to build a landing strip and a proper dock, a small hotel as well as his own house. It's not clear how much time Brando had spent there lately, but his Tahitian period was reckoned to be in the past - in part because the vagaries of weather (the wind, the mildew, the insurgent ocean) had always damaged or depleted the property as quickly as Brando created it. Yes, the dream was real enough, and in his time Brando must have put millions into the island - maybe even enough to demand a valuation on the books of $10m. But Brando himself had given up that remote and idyllic empire. In terms of the disaster of his children (the way in which a son, Christian, killed Dag Drollet to protect his half-sister, Cheyenne - if that is what happened), Tahiti had been soured for him.

And, overall, one has to recognise how far in his last years Brando had become a recluse, a creature of bad habits, sorry for the damage he'd done in life but sorry for himself, and drained of that positive energy which had once thought to live in Tahiti (and which helped develop that backward kingdom). Time and again, Brando's dreams to help the underprivileged failed for lack of wisdom, practicality and stamina. As a result he was all the more disappointed at the world. And the more dependent on the Mulholland house. Yes, he could have sold that and bought a much cheaper house in LA. But that would have been akin to admitting he was no longer "Marlon Brando", and it would have been to separate himself in old age from a place that had become dark but cosy, dilapidated but familiar. Have you ever tried moving elderly relatives?

I know: you are still reluctant to take pity on Brando the pauper. So in a way I hardly need pass on the estimate - by Peter Manso, Brando's most authoritative biographer - that in the Seventies and Eighties alone the actor probably grossed close to $50m on his movie deals (which includes the $4m he had from Random House for his autobiography). This is the period, following The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, when Brando had apparently "returned" to real acting and could make contractual demands which many found absurd, and which frequently doomed the pictures and only intensified the actor's cynicism.

Suppose the gross income from 1970-90 was $50m. Take for granted that that is so far above the human average. Then reckon that agent and lawyer fees took close to 20 per cent. Allow that this was the period of investment in Tahiti, of crucial child support payments (and no one still is sure how many children Brando was paying for). Allow for income tax, property tax and the upkeep of the actor's grand life. You can easily reach an equation in which Brando actually had a scant $1m a year for spending money - and no one who knew him ever doubted his ability to get rid of that through generosity and wild impulse buying (especially of gadgets, radios and telephones). Never forget that he took the Random House deal to tell all (which, of course, he reneged on) because by the late Eighties he was very short of money.

Then take these other things into consideration. None of his later movies (from The Formula on) did well enough to earn him worthwhile residuals. The last pictures on which he was still earning were Superman and Apocalypse Now.

In turn, what that means is that Brando had no points on the most successful of all his films - The Godfather. His first deal for Vito Corleone was for $100,000 and 10 per cent of the profits. The up-front money was not a lot: around 1960 he had been at a salary level of $1m a picture.

But in the Sixties, his stock and his professional reputation both declined. Then late in the day on The Godfather, in urgent need of ready cash, he traded back his profit participation for another $100,000. It was later reckoned that this decision cost him $10m over the years.

And now we come to a most significant change in the ways of movie-making, and a lasting source of Brando's own hatred of the Hollywood system. He came to the fore in the late 1940s. If you include The Godfather, just about all the great films that were featured in his television obituaries - The Men, Streetcar..., The Wild One, Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar, On the Waterfront - were pictures on which he was paid a flat fee, and nothing else. In other words, his classics resounded to other people's advantage.

On the other hand, it was at just the same time that a few actors and agents began to negotiate profit-sharing deals that changed the business. But Brando was not enough of a businessman to be part of that innovation - his novelty was all in the acting. In time he caught up, and on Mutiny on the Bounty he had an extortionate deal: $500,000 plus 10 per cent of the gross - 10 cents on every dollar at the box office. He made a small fortune on that, and showed his contempt for the enterprise in ways that got director Carol Reed fired. That Mutiny never made a profit, never contributed to Brando's old age.

I do not seek your tears on Brando's behalf - he was too often his own greatest enemy - so much as understanding. The way in which he became so hostile to the picture business and to acting had to do with his savagely mixed feelings about the money. And that's how a movie star sitting on a $20m estate could feel himself tricked, exploited and just scraping together the means of existence.