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"I've never been in anyone's home where he did not walk right into the kitchen and open the refrigerator," recalls French, who went on to write about feminist film (On the Verge of Revolt) and became a Los Angeles psychoanalyst. "I hated him so much I couldn't stop talking about him. I hated him until the moment I realized I loved him."
Kaye moved in with French and, she claims, initiated a combative love affair that was battered by his many side dalliances, most of which he didn't bother concealing from her. In the end it was the promise of a movie that bound them.
"We decided the only way we could justify living together," French says, "was to make a film. I had an advertising job and he didn't work. I probably financed two-thirds of the film and probably half of Max's Kansas City donated the rest."
Brandy, a playfully neurotic film full of inventive visual quirks and narrative ironies (Kaye's and French's alter egos are played by them), unwinds episodically and shows, mostly from Kaye's perspective but also from his co-writer French's, the vertiginous ups and downs of the couple's real-life, cross-country relationship, which began as a creative partnership and ended four years later with a completed film and a baby daughter. In perhaps the film's most prophetic line, Kaye says through his character, Simon Weiss, "When I was 19, I made a very successful film, but all that success just fucked me up. I got scared, I was afraid I couldn't do it again."
"Brandy comes out of the diary tradition," says director Paul Schrader, who wrote an admiring appraisal of the film in 1971 and remains a devoted fan. (He included Brandy in 2006's L'Etrange Festival in Paris.) "The form had been floating around in the underground for years, and its best-known example is Jim McBride's David Holzman's Diary. Stanton used the diary conceit and turned it into a terrific story."
In 1969 Kaye won one of the initial 12 fellowships to the new American Film Institute Conservatory, then ensconced behind the walls of Beverly Hills' Greystone Mansion — Brandy had been his front-gate key. His colleagues at Greystone included Terrence Malick, David Lynch and Schrader, the program's lone film critic. Even among these and other strong-willed talents, Kaye projected a formidable persona — a freebase of East Village cool and Topanga weirdness.
"Stanton," remembers school contemporary Carroll Ballard, "was one of the greatest hustlers on Earth — he was absolutely charming." Ballard, who would become a director (The Black Stallion, Fly Away Home, Duma), had attended UCLA with Kaye and remembers his ability to talk himself into any party he wanted.
"He came by my place on the beach once," Ballard remembers. "We drank some wine, and he talked about LACMA's opening party. He said, 'Come on, let's go over there — I can get us in.' He somehow got us in — we crashed one of the damnedest parties I'd ever seen."
The AFI came into being in 1967 thanks to funding from Lyndon B. Johnson's newly created National Endowment for the Arts. AFI's founding director, George Stevens Jr., saw a chance to use federal money not only to study the history and theory of film, but also to fund independent films — and connect with the New Hollywood of the Warren Beattys and Robert Townes that was boisterously emerging from the canyons and flatlands to the east of Greystone.
"It was much different then," Schrader says of AFI. "Everything was free and it had a 2-1 teacher-to-fellow ratio. It was more like a club than an institute."
(Neither Stevens nor anyone associated with AFI, past or present, responded to repeated interview requests for this article.)
By 1969 Stevens was ready to undertake the school's biggest gamble — the complete funding of a film project chosen from among its fellows' scripts. The film would not simply be a big-budget student movie — the finished product would receive commercial distribution, people would see it in theaters. And money could be made — there was that too. Kaye, a high school dropout, signed a real director's contract to inaugurate the institute's golden age of federally funded filmmaking, beating out the bright young film B.A.s from UCLA and USC.
"I wasn't really annoyed, because I thought he was a genius who was going to be the next big thing," says Ballard, who at the time was hoping AFI would shoot a script he'd written about Thomas Jefferson.
Others were less sanguine.
"The AFI at that time, they had some really talented people," says veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff, Titanic). "I just don't know why they picked him."