Almost 20 years after his first best actor nomination, Leonardo DiCaprio was starting to look disconcertingly like the Susan Lucci of the Academy Awards. But in November 2012 — perhaps as a thoughtful nod to the fact that he’d yet to win an Oscar despite three nominations, but was widely considered to be deserving of one — he received Marlon Brando’s best actor statuette for 1954’s On the Waterfront as a 38th birthday gift. The gifters were his friends and business associates at Red Granite Pictures, the primary backers behind The Wolf of Wall Street, which had begun shooting that August.
As it happens, he’d be nominated and ultimately lose again for his starring role in the Martin Scorsese film about financial corruption, which DiCaprio also produced, before finally being redeemed this year with The Revenant. Meanwhile, Red Granite’s co-founder Riza Aziz and purported financier Jho Low would go on to become central figures in a $3 billion Malaysian embezzlement scandal that has rocked the country, implicated Prime Minister Najib Razak and triggered an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice asset-seizure investigation. The scandal also has drawn attention to DiCaprio’s personal and professional ties to the pair, who are alleged to have siphoned money from Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1MDB — meant for in-country economic development purposes — to enrich themselves and advance their own global business interests. (In August, The Hollywood Reporter examined how DiCaprio’s opaquely structured eponymous foundation has benefited financially from the relationship as well.)
Brando’s Oscar was reportedly acquired in the fall of 2012 for approximately $600,000 through a New Jersey memorabilia dealer. THR has learned this person is Ralph DeLuca, whom DiCaprio previously had developed a relationship with due to their mutual interest in DeLuca’s specialty: vintage movie posters. The still-active Red Granite — whose next project is a remake of the 1973 prison-break film Papillon starring Rami Malek and Charlie Hunnam — declined to comment, as did the Department of Justice and DeLuca.
An Oscar bylaw, bolstered by a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 1991 that was affirmed again in 2015, forbids post-1951 honorees or anyone who inherits a statuette to peddle it in any way without first offering it back to the Academy for $10.
But regardless of whether DiCaprio’s birthday gift — which he has proudly displayed on the mantel at his Hollywood Hills home — violates Academy policy, the On the Waterfront statuette has other baggage. THR has learned that Brando never sold his award; rather, it simply went missing.
Brando won his first Oscar in 1955 for Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront.
Avra Douglas, the Brando estate’s executor and archivist (and the star’s assistant for 14 years until his death of respiratory failure in 2004 at 80), says the award disappeared while he was alive. “He was trying to track it down and kept hitting dead ends,” she says. “There was some rumor that [late actor turned agent] Marty Ingels of all people had it, but that turned out to be untrue. It would be great to get it back.”
For years the lore in elite memorabilia circles has been that, in a fit of anger, Brando tossed the statuette out his window, after which his then-young son Christian took it up to his treehouse and, toying with it like a hammer, broke its base. Douglas calls this “undoubtedly hogwash,” observing that the late Christian — who later served time in prison for manslaughter — “never had a treehouse.”
Regardless, the statuette ended up circulating among private enthusiasts, drawing a public rebuke from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1988 when an auctioneer based out of a storefront just off Hollywood Boulevard sold it for $13,500 on behalf of a Maine collector. Oscars “shouldn’t be items of commerce; it’s less than dignified,” Bruce Davis, the Academy’s then-executive administrator, told the Los Angeles Times.
In a statement to THR, the Academy now notes: “We have a long history of enforcing our bylaws against the sale of post-1951 Oscars, and, where possible, even those awarded pre-1951. We have on many occasions prevented the sale of Oscars and enforced the Academy’s rights to recover the statuettes.”
Indeed, the Academy has aggressively sought to snuff out the rare appearance of Oscars in the memorabilia marketplace, filing roughly a dozen lawsuits in the past three decades and sending out a steady stream of cease-and-desist demand letters in an attempt to keep a lid on the sector, which reliably engenders star-studded intrigue. In 2011, for example, David Copperfield lost out on Orson Welles‘ 1942 best original screenplay Oscar for Citizen Kane to an undisclosed buyer who paid $861,542. (The following year the magician himself put up for auction the 1944 best director statuette he owned that was won by Michael Curtiz for Casablanca; it sold for more than $2 million.) Meanwhile, in February, Michael Jackson’s estate acknowledged that the best picture Oscar awarded in 1940 to Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick, which the late pop star purchased at a Sotheby’s auction for $1.54 million, had gone missing.
“The Academy is very much aware of everything” percolating in the marketplace pertaining to its copyrights, according to prominent memorabilia dealer Joe Maddalena of Profiles in History, who told William Holden’s family that he’d have to pull the star’s 1954 best actor honor for Stalag 17 from an upcoming auction when the Academy produced Holden’s signed “winner’s receipt.” Which is why it’s notable that, despite its tenacious track record, the organization apparently has not addressed DiCaprio’s ownership of Brando’s Oscar. Despite the fact that DiCaprio is both a recent best actor winner himself and a member of the organization (for more than two decades), the Academy’s only response pertaining to the subject was to send THR, without comment, a 2012 press release regarding the actor’s involvement in the Academy’s acquisition of the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz for its forthcoming museum.
Also electing to say little about the star’s role in the matter is another one of Brando’s three estate trustees, Mike Medavoy, the producer of DiCaprio’s Shutter Island and a friend who in 2015 donated a week at the eco-friendly Brando Hotel in French Polynesia as an auction item for the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation’s glittery annual St. Tropez gala. (It went to a friend of Monaco’s Prince Albert II for 81,000 euros.) “Mike has been in front of [the statuette] a ton of times; he’s very close to Leo,” says a mutual friend of both men.
“I don’t know anything about it,” Medavoy tells THR in an email about the statuette, adding in another: “Marlon was clear: He didn’t think awards were that important, ask Sacheen Littlefeather.” (Brando, protesting the treatment of Native Americans in the film industry, had civil rights activist Littlefeather accept the best actor Oscar for The Godfather in his stead.)
Alice Marchak, Brando’s assistant for decades beginning in 1959, attests to the star’s ambivalence toward accolades. “He never displayed any awards,” she says. (Marchak never saw the On the Waterfront statuette at his home.) “When he got one he would say, ‘Oh, get rid of this!’ [In this case] I don’t know if he threw it away or if he gave it to a girlfriend or if someone picked it up. I kept his Godfather Oscar in the bottom of my desk drawer for years.”
Whether any attempt has been made by either the Academy or Medavoy to address the issue since both parties were made aware of it — at least as early as The Wall Street Journal‘s initial reporting of DiCaprio’s possession of Brando’s Oscar on April 1 — remains an open question. DiCaprio himself did not respond to a request for comment.
As it happens, Steven Spielberg — DiCaprio’s Catch Me If You Can director — famously made a successful anonymous $607,500 bid at a 1996 Christie’s auction for Clark Gable’s 1935 best actor Oscar for It Happened One Night in order to immediately turn it over to the Academy. (The organization had unsuccessfully sought to block the sale.) “I could think of no better sanctuary for Gable’s only Oscar than the Motion Picture Academy,” Spielberg said at the time. “The Oscar statuette is the most personal recognition of good work our industry can ever bestow, and it strikes me as a sad sign of our times that this icon could be confused with a commercial treasure.” (He subsequently anted up $760,000 in the early 2000s to purchase two best actress Oscars won by Bette Davis for Dangerous and Jezebel. Both were eventually returned to the Academy.)
Of course, for those in Malaysia, the 1MDB situation is immeasurably more consequential than Brando’s long-missing relic. “Billions of taxpayers’ money has been lost, and people have died,” says Pascal Najadi, who has filed a petition with the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate the murder in Kuala Lumpur of his whistle-blowing banker father, Hussain. (He and his mother have since relocated to Switzerland for safety.) “It’s bigger than an Oscar.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.