Thank you Tanya Goldman for the fascinating interview with Lionel Rogosin's son Michael regarding his work on restoring his father's amazing legacy and creating one of his own with amazing documentaries about each of Lionel's films. Lionel and Michael Rogosin's films are distributed by Milestone.
An Interview with Michael Rogosin by Tanya Goldman.
Michael Rogosin and his son Elliott with Martin Scorsese.
Michael Rogosin has been working tirelessly to support the legacy of his father, groundbreaking filmmaker Lionel Rogosin, best known for his landmark nonfiction films On The Bowery (1956) and Come Back Africa (1959), both available from Milestone Films. Since 2004, Michael has painstakingly researched the production of each of his father’s films, producing an accompanying documentary for each in the process.
Michael’s newest film—currently in its final stages—is a film that explores the rarely seen Woodcutters of the Deep South (1973). Below Michael speaks with Tanya Goldman about his father’s career and the context of this important film production.
To fund his project, Michael has turned to Kickstarter. Please visit this link for more information:
Tanya Goldman (TG): Can you describe the state of your father's career after the release and his adhoc distribution of antinuclear armament film Good Times Wonderful Times (1964)? I believe he toured the United States with the film and screened the film on numerous college campuses. As I understand, his difficulties distributing Good Times were one of the main reasons that led to his decision to found [independent distribution company] Impact Films.
Michael Rogosin (MR): Good Times was completed in 1964; shot and edited in London. When my father returned to the U.S. from his travels in making the film, he realized he was in trouble because it was a very expensive film to make, and there was literally no possibility for major distribution. At the time, no one in the U.S. would show an anti-war, anti-nuclear film. He was finally invited to the Venice Film Festival in 1965 and then got a slot at the Carnegie Hall Cinema in New York City in 1966. Then that was it. My father was under great financial pressure and, with the brewing war in Vietnam and my father’s concern about the possibility of an atomic war, he was desperate to get Good Times shown. The Bleecker Street Cinema [which he owned at the time] didn’t provide any consistent and regular income. There was also an attempt, with Jonas Mekas and Shirley Clarke, to start a chain of Bleecker Street-type cinemas but that never took off.
I don’t know the exact way that Impact Films started but it was certainly, at the beginning, a way to get Good Times shown. Since conventional theatrical screenings were impossible for this type of film, he assembled a small team of people and they pursued alternative possibilities—which, at the time, were largely college campuses. On campuses, the screenings were quite a success; one can say part of the growing anti-war movement, considering that a great number of students saw and were affected by the film. My father had described this period of his life as being extremely difficult but, also, exhilarating. I would add that there were also political activities and films being shown at Bleecker Street. But Good Times and Bleecker Street truly took over his creative life at this time, so that he was unable to make any other films for quite some time.
TG: What brought your father to his next string of projects—what we might deem his “American race trilogy”— Black Roots, Black Fantasy, and Woodcutters of the Deep South?
MR: My father had always been concerned or, should I say, obsessed, by racism and anti-Semitism in America. He made Come Back Africa because coming out of WWII, the apartheid legislation in South Africa was intolerable to him. Nonetheless, he was also very preoccupied with the fate of the black population in America.
The only support he could find to make these types of films was, ironically, from Swedish television and he was able to assemble a small budget for Black Roots [the first film in the trilogy] with support from Sweden and a little more from British Television (Channel 4). They were also funded by any small donations my father could get.
So, with that, he was able to make what he considered the first installment of his trilogy, though these works were never presented as one until now. In presenting these films together—with the addition of my films—we are trying to fill in and connect the points that these three films provoke.
TG: Yes, these films seem to have taken on a renewed relevance here in the United States given recent events. Now, can you tell me a bit about more about the backstory of Woodcutters.
MR: Working Together [Michael’s documentary on the film] will explain how my father got involved with the woodcutters organizing efforts and its connections to Come Back Africa. He learned of the woodworkers from Rev. Francis Walters. Francis had been the assistant to anti-apartheid minister Michael Scott, who had helped my father (along with Father Huddleston) film in the church quarters in Sophiatown, South Africa, in 1957-58. Francis Walters was invited to the first screening of Come Back Africa at the United Nations in New York City in 1960. Walters later remembered the film and called my father in 1972. My father immediately jumped at the opportunity to get involved.
TG: With [his more well-known works] On The Bowery and Come Back Africa, your father strove to immerse himself in his surroundings and closely collaborate with the films' participants. Was this the case with Woodcutters too?
MR: The methods in the new films were different from On The Bowery and Come Back Africa as my father had very small budgets—even in comparison to these earlier works. They were also very different from Good Times [an archival compilation film]. The three films of the trilogy all have slightly different backgrounds…
For Black Roots, you can say that my father’s method of knowing the people in his films intimately was largely the way he worked. From his efforts in the civil rights movement, he already was very close to several of the people in the film, particularly to Flo Kennedy, who was one of the most important black civil rights and feminist lawyers of the time. We explore who these people were in my documentary and their connection to my father. The other people in the film were people in the same movement, and they all considered my father as part of their group. So, yes, I would say that he did use his method of extreme empathy for the people in the film and collaboration, but in a different way from his earlier works. He was also spending a lot of time with the participants outside of shooting.
Black Fantasy, a sequel of sorts to Black Roots, deals with the psychological effects of racism on sexuality. Jim Collier is featured in Black Roots and became the main character in Black Fantasy. Jim had an intimate relationship with my father. There are some extraordinary authentic moments in this film, which were totally taboo at that time but, because of my father’s friendship with the participants, were totally natural.
TG: As is the case with many of your father's films—and many progressive nonfiction works of this era—these films found greater acceptance abroad, correct?
MR: Besides being shown on European television, and in several rare occasions as part of retrospectives and festivals, these films have hardly been shown anywhere!
TG: What are you envisioning the final shape of your accompanying documentary, Working Together, to take? Will this be different from your earlier films?
MR: Working Together will complete what I call my “Lionel Rogosin Film Cycle,” which is a film about each of my father`s films. The first three documentaries I completed on my father’s films [those for On The Bowery; Come Back, Africa; and Good Times] had a certain unity of style, where my father tells a good part of the stories and methods first hand through interviews. However, in these new films, we don’t have this material [Lionel Rogosin passed away in 2000] so I use other methods. Plus, my way of making films has changed over time and is, of course, responsive to the materials we can gather.
Bitter Sweet Stories, my documentary on Black Roots [included with the Milestone edition of Come Back, Africa], was—besides recounting my father’s work and filmmaking process—a series of portraits about the people in the film. In all my films, I situate where my father was in his creative process and the social and political aspects of the films as well.
Toeing the Line, my documentary about Black Fantasy, is complete and waiting for its final release, when all the restorations of my father’s films are completed. It is different in style from the other documentaries I’ve worked on. Collier, who was the main character in the original film, is the main character in my documentary many years later.
In Working Together— based on a rough test edit review of the materials I have now—we will go very far into subjects that are only implied in the original film. These have also become clearer as I researched my father’s notes and diaries about what happened to the Civil Rights Movement. So it will be a complex film that will cover a lot of ground. Our goal is quite ambitious because the idea that the oppressed can provoke change by working together across all kinds of barriers remains explosive even today—especially considering what is going on in America now. As such, I feel my father’s films remain extremely vibrant and necessary today. I’m guessing this project will be a 60-90 minute film, done on a very tiny budget!
TG: Do you have plans in place yet to screen Woodcutters?
MR: Yes; all my father’s films with my documentaries will be released on Milestone Films. I would also say that the goal is to do a major worldwide retrospective of all the films and my docs and the photography collection at major venues such as the Pompidou Museum (Beaubourg ), MOMA, and these types of museums/institutions.
TG: After the completion of Woodcutters, your father shot Arab-Israeli Dialogue (1974) and two other shorts [Oysters Are In Season and How Do You Like Them Bananas?], which are outliers among his oeuvre given their comedic tone. What has it been like researching these films?
MR: Working Together is the final documentary in the cycle. I have completed works on both Arab-Israeli Dialogue and the two shorts. Both of these films are also finished, but unreleased, as I plan to have them accompany the original films on a DVD/BluRay release. They are also both very different from the other documentaries as they are more personal. I actually appear in these films and take the viewer through these stories.
Because I completed these projects first, there is the influence of these more personal films in the footage shot for Working Together. I am in this documentary too, but not as the person who takes viewers through the film; I am a secondary character. Bob Zellner—the legendary Civil Rights activist who appeared in the original film—is the person that leads us through Working Together.
TG: I've often puzzled over the decision behind your father's two comedic shorts, they are just so different from his earlier works. Do you think this was at all motivated by his frustrations in distributing his activist works?
MR: Yes, you could say that, but he also had other creative aspects that he never explored. He had quite a good sense of humor! However, it is clear to me that he was totally driven by the questions of humanity and a concern for the oppressed.
TG: Thank you for your time. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I would add that, after finishing the project, the goal is to have all the films restored and released on DVD/BluRay. I also hope to incite institutions and collaborate to hold larger retrospectives of my father’s work.
After Working Together is finished, I plan to finish a very personal project, a film that covers my father’s life and work but also explores our extraordinary family and my relationship with my father. It covers a lot. It is already three hours long…and I expect it to be around 6-7 hours when finished! Since it will be so long, it may be broken up into some sort of series. I’m tentatively calling it You Never Know.
Lastly, I find that people want to put a label on the documentaries on films that I am making and label them as “making of featurettes.” To me, any subject working with the tools of cinema can make cinema; these tools can be used in any way to make an effective film. So that is why I prefer to call my films “films on films.” They certainly cover the production history of each project but I also try to transcend that by producing works that add to the original works and say something of their own.
The photo below was from a lovely and wonderful evening at MoMA to promote Scott Eyman's DeMille book back in 2010. What made it special -- as most all great nights Amy and I have had at MoMA -- was our host, Charles Silver, standing on the right. He was in charge of MoMA's Film Study Center for, well, it seemed like forever. When I first came to NYC and worked for Kino back in 1984, nobody in the film world knew who I was -- I was just a lackey when it comes down to it. But that didn't matter to Charles. On my first visit to MoMA's library, he took a lot of time to help me find what I needed and I had to make a large number of photocopies. I can't remember what the price was going to be, but it was going to be considerable based on my $13,000 a year salary. And I can't say I made an enormous impression on him as I was notably shy and nervous. Whatever the reason, when I went to pay, Charles simply smiled and said there was no charge. A very humble, kind person, Charles treated everybody with a wonderful generosity, never expected anything in return. He did it all for his love for film and his joy in helping others. Charles just died and it's the end of a very gracious and noble life. There'll be dozens more tributes to him because everybody who met him felt the same way I do. It's a shame that Rodin's not around to sculpt a statue of Charles to be put in MoMA's courtyard, but I do hope that MoMA's Film Study Center is named after him one day. It would be a very fitting tribute.
Oh, by the way, the evening this photo was taken, we discovered after 26 years of friendship that Charles and I had the same family doctor growing up -- Dr. Finkelstein from Newark -- who we were both very fond of. I don't know why, but that, along with a shared love of the Rangers, was important to us. Farewell, Charles.
Leave it to Milestone Film & Video of Harrington Park to buck convention on their 25th anniversary.
Instead of getting a present, they'll be giving one. Their gift to film fans: Five classics of independent cinema from around the globe.
It's all part of TCM's Tribute to Milestone Film & Video, on Thursday. The festival, starting at 8 p.m. on Turner Classic Movies and running until after 5 a.m., is the second one TCM has built around the releases of the iconoclastic distributor, based in Bergen County since 2000.
"TCM is just amazing, so great to deal with," says Amy Heller, co-founder of Milestone. "They're the best."
This year is a double milestone for Milestone.
It's the silver anniversary of the founding of the company, which since 1990 has been tracking down, restoring, preserving, and perpetuating some of the world's great movie treasures (both for DVD release and for theatrical screenings). And it's also the 25th anniversary of company founders Heller and Dennis Doros, who started Milestone in their home on the Upper West Side just two months after they married.
Both had a background in film preservation and distribution: Heller had worked for New Yorker Films, Doros with Kino International. Theirs is a love story — both for each other, and for cinema. "We share a lot of ideals and a lot of passions, and we really enjoy working together," Heller says. "It's fun to get really excited about something with your partner, and then make it happen."
Both Doros and Heller will personally appear on TCM – the first time they have been featured along with their movies – to introduce each film, aided by regular TCM anchor Ben Mankiewicz.
"We're a very small company in New Jersey," Doros says. "We're not self-aggrandizing – at least, we try not to be. The fact that we are appearing is putting a face to the company."
The 150-plus films currently in the Milestone catalog are an eclectic mix: everything from early Mary Pickford silent films like "Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley" (1918) to the classic Marcel Ophuls documentary "The Sorrow and the Pity" (1969). But most of the offerings have a common denominator: they're the stuff other distributors tend to stay away from. Most are non-mainstream. And many represent the under-represented: African-Americans, the gay community, women.
"These films are important to the history of film, but many are important to the history of history," Heller says. "The history of the country, the history of race relations, the history of many things."
All five films on the TCM programming block Thursday fit this bill.
"In The Land of the Head Hunters" (8 p.m.) is a 1914 feature by famed photographer Edward S. Curtis – 65 minutes, at a time when feature-length films were still a rarity – that is a forgotten classic, not only of filmmaking, but also of anthropology. Curtis spent three years on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, among the Kwakwaka'wakw, a Native American tribe known for its giant totem poles and war canoes. In semi-fictionalized form, the film captures a way of life on the verge of disappearing (a Pacific Northwest screening of the film in 2014, Doros says, was attended by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the actors). And it has a local connection: it was released by Fort Lee's Lewis J. Selznick, father of "Gone With the Wind's" David O. Selznick. "It's gorgeous, it's really like walking through a window to another time," Heller says. "It's Dr. Who."
"I Am Cuba" (9:15 p.m.) was intended, in 1964, to be a pro-revolutionary Cuban propaganda film (it was directed by Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov, of the well-known "The Cranes are Flying"). However, the decadent capitalist haunts of pre-Castro Cuba were so stunningly filmed, and ended up looking so glamorous, that "I am Cuba" had to be shelved by the Castro government. Filmmakers, though, took notice: the film is reportedly a favorite of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights.") "It is gob-smackingly gorgeous," Heller says. "The camera moves down the side of a building and across the street, and it seems to be floating in mid-air. All of this was done without CGI. It's just amazing filmmaking. It's like 'The Battleship Potemkin' on acid."
"The Exiles" (11:45 p.m.) is a moody 1961 film by Kent MacKenzie about American Indians – not the war-painted extras from Hollywood movies, but actual American Indians, uprooted from their Southwestern homes and lands, who live a blighted existence in the seedy neon-lit barrooms of the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, gathering together for late-night drum circles that are their last link to the old ways. "It's this gorgeous sunset-to-sunrise film with incredible cinematography, and again, this look at a lost culture," Doros says.
"The Connection" (1:15 a.m.) is a 1962 film by Shirley Clarke, once renowned as both a pioneering woman director, and a pioneer in her subject matter (actual, un-fanciful African-American life, as seen in films like "The Cool World," 1963; and "Portrait of Jason," 1967). This film, based on a "Godot"-like stage play about a mixed-race group of junkies in a room waiting for a fix, is also a precursor to the "mockumentary" format familiar from "This Is Spinal Tap" and "The Office": the conceit is that these guys know they're being filmed (the actors include William Redfield; the late, great sax man Jackie McLean; and as the mostly unseen cameraman, Roscoe Lee Browne, later famous for "The Cowboys" and "Logan's Run"). "She was a great, great filmmaker," Doros says. "She could stand comparison to anybody. She was completely adventurous, she was courageous, she was a great editor, and none of her films look alike."
"Come Back Africa," (3:15 a.m.) is a moving 1959 release with a real-life back-story as harrowing as any in the film. Director Lionel Rogosin ("On the Bowery") risked arrest by shooting his drama of racial oppression on location in apartheid South Africa — he variously told the authorities he was making travel commercials, or a documentary about African music — and sneaking the incriminating footage out of the country twice a week by Pan Am flight to be developed. Singer-activist Miriam Makeba appears in the film, reportedly a favorite of Harry Belafonte's. "Think of the daring of making a film under the apartheid police," Doros says. "That's a brutal, brutal system. If he had been caught, who knows what would have happened."
Two of the films in this TCM festival, "The Connection" and "In the Land of the Head Hunters," are TV premieres. And all of them, premiere or not, are being exposed to an audience many times larger than the handful that would show up at a revival theater.
"Movies are for watching," Heller says. "So every time we can get people to see these films, it's exciting."
The real Shirley Clarke
In the twenty-five years that we have been running Milestone Films, we have never before reviewed or commented publicly on anyone else’s film—except to recommend it. But we have now encountered a new feature film that purports to “satirize” a film and a filmmaker we represent and have spent years researching. While we are absolute believers in freedom of speech and artistic expression and do not dispute that the producers, writers and stars of Jason and Shirley have every right to make their “re-vision” of the making of Shirley Clarke’s great documentary Portrait of Jason, we feel we must go on the record about the film’s inaccurate and simplistic portrayals of a brilliant filmmaker and her charismatic subject.
Director Stephen Winter (and co-writers Sarah Schulman and Jack Waters) have created a fictitious drama that imagines what might have happened on December 3, 1966 when Shirley Clarke spent twelve hours with Jason Holliday, Carl Lee, Jeri Sopanen, Jim Hubbard and Bob Fiore shooting Portrait of Jason. The filmmakers claim the right to re-imagine the events that took place in that Hotel Chelsea apartment, but they fail to understand something that Shirley Clarke knew and conveyed in all her films: the need for integrity.
Clarke’s first feature, The Connection, a fiction film based partly on real people, has enormous respect for all its characters, an understanding of humanity, and a love for cinema. Shirley knew that a genuine artist values inner truth, whether the film is a documentary or a dramatic feature. And of course, Shirley did not use real names. She knew that when you use real people’s names and identities, you need to seek and explore the truth in all its complexities. Ornette: Made in America, a film that she and Ornette Coleman were very proud to create, is an example of Clarke’s quest for meaning and authenticity.
We at Milestone are now in the seventh year of “Project Shirley,” our ongoing commitment to learn everything about Clarke as a director, an artist and a person. With the cooperation of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater and the Clarke estate, we have digitized nearly one hundred of her features, short films, outtakes, unfinished projects, home movies, and experimental films and videos. We have gone through thousands of pages of letters, contracts, and Shirley’s diaries. We have interviewed and talked to dozens of people who knew and worked with her.
We have heard wonderful stories, tragic stories, and stories of such real pain that they are almost unbearable. Shirley Clarke was a sister, wife, mother, dancer, lover, filmmaker, editor, teacher, and yes, for a sad period, a junkie. It wasn’t intended, but along the way we fell in love with Shirley and came to feel that we owed it to her to create a portrait of a real woman and an artist. Shirley’s daughter Wendy Clarke and her extended family have supported our efforts every step of the way, encouraging us to reveal what is true, for better or worse. We have shared our discoveries with the world in theaters, on television, on DVD and Blu-Ray, in lectures — and in our exhaustive press kits (available on our website, free for everyone).
We have strived for the highest levels of accuracy, knowing that critics, academics, bloggers, and the general public deserve and depend on our research. We corroborated all the oral histories we conducted using primary sources, including original letters, interviews, and contracts. Finally, we asked people who knew Shirley to check and proof all our work. We have shared this research with every filmmaker, scholar and critic who has asked us for information.
So it was truly agonizing for us to watch Stephen Winter’s Jason and Shirley, a film that is bad cinema and worse ethics—that cynically appropriates and parodies the identities of real people, stereotyping and humiliating them and doing disservice to their memory. The filmmakers may call it an homage, but their complete lack of research and their numerous factual errors and falsehoods have betrayed everyone who was involved in making Portrait of Jason.
Winter and his team call their film an “imagination” of the night (although they stage the filming during the day) of December 3, when Shirley Clarke shot Portrait of Jason. But interestingly, they only use the real names of those participants who have died: Clarke, Jason Holliday and Carl Lee (perhaps because you cannot libel the dead). They did not interview the people who were on the set that long night and who are still around—filmmakers Bob Fiore and Jim Hubbard.
They also chose not to work with Shirley’s daughter, artist and filmmaker Wendy Clarke, whom they never bothered to contact (and go out of their way to mock in the film). Jason and Shirley even features a title card in the closing credits thanking Wendy, implying that she has given her approval for the film. In truth, Wendy’s response, when she finally saw Jason and Shirley, was: “I don’t want people seeing this film to think there is any truth to it. This film tells nasty lies and is a parasitic attempt to gain prominence from true genius.”
Similarly, the filmmakers never asked us at Milestone for access to the reams of documents we have discovered from the making of Portrait of Jason. Instead, they preferred to pretend to know what happened, to create their own “Shirley Clarke,” “Carl Lee,” and “Jason Holliday,” rather than try to create honest and respectful portraits of these very real people.
Lazy filmmakers make bad movies and Jason and Shirley is false, flaccid, and boring—unforgivable cinematic sins. Perhaps its most egregious and painful crime is taking the strong, brilliant woman that Shirley Clarke truly was and portraying her as a lumpy, platitude-spouting Jewish hausfrau—an inept cineaste who doesn’t know what she is doing and eventually needs her boyfriend to “save” the film for her. In service of their alleged investigation into race relations (a topic Shirley explored far better with her powerful and intelligent films The Connection, The Cool World, Portrait of Jason and Ornette: Made in America), they reduced her to a sexist cliché—the little woman—and a tedious cliché at that.
Shirley Clarke was wild, creative, brilliant, graceful, challenging, incredibly stylish, vibrant, and alive with the possibilities of life. At home at the center of many creative circles in New York City and around the world, she was adored by countless admirers—despite (or sometimes because of) her faults and failings. And Shirley is still loved by those who remember her—the people who worked on her films, her friends, her family, and the audiences who are rediscovering her great films. She was incredibly special. The misshapen caricature of Clarke in Jason and Shirley insults and trivializes a great artist and pioneer.
We also find “Jason” in Winter’s film to be a one-dimensional and disrespectful distortion of the very complicated man who was born Aaron Payne in 1924. Jason Holliday’s life was difficult in many ways—as a gay black man he experienced police harassment, poverty, family rejection, imprisonment, painful self-doubt, and innumerable varieties of personal and institutional racism. But he was also vibrantly an original, a self-invented diva, a survivor, and a raconteur of the first order who was the inspiration for his own cinematic Portrait. Shirley decided to make her film in order to explore this extraordinary Scheherazade’s 1001 stories—and the fragile line between his reminiscences and his inventions.
And truly, it is not easy to tell what was real and what was not in Jason’s life. In his “Autobiography” (reprinted in Milestone’s press kit), Holliday talked about appearing on Broadway in “Carmen Jones,” “Finian’s Rainbow,” and “Green Pastures” and about performing his nightclub act in Greenwich Village. And while much of his narrative may seem improbable, the Trenton Historical Society found newspaper articles from the 1950s corroborating Jason’s claim that he was a performer at New York’s Salle de Champagne. So did he study acting with Charles Laughton and dance with Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham? We may never know. But the man who spun those marvelous yarns was not the alternately maniacal and weepy loser in Jason and Shirley.
Here are just a few of the other things that are obviously, carelessly and offensively wrong in Jason and Shirley:
The filmmakers have labeled Jason and Shirley a satirical work of fiction. We are just not sure who or what they claim to be satirizing. The film is not ironic, humorous, sardonic or tongue-in-cheek. We can only surmise that they are deliberately parodying the idea of cinematic integrity.
On behalf of Milestone, Wendy Clarke, and Shirley Clarke’s extended family and friends, we respectfully ask film fans not to base their appraisal of Clarke and her filmmaking on the unkind depictions in Jason and Shirley.
Yours in cinema,
Amy Heller and Dennis Doros
I've been thinking a lot about the wonders of a great city recently. Not about the way they came about, the huge buildings making you feel like an ant among giants, the infrastructure needed to keep ten million people living and moving about it, nor the incredible influence that some people wield throughout the world from within it. It's about the ability to meet amazing people when you least expect it. That you can meet the son of James Agee at a party (true) or how you can sit in front of Nichols and May at a screening (I'll write about that one later) or just seeing the Bee Gees walk right by you on the street (that happened to Amy). So hopefully, this will be the first of a series of the joys of New York and some of the chance meetings we've had over our years living in or nearby the city. And pardon me if my memory fails me at times. I don't keep diaries and some of these events happened many years ago.
The first one that comes to mind was at a screening of a William Wyler series in early 1995. The Museum of Modern Art was projecting a few of his silent works that had been recently discovered and as such, needed a pianist for the film. Since he had performed scores for these films admirably a few months before in Pordenone (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto is an incredible yearly event devoted to silent films), MoMA brought Philip Carli down from Rochester to perform them again. As we were friends and there was to be a reception after the film, Philip invited me to the screening. The film was presented by Wyler's daughter Catherine (a great friend to cinema) and, to my excitement, the still-lovely Teresa Wright. Amy and I had just seen Hitchcock's SHADOW OF A DOUBT just a month or two before and it reminded me once again how this incredible actress had been the heart and soul of this (to my - and Hitchcock's - opinion, his best) film and still better, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. Her acting was effortless, it was always the character present on the screen and not the actress -- she seemed that her bags were always full. (It's Amy's and my reference to films where the acting and/or directing is so fake that it's the kind of movie where you can see that the suitcase of gold the character is carrying is obviously empty.) Ms. Wright told a funny story of working for Wyler (he seemed to have a sadistic streak) and she proved to be as charming and smart as her acting.
To my surprise (and consternation, since I like things to be familiar -- I'm not the greatest of social animals) the reception was not being held at MoMA, but it turned out to be a private party at Catherine Wyler's apartment in the sky around the corner from the museum. It was one of those modern, all-glass window apartment with magnificent views of the city. It was impeccably designed with beautiful modern art. I remember a neon sculpture of bright red lips. This might remind you of the great episode of TV's The Odd Couple, "Take My Furniture Please" (you can see it on YouTube) where Oscar refurnishes the apartment with two chairs shaped like a human hand, but you'd be wrong. It was really a lovely sculpture that fit the apartment.
The first thing I did when Philip and I arrived at the reception was to look around the room and then search for Teresa Wright. She was nowhere to be found to which I had mixed feelings. I was sorry I couldn't meet her but at the same time, what the hell was I going to say to this wonderful person that was going to be new or interesting. (Again, see above regarding social awkwardness, especially in those younger days.) So I talked to Philip for a while and then was there standing by my awkward self. A very nice, distinguished older man was also by himself and came up and introduced himself as Bob. We started talking about why I was there and he was interested on how I had become an accidental film archivist who was invited to a party by the pianist. After a short while, I got tired of talking about myself and asked what he did for a living. He said that he was a playwright and started telling me how he got started. He was in WWII in the military and while there, wrote a play that won a prize and he was on his way. He talked about those early days with some grace, and of course, I was wondering who was this man with such a great story. It was then that a mutual friend -- I believe it was Marie Nesthus from the New York Public Library's film division who knows everybody -- came up to us to say hello and said to me, "You must be a fan of Tea and Sympathy."
Well!... It took me a few seconds but I soon realized that "Bob" was Robert Anderson. He was indeed a fine playwright and at the age of nine I had seen the out-of-town tryout of "You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running" at the Cape Ann Playhouse near where we vacationed. (Honestly, I can't remember much of that experience except I was delighted there was an operational shower on stage.) So, I pretended to be hip and cool and smart knowing all along who he was and told Marie, "Yes, I am!" So we three continued chatting like old friends when Bob turned to me and asked how I was finding the party.
I was enjoying their company so I told him that it was great being there but I was disappointed that I didn't get to meet Teresa Wright. Okay, there's many of you groaning loudly now. Everybody who knows theater or film knows that the two of them were married and by then divorced.... Except for me. I never really cared about such information. My expertise always ran towards cinematography, editors, and film stocks. Reading about stars was so... so... well everybody else did that. So honestly, I didn't know.
Then, Bob told me that he and Teresa came together and she was in the kitchen absolutely starving because no one had bothered taking her to dinner during the film. (Maybe she had wanted to see that rare Wyler film, but I was never certain on those facts.) He took me by the arm and said, "Let's go say hi." I quickly went over to my friend Philip and told him to follow me. He asked why, and I replied. "No time for questions. Just follow!"
At some point -- perhaps even later -- Marie told me that Bob and Teresa had been married but that their "divorce was made in heaven." They were truly great friends and remained so until her death.
So we went into the kitchen and here’s where my memory fails me. I remember her sitting on the floor when I entered but there had to have been chairs in the kitchen. I mean, really... why would she have been sitting on the floor?
I do remember that she had rummaged through her friend Catherine Wyler's fridge and found some cold chicken. She was happily eating away so I felt I was somehow disturbing her, but Bob quickly introduced me as a new friend and Philip as my friend.
Here's where you're going to hate me. I should be telling you about the incredible stories she had about Hitchcock or how she first met Bob, or how...
Sorry, that's not the case. We talked about how hungry she was. How she found the chicken in the fridge, and then what we thought of the movie that night. It was a wonderfully normal conversation.
I can say, that having met a few stars, that there's a reason why the cream rises to the top. Even in her 70s, she was still a beautiful, magnetic woman. Just as charming as you would expect.
All too soon, Bob told Teresa it was getting late and they had to leave. They said their goodbyes and soon departed. Philip and I remained at the party a while longer, but then I left to go back home and tell Amy about my wonderful experience.
Bob and Teresa and I didn't remain friends forever. That's not how things happen, at least for me. I never even saw them again. I had my own life and they had theirs. But when Teresa died in 2005 and Bob died in 2009, I did have left that memory of a wonderful evening in New York City.
And now, perhaps I can ask my best friend and partner, Amy, to write about the first time we met Fay Wray! Or perhaps Nancy Gerstman.