If there was any doubt awards season was in full swing, this week’s growing list of screening events featuring lunches, dinners and receptions all aimed at luring Academy and Golden Globe voters should erase any question.
As I pointed out last week, the Academy’s “official” foreign-language screenings began on Monday night with Poland’s Ida and Hungary’s demanding but very fine White God. But that is just the beginning for both those films.
On Friday afternoon at Century City’s Craft restaurant, a private luncheon was held that drew several Oscar voters for an intimate opportunity to chow down with Ida director Pawel Pawlikowski.
White God’s filmmakers come into town next week for similar treatment with a private screening and reception aimed at those same voters. Saturday night, the terrific Swedish entry, Force Majeure, had a packed Beverly Hills screening followed by a Bouchon dinner reception for voters from both the Academy and Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Director Ruben Ostlund and star Johannes Bah Kuhnke mingled with the crowd (it had a far less splashy official screening at the Academy Friday night).
And earlier Saturday, I moderated a discussion with director Chiemi Karasawa after a Soho House screening of the brilliant documentary Elaine Stritch Shoot Me. Academy members Lily Tomlin and R.J.Cutler loaned their names and presence as hosts to draw fellow voters to discover this illuminating showbiz doc. It worked: many notables showed and even asked questions before joining Tomlin and the filmmaker at, you guessed it, a wine and cheese reception. And this week, a star-studded New York tribute called “Everybody Rise: A Celebration Of Elaine Stritch” was announced for Nov. 17 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.
This kind of activity during Oscar season has become essential in mobilizing potential voters and getting them to spread the word among their showbiz friends who may also be Academy members. After the Stritch screening, writer/actress and former Oscar nominee Renee Taylor, there with husband and fellow Oscar voter Joseph Bologna, said, “Oh, this will easily get a nomination.”
Not so easily, I would say. As with the foreign films, documentaries are voted by large committees of 200 to 300 members. In the final vote after nominations are in, everyone in the Academy gets a say but not right now.
Doing these receptions increases the publicity value and may also help a small film like Karasawa’s Stritch stand out in the pile of docs each of that branch’s members have received (last year the 15 short-listed and five eventual nominees came from a whopping 151 entries).
In this kind of cavalry charge of a race, everything like this can help, particularly in a fiercely competitive Feature Documentary contest where Shoot Me, released in early 2014, must compete not only with flashier, newer, newsier titles. The competition includes Radius/TWC’s Edward Snowden doc, CitizenFour (which opens this week), or Rory Kennedy’s remarkable The Last Days In Vietnam. This year, though, it also includes an unusually large number of equally fine and celebrated documentaries centered, like Shoot Me, on show-business figures fighting valiantly to survive debilitating illness while also still pursuing the high-profile career that kept them going.
James Keach’s terrific and moving Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, which chronicles the singer’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease as he completes his final tour and album, opens in New York Friday and Los Angeles on Nov. 14. A major tribute concert honoring Campbell is planned to bring attention to the film next month.
Radius/TWC’s inspiring Keep On Keepin’ On, which focuses on 94-year-old jazz great Clark Terry as he mentors a young blind musician despite life -threatening illnesses and the loss of both legs, continues to play in New York and elsewhere. Producer Quincy Jones even hosted several screenings in his Bel Air mansion to help the cause.
And that mentored blind musician, 23-year-old Justin Kauflin, performs after many commercial screenings of the film to help draw crowds.
And of course there’s the touching and acclaimed Steve James documentary Life Itself about film critic Roger Ebert‘s devastating struggle with cancer even as he continues to keep his passion for film alive.
As was the case with Shoot Me, the makers of these films enjoyed extraordinary access, even in most uncomfortable and vulnerable moments of their subjects’ lives.
Ebert, sadly, didn’t live to see his movie. Stritch did, witnessing standing ovations for it at Tribeca Film Festival and its NYC opening (she died July 17 at age 89). Campbell is now in a facility, but Terry is still mentoring new musicians who come to his bedside.
Each of these films goes way beyond being a “standard” showbiz doc, to become inspirational chronicles of the power of iconic show business performers who overcome catastrophic medical problems and well, keep on keepin’ on by doing what they always have always loved, the thing that kept them alive.
There was a time when films revolving around entertainment industry figures just did not get much love from the Academy’s more seriously minded Documentary branch. Heavier topics or things outside of the showbiz realm had a much better chance at success.
But since rule changes have democratized the process and opened up the final vote to the entire Academy, the last two winners both dealt with people in the music business: Searching For Sugar Man and Twenty Feet From Stardom. With this year’s inspiring crop of showbiz-oriented docs, that trend could continue, especially if reaction to these films is any indication.
Certainly Karasawa hopes so. Making Shoot Me was a three-year process that not only offered a no-holds-barred portrait of its subject, but also changed the life of its filmmaker as she forged a personal relationship with Stritch through the film’s production and well beyond.
Karasawa was even there in during the entertainer’s final three days in July. She is driven now to keep Stritch’s memory alive through the film, which has taken on a new poignancy. In fact, at yesterday’s screening Q&A, Karasawa got very emotional, saying this was the first time she had seen the movie since her death. Stritch’s death gave the film new meaning, she said, and has given the filmmaker new determination.
“I think the film represents so much of her,” Karasawa said. “It’s really the last look or words that people are going to know from this woman. I just think it’s so important to do what we can to get it out there. I’m still remarkably inspired by her. In the days before she passed, when I was with her, I just held her hand and she would be lying there just squeezing my hand and she said to me – she knew that I was holding back tears – ‘Honey, just let it flow, okay?’ She gave me permission to cry, which was so like her. I was like, ‘I’m sorry. I just miss you so much. I wish you were still in New York. I wish we were still hanging out.’ And she goes, ‘Darling, I miss me too.'”
Getting Stritch to do the film was no easy matter but over several months of persuading, she finally gave in, and then embraced the film. It was a decision that changed both their lives as Stritch almost started treating Karasawa as a surrogate daughter, even passing judgment on potential boyfriends.
The film is now on Blu-Ray, DVD, iTunes, Netflix and plenty of other outlets. And it was in the first batch of documentaries sent to voters in that branch.
“One of the things that she asked me in the days before she passed was, ‘How is the film doing?'” Karasawa said. “So I told her it was going out to Academy members and that I’ve gotten such wonderful response to it from them. We’re building word of mouth. Elaine deserves the recognition for sure. Whether my skills as a filmmaker are, you know, comparable to what is necessary, I have no idea.”
It will be interesting to see how Stritch and these other iconic entertainment figures fare when the shortlist comes out in December. For Karasawa, though, she clearly has already gotten her greatest reward.