“Every movie needs a rabbi,” Samuel Goldwyn once wrote. His comment seems relevant to two movies bowing this weekend, both in urgent need of help. One has a world-class rabbi, the other an invisible one.
Oprah Winfrey, as mega-energized as ever, has gone multimedia pitching her new film, whose title is as complex as its plot line. Fortunately, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an HBO movie, so there’s no panic about its box office opening. Only Oprah could stir excitement for the story of an African-American woman whose tissue samples in 1951 proved so resilient that they created the basis for drugs to combat cancer or AIDS.
But if that one-liner might be a hard sell, consider The Promise, a sprawling $100 million epic dealing with the Armenian genocide of 1915. That film stars Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac and is directed by Terry George (who shot Hotel Rwanda). Its “rabbi,” Kirk Kerkorian, personally put up most of the production cost but died just before the start of production. Although he loved movies – he had bought and sold MGM three times — Kerkorian harbored serious doubts about making this one, which opens Friday on 2,000 screens.
On one level, The Promise is a panoramic love story about a medical student (Isaac), a dance instructor (Charlotte le Bon) and a journalist (Bale), who happens upon their story and is drawn into it. Their affair is set against a tragic background: The Ottoman Empire is on its last legs and has set in motion a vicious program of genocide to exterminate its Armenian minority. The devastating death toll would be some 1.5 million (Turkey never has acknowledged the genocide).
Kerkorian’s own family escaped to the U.S., settling initially in the San Joaquin Valley, but many relatives were lost in the tragedy. As Anita Busch reported last year, Kerkorian, in his 90s, became personally involved in the development of The Promise but died in 2015 at 98. His name appears at the end of the final credits, which itself was a milestone: While the billionaire was a generous contributor to causes, he never publicized his giving nor put his name on buildings. Kerkorian understood he was a public figure because of his investments in Las Vegas and MGM but nonetheless disdained the Hollywood glitz. He never went to celebrity screenings, even of MGM films, preferring to stand in line with the paying public at the Westwood Village or Arclight theaters.I got to know this remote man almost by accident when I worked at MGM in the 1980s. I was walking toward the commissary one afternoon when he emerged from a side street. We exchanged nods, but I kept walking until I felt a hand on my shoulder and we were suddenly engaged in conversation. I do not remember the precise dialogue, but it went something like this:
“I don’t make movies — I don’t even pick movies,” he said. “But there’s one movie I really need to make.”
“Do you want to tell me its subject matter?” I asked, perplexed.
“No, I don’t,” he said abruptly. “But I just told it to Frank Yablans, and he shot it down.” Yablans, then president of MGM, was blunt, even to his boss.
Kerkorian guided me back toward the building entrance so we would not be interrupted. The movie he had in mind, it emerged, would be set against the background of World War I and would deal with the program to exterminate the Armenians. To Kerkorian, this was a historic event and a personal one that had been all but banished from everyone’s memory and even from many history books. Wasn’t it time for the story to be told? Yablans argued that the public was not ready for another Holocaust movie, that even critics would be unreceptive.
Kerkorian was troubled by all this and posed the following question to me: “When you own a studio, isn’t it your obligation to make the movie you believe in?”
I honestly did not know how to reply, except with a nod of affirmation.
Here was a man who would bet hundreds of millions on an airline (Western) and a casino (the Flamingo), not to mention a movie studio (MGM), but he was reluctant to bet on this movie.
Kerkorian was not accustomed to personal exchanges of this sort, and he started to look uncomfortable about ours. I offered my hand, then drifted off to the commissary and he back to his office at what was then called the Thalberg Building.
I saw little of Kerkorian during my next three years at MGM, nor did other studio executives. Although always gracious in public, Kerkorian was a man who kept to himself. But I left MGM three years later, and Kerkorian was soon to sell it yet again, this time to Ted Turner.
Meanwhile, I had started working on a book about Kerkorian’s colorful reign at MGM. It was called Fade Out, and after finishing a rough draft, I impulsively sent a note to him asking if he would read it and make suggestions. To my delight he agreed and quickly sent his comments, which were thoughtful and constructive. Although my book detailed some of his dealings with the “bad guys” in Las Vegas, and reported on the criminal investigations of that period, Kerkorian did not ask me to change a word. In fact, he supplied many helpful details.
The topic of genocide inevitably came up during our exchanges. MGM had financed box office losers like Pennies From Heaven and 2010 (the ill-starred sequel to A Space Odyssey), so did he regret never having made the film about the genocide? He might get to it someday, Kerkorian assured me. The theme of that movie still was important to him.
Were Kerkorian alive this weekend, he surely would be pouring resources and energy into its promotion. Because that was, in a way, his “Promise.”
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