Wrapping Up the Sarasota Film Festival

By Megan McDonald April 18, 2011

It’s been quite a week covering the Sarasota Film Festival, and the wrap-up weekend felt a bit like a whirlwind.

First there was a brief stop at the Night Under a Thousand Stars party at the Ritz Members Beach Club--a first-time venue for the festival, and certainly a beautiful one. I had to leave early, so I didn’t see anything like a thousand stars--of either the Hollywood or the celestial kind--but I did enjoy the view and a few shrimp before heading off to see the world premiere of the Asolo Rep’s The Innocents. (That’s a different blog.)

Anyway, Saturday was a full day of stargazing, what with the afternoon’s Conversation with Geena Davis at Sarasota High School and the evening’s Filmmaker Tribute and Awards Ceremony. You can read more about the former in Charlie Huisking’s Arts and Travel blog tomorrow; I’ll just say here that I found the audience’s questions as enlightening (if not more so) as the onstage interviewer’s.

The evening’s tribute, at the Sarasota Opera House, led off with SFF president Mark Famiglio kicking a few of the fest’s signature beach balls into the audience before getting on to the more serious business of handing out awards. Congratulations to the filmmakers behind the documentaries (Better This World and Position Among Stars) and narrative features (Tuesday After Christmas, Old Cats) that took home awards, plus the audience winners in each category (To Be  Heard and to.get.her) as well as the winners of awards for shorts and Independent Vision films.

Next up at the podium was Sarah Green, who received the Producer’s Award and gave us a tantalizing glimpse of her latest project, director Terence Malick’s long-awaited The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. (Unfortunately, we also got far-too-long film clips of her past work, as well as that of the other honorees. Note to festival organizers: Retrospective film clips at this event need to be kept at five minutes or so; they’re supposed to be highlights only.)

Green was followed by Geena Davis, winner of the festival’s Impact Award (who quipped that since it was an inaugural award she’d hoped it might look like her), and finally the Cinema Master Award winner, Christopher Plummer, who accepted his prize with the observation that, since Sarasota had made him feel so welcome, he’d like to come back “a lot.”

He was, in fact, back the next day for his turn at a Conversation With...,interviewed by film critic David Edelstein (of NPR’s Fresh Air and New York Magazine), and there’s little doubt that hearing the star speak candidly and charmingly about his career in the theater and onscreen was a highlight of the festival. Looking natty and at least a decade younger than his age of 81, Plummer reminisced about his early years of wanting to be a “bad boy” at the nightclubs of his hometown of Montreal (“Life began at midnight”) to his acclaimed appearance as a “rough-hewn” Hamlet in the 1960s television production of Hamlet at Elsinore.

Since snippets of the interview will end up on a DVD the BBC is releasing of that production, Edelstein naturally asked Plummer more than a few questions about the role and his fellow actors in it, including a young Michael Caine as Horatio (Plummer recalled that Caine easily transitioned from a perfect Shakespearean delivery to his native Cockney accent as he told great stories once the director yelled “Cut”) and a sexually dynamic Robert Shaw as Claudius. But Plummer also fielded questions about his friendship with Rex Harrison and his hard-drinking actress wife, Rachel Roberts (bringing gales of laughter when he imitated her wolf howl once she’d had a few too many), to his not-so-happy time on the set of The Sound of Music (“The presence of so many nuns depressed me,” he joked) to a Florida experience on one of his very first films, Wind Across the Everglades (“We called it 'Breaking Wind Across the Everglades,’” he said).

He spoke of Sound of Music co-star Julie Andrews as a “consummate professional” he’s maintained a friendship with to this day, said he had great fun working with Helen Mirren on the recent movie The Last Station, and credited his wife, Elaine, with saving his life when the days of too much alcohol threatened his health and his career. Plummer came across as a skillful storyteller and mimic (he does a great John Huston), and he gained applause for expressing his passionate belief that, “There will always be someone walking across the stage in front of an will never die.”

The festival closed with a screening of his latest, Beginners, but if you missed it, it’s slated for a wider release later this summer. Up after that: his role in the English version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (You can also read my one-on-one interview with Plummer in the April issue of Sarasota Magazine.)

And, by the way, next year’s Sarasota Film Festival is set for April 13-22, 2012.

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