Mr. Chatterbox

By staff March 1, 2004

Boy, wasn't that film festival something? True, there may have been a few glitches here and there. But this year the town got involved as never before, following every little drama, attending every movie, crashing every party. Molly Haskell, executive director of the first Sarasota Film Festival (the French one), used to say that a good film festival thrives in an atmosphere of crisis. Well, if that's true, then this year's must have been great.

First of all, the celebrities were perfect. When you think about it, what is a film festival other than the perfect opportunity to invite celebrities to your town? You get to study them up close, reach a judgment on their worth as human beings, and then dump them and go on to the next celebrity. Any film festival is ultimately judged by the quality of the celebrities who show up.

This year we had a great blend. Old movie stars, TV actors desperate to "cross over," famed British thespians, and a couple of true Hollywood legends thrown in for a little sugar and spice. Everybody adored honoree Louise Fletcher, the original Nurse Ratched from Cuckoo's Nest, although our executive editor, Kay Kipling, had a disturbing experience in the ladies room. A woman came up to her and congratulated her. Kay, with her inimitable wit, replied "Huh?" and only when she got back to her seat did she realize that she had been mistaken for Ms. Fletcher. A rare compliment, until Kay remembered that Louise had just starred on Broadway as a 101-year-old woman and won raves for a totally convincing performance.

And what's with this strange friendship that's developed between local millionaire playboy Mark Famiglio and Hollywood bad boy Woody Harrelson? I hear Mark's Siesta Key showplace is the spot for the festival's "in" crowd to hang out at, and that wild parties are held around the hot tub. It's supposed to be just impossibly hip and glamorous. Or so I thought until I heard that Charlie Huisking from the Herald-Tribune got invited. There's something about a wild hot tub party with Charlie Huisking in attendance . . . it's just not coming into focus.

The celebrity who came off the best was Patrick Stewart. The mayor flirted with him so shamelessly it got into the newspaper-the mayor's a woman, fortunately, Lou Ann Palmer-and when he spoke to the acting students at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory about his career in the theater, particularly when he toured as Othello with an all-black troupe of actors, people actually began to cry.

But if Patrick was the hero this year, then Billy Crystal was the villain. He was here to support his daughter Lindsay's documentary about her lovable and very old great-uncle Berns, but he didn't do a very good job. The local press found him aloof and hard to talk to. You know how Marjorie North can really stick it to somebody if they cross her? She doesn't really say anything bad, she just implies. Well, this time she implied so vividly you could actually picture the whole thing. And it wasn't just Marjorie. As one other local matron put it: "He didn't seem interested in anything I said the whole time I was talking to him."

But what made this year so great was that the unimaginable finally happened. They couldn't find anybody to honor. They always give some legendary actor or director a lifetime achievement award at a fancy black-tie dinner on closing night. So far they've had people like Jon Voight, Sydney Pollack and Richard Dreyfuss. But this year all the stars who were stringing them along (I heard Peter O'Toole, Pierce Brosnan and John Travolta) all finally said no.

Here they sold 700 tickets to the dinner, at $225 a pop, and they had nobody to honor. They finally said they were going to honor whatever stars were willing to hang around. Then-at the last minute, the Thursday before the Saturday the event was supposed to happen, in fact-they announced Robert Benton was coming. You remember him -he wrote Bonnie and Clyde and directed Kramer vs. Kramer.

Fortunately he carried off what could have been an awkward situation with just the right touch. He's dyslexic, and when he began reading his thank-you speech your heart went out to him because it sounded a little stilted and uncertain. But then, with the genius of a great director, he put the printed words aside and spoke movingly about how a movie crew is like a family. There was hardly a dry eye in the house, except for Kay Kipling, who was still fuming over the incident in the ladies room.

An unexpected twist, a crisis that comes out of nowhere, can really add a lot to a film festival; and this year we had one of the best. It seems that the juror of industry insiders the Festival had put together to give out prizes to the younger filmmakers refused to do so. They said there were no clear winners. And then, to add insult to injury, the jury put the prize money toward a scholarship fund. It came across like "Ugh. Here, take this money and go learn something." Naturally the filmmakers were furious and even started crying in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton and then yelled insults at the jurors. I hope somebody got it on tape. Next year they should put me on the jury. I can pick the winner of an ill-conceived bake-off with only three entries. In fact, I have, on several occasions.

Sarasota doesn't yet have the prestige of many other festivals. It's still an outsider. But that is exactly what makes it so great. The human drama outshines the drama on screen. You see stars past their prime, able once again to bask in the glow of the fans' love. You see hard, ambitious young actors totally convinced the not-very-good movie they made is a great work of art. You see festival executive director Jody Kielbasa with his job on the line at every turn.

You also see strange, surreal moments that could only happen in Sarasota. Like Woody Harrelson at the wrap party, deep in conversation with . . . Katherine Harris? It turns out they had a lot in common, Katherine told the paper.

Ah, the power of film.

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