Ben Fong-Torres chats with the commanding Donald Sutherland
Over the years, one of my favorite side gigs has been the conducting of on-stage interviews at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Mill Valley is a village of a town, nestled in Marin County, and its the last place youd think of as a host of a film festivalespecially since, right across the Golden Gate Bridge, in San Francisco, theres an annual International Film Festival.
But this years was the 28th Mill Valley gathering, dedicated, as always, to smaller, independent films, but also welcoming of, and drawing, big stars. Pierce Brosnan attended opening night for a screening of his latest, Matador . Felicity Huffman (Desperate Housewives ), appeared for her stunning new film, Transamerica.
In the last dozen years or so, the MVFF has also paid tribute to a wide range of actors and directors. Thats where Ive come in. Since 1989, Ive sat, usually in front of a packed house, with James Woods, Edward James Olmos, Richard Fleisher (director of the classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ), Amanda Plummer, Helena Bonham Carter, Robin Williams, William Macy, Jr., Dianne Wiest, Peter Coyote and Albert Maysles (legendary documentary filmmaker of Salesman and Gimme Shelter ).
This year, I got two assignments: the tributes to Jean-Pierre Jeunet (director of Amelie and A Very Long Engagement , as well as Delicatessen and Alien 4: Resurrection ) and Donald Sutherland. Mssr. Jeunet was funny, charming, candida perfect guest. But it was Sutherland who was The Movie Star.
At age 70, he is known, to the younger generation, as the father of Keifer Sutherland. But Donald isn't exactly slacking. He is co-starring in the new hit series on ABC, Commander in Chief , as the Speaker of the House and evil nemesis to the first female President of the United States. He plays the part of Mr. Bennet in the latest film version of Jane Austens Pride & Prejudice , starring Kiera Knightley. (It opens November 11th.)
And, of course, hes been a star since 1970, when he broke through as the iconoclastic Army surgeon, Hawkeye Pierce, in M*A*S*H.
Tall, elegant, and stylishly dressed, Sutherland swept into the theater in San Rafael (after pausing for a few autographs and photos). In the elevator up to a meeting room, he told me he was feeling fairto middling. But moments later, he bounded onto the stage even before he was introduced, soaked in the applause, and, after a montage of clips from a dozen or so of his more than 100 films, we talked.
Well, mostly he talked. In these situations, Im not so much an interviewer as a facilitator. These are not 60 Minutes segments. Im there to help pull stories out of the guestsstories about the making of a film; about acting; about fellow actors. Theyre stories Ive already heard before, through research. Stories I think will entertain our audience.
Early on, noting that the reel of film clips included the steamy sex scene he did with Julie Christie in 1973's Dont Look Now, I mentioned that Sutherland had recently put an end to rumors that they were actually having sex on the set.
It sure was not real sex, he said. Im an actor. We were embarrassed. It was a very tough scene to do. Im naked in front ofIm not even naked in front of my kids. Tony Richardson (the cinematographer) and Nick Roeg (the director) were in the room with unblimped Aeroflexes (cameras). An Aeroflex sounds like a sewing machine, and an unblimped one sounds like a real large sewing machine.
Julie and I stood there like kids whod stepped out of a cold shower. Tonyd say, You lie down on the bed, Julie. Don, you lie down beside here. (Sutherland made a loud mechanical noise: EHRRR.) Hed say, OK, Julie, bend your head back. EHRRRR! OK, Donald, kiss Julie. EHRRR. OK, drop your head out of frame. EHRRR! OK, Julie, come! EHRRR!
Now, if anybody here can make that work, congratulations!
The audience laughed uproariously through his narrative. That was Sutherlands intent. And then, being the artist that he is, he wrapped it up. It was a beautiful scene, he said, because it was cut together with the couple getting dressed. It was about a married couple whod had that terrible event in their lives of losing a child, so as a result, because you cut away from two nude bodies together and had them getting dressed to this wonderful music, the cutaway, cutaway, cutaway , it so deflected the voyeurism of that scene. You ended up thinking, as an audience member, about having made love yourself.
I read Sutherland (and the audience) an excerpt from an essay by the noted film historian David Thomson, who, in the online edition of The Independent , called him a perfect supporting actor, perfect, especially, when a director needs an actor who can own the screen for a few minutes, someone who brings this extraordinary authority, his own smiling madness.
Ive asked my children to memorize (the article) so they can use it as my eulogy, he said. The audience roared as he continued his rave: I agree with everything he says. Ive never seen a more objective piece. You should all read it. Its so informative!
After screening the absolutely beautiful Pride and Prejudice a perfectly romantic, two-hour escape from the harshness and crudity of much of todays world we made our way out. As we did, festival volunteers handed each person a sheet of paper. It wasnt a flyer advertising another event. It was a copy of the David Thomson article.
The Mill Valley Film Festival rocks.
Next up: A visit with Kim Keltner Wong, author of 'Buddha Baby.' Meantime, visit Ben's home page. No Buddha Babies--or babes--there, but it's loaded with celeb photos, articles and goodies, all at www.benfongtorres.com.