Monday, December 7, 2015

LIZ SMITH: The Last Film Festival Debuts!

Shark-like agent (Joseph Cross) with the desperate, down-but-never out producer (Dennis Hopper) in "The Last Film Festival."
by Liz Smith

At Long Last — Dennis Hopper's "The Last Film Festival" Debuts! ... Remember Pearl Harbor. (And Don't Despair.) 

"JUST REMEMBER, you lost to a child and a transvestite!"

That's Dennis Hopper, getting in one more dig at Jacqueline Bisset, in the now completed movie, "The Last Film Festival."

Linda and Dennis on set.
This was Hopper's final screen appearance. He died in 2010. Director/writer/producer Linda Yellen has seemingly made what must seem like her life's work to complete the movie and give the world its final glimpse of the legendary Hopper, who looks handsome and healthy here.

I've seen "The Last Film Festival" in various permutations ever since Linda Yellen began piecing it together, raising funds, talking it up. At last, this hugely amusing indie, about a ramshackle film festival in Ohio, is ready for its close-up.

Last week, Linda hosted a small private screening of the movie downtown at Soho House in Manhattan. I have to say, even if I didn't like the movie as much as I do, I'd have enjoyed the experience. Linda chose one of the coziest, most plush and accommodating screening rooms I've ever visited — every well-cushioned seat has a little lamp, a table, and a footrest that doubles as a storage container. (They put a luxurious throw inside, in case you get chilly!) The lighting is divine. Everybody looked 25.

Among the select group — psychotherapist Elizabeth Peabody ... writer/producer Diane English ... columnist Roger Friedman ... archaeologist Iris Love ... book editor Steve Wasserman ... real estate's Carri Lyon...ABC producer Claire Weinraub ... cartoonist Kathleen Whelan ... filmmaker Lee Campbell ... costume designer Carol Oditz ... visual artist Chantal Bruschez-Hall ... sculptor Karen Atta ... producer Fred Rappaport ... stylist Karmela Lozina and others too, too to mention.
The cast of "The Last Film Festival."
WHAT STRIKES me — and hopefully a larger audience — about "The Last Film Festival" — is its genuine love, and clear-eyed understanding of movies and its people. The callow rising stars (Katrina Bowden, Agim Kaba) the all-too-experienced falling stars (Miss Bisset) the shark-like agents (Joseph Cross) the desperate, down-but-never out producer (Hopper.) Dennis, as Nick Twain, rides with loveably roughshod vulgarity and typical show biz cynicism over every obstacle — including a possible illegitimate daughter — Leelee Sobieski, the small town's unsavory mayor, Jo Beth Williams, an undertaker who wants to be a filmmaker, Chris Kattan, a surly director Doug Mand, and of course, the terrible movie that is being shown at the festival, "The Barium Enigma." (In competition with films that look even worse, including a bizarre entry about the life of Margaret Thatcher.)
Dennis and Katrina Bowden.
Jo Beth Williams and Dennis.
Doug Mand and Dennis.
This is farce, taken to a surreal level, both broad and intimate. But, as anybody who has ever worked in movies knows — it's true farce. Every cast member throws themselves with fine gusto into the proceedings, but without a doubt the movie belongs to its two most famous actors, Hopper and Bisset.

Hopper rarely played comedy, but he had been a long time in perfecting a certain persona, doing a "Dennis Hopper." Well, he does that in "The Last Film Festival" (unhappily for the last time) but there's something else in his performance, a humor and self-awareness that is endearing and, very attractive. (He looks better in his final film than he did in his first feature role of note, 1956's "Giant.")
AS FOR Jackie, whom I have known for many years, she revamps herself here as an Italian bombshell, once married to Hopper's character, now reduced to financing her own low-budget movies. She is a scream, utilizing a thick Italian accent. (A while back, during an interview with Jackie, I complimented her on that accent. She instantly began using it, and we more or less finished the interview with Jackie as the self-obsessed Italian diva of "The Last Film Festival.") It was one of the funniest moments in my long career of chatting up stars.
Jackie and Dennis.
And Bisset is a great sport. When her character arrives at the bedraggled festival, being held at a high school, Chris Kattan leaps out at her with his cell phone. "You look fabulous, fantastic. Like Hedy Lamarr, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner!" "Thank you, But they're all dead!" she deadpans. Later, picking through the disgusting "buffet" in the cafeteria, she says, "Fruit? Any fruit-a? Something without sugar?" Finally she turns to Hopper, who is mocking her and says, "Well, my cholesterol is a leetle high, but now ... eh, I give in, America!" That she remains one of the world's most beautiful women goes without saying. But I'll say it anyway. Why not? (In real life, Bisset is nothing like her age-obsessed, fame-driven diva character. She is earthy and full of fun.  More likely to cook and eat out of the pot than expect dinner at Le Cirque.)
"Well, my cholesterol is a leetle high, but now ... eh, I give in, America!"
I admit I feel close to this film, because I've been aware of it for so long, and watched as Linda Yellen struggled to complete it, out of her respect and affection for Hopper, for Bisset, and her entire cast and crew. She feels it's her baby. I feel like it's my niece or nephew!

Oh, and if the reaction of Linda's first audience is any indication, all her hard work will not have been in vain. In some ways it comes off like a smaller version of Robert Altman's acclaimed "The Player." And Linda Yellen was right on target; even prescient. The theme of modern technology and complete unknowns usurping what we all used to know as the "movie industry" is more spot on than it was even five years ago.
Jackie and Linda.
ENDTHOUGHT: "Remember Pearl Harbor!" Those three words were a patriotic cry to arms, placing The United States at the center of World War II. (The horrors of Europe didn't really become a world war until Japan attacked Hawaii's naval base on December 7th, 1941. Previously hesitant, America joined the fight.)

The catch phrase also became a song (recorded by Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye) and a movie starring Hollywood's fabled Don "Red" Barry, of the "Adventures of Red Ryder" movies.
Today is Pearl Harbor Day, and that is reason enough to honor and recall all who enlisted, were drafted, fought bravely, many dying in foreign lands they never expected — or wanted — to see. But I also thought I'd remind you that the world was not such an "innocent" place back then. Sure, people tended to have better manners, sexuality was not so out in the open — but it happened, a lot.

Nothing new has been invented on that score. Racism, sexism, homophobia was rampant. It seemed — certainly from our now distant, rosy nostalgia — that everybody was all on board with all that the US of A. was supposed to stand for. But ugly divisions were rife.

Right now, we and the rest of the world are suffering new forms of deadly warfare; our political process seems terrifyingly chaotic. But we have been through hard times before and we've survived. And we'll survive once more.

America doesn't have to "be great again." We're still great. We just have to remember how to harness our resources, intelligence, strength and compassion — not give into fear, hopelessness, vicious partisan mud-throwing. (Although the latter is as American as apple pie!)

So, remember Pearl Harbor. Also remember the concentration camps, remember Hiroshima, remember Joe McCarthy, Vietnam, Watergate, Kent State, all the assassinations. Weren't we discouraged? Didn't it all seem like the end of the world, every time? But it wasn't then and it won't be now. No matter what, we do carry on, and we DO get better!
Contact Liz Smith here.