First Time Fest co-founders Mandy Ward and Johanna Bennett with Harvey Weinstein as Gay Talese looks on Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
At the closing night awards ceremony, First Time Fest co-founders Johanna Bennett and Mandy Ward honoured Harvey Weinstein for his distinguished career and support of first-time filmmakers. The 400 Blows by François Truffaut and Kurt Vonnegut's book Cat's Cradle influenced him when he went on to distribute Cinema Paradiso. Federico Fellini and Philippe de Broca's Jean-Paul Belmondo movies That Man From Rio and Cartouche were a part of his cinema education growing up in Queens, New York, which may have equipped him for his relationship with Quentin Tarantino.
Previously fêted for their commitment to cinema were Darren Aronofsky, by Martin Scorsese, and Julie Taymor. While waiting for Harvey's arrival, I joined Gay Talese and Tony Bennett for a lively conversation on movies, the demise of burlesque and tennis with Robert Redford and Frank Stella.
As a two-time First Time Fest juror (the inaugural one with Gay), I witnessed Tony's unwavering support for his daughter Johanna. He told me that he studied at the American Theatre Wing after returning from service during the Second World War and worked as an usher in a movie theatre, which had just been converted from being a burlesque establishment.
Tony Bennett with two-time First Time Fest juror Anne-Katrin Titze: "I was taking classes about how good this film was or that film." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Tony Bennett: Originally, he [the owner] had burlesque theatres from New York to Florida. So when Mayor LaGuardia came in, he banned all the burlesque. So he converted this movie house over to films, foreign films.
Anne-Katrin Titze: Where was that movie theatre?
Tony: I would say Lexington and 53rd Street.
Gay Talese: And what were you, about 12 years old?
Tony: No, no, this is after the Army.
Gay: Oh, so you are 24?
Tony: 21, 22. And I started as a movie usher and he [the owner] would say, "I don't know what's good, I used to have burlesque acts." And I was going to the Theatre Wing and I knew all the foreign films from Italy, from England. I was taking classes about how good this film was or that film. And he would ask, "what films should I show?" And I'd say show this one or that one.
AKT: So you were programming the cinema?
Tony: I was programming the movies. And he said to me, "you are making me a fortune. Every time you choose a film, the place is full."
AKT: Do you remember some of those?
Tony: All the greatest.
Harvey Weinstein on The 400 Blows: "Adolescent rebellion. I was captured by it." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Gay: Were you working as a singer at all when you were 21? You were singing a little bit? You were singing before you went in the Army?
Tony: I was studying at the Theatre Wing.
Gay: You weren't making any money these days?
Tony: 15 dollars a week. But he was so knocked out by me because I knew all the latest films that were praised in The New York Times that came out from Italy or France.
AKT: And now your daughter continues the tradition with this festival to support movies.
Gay: Tony got his daughter in the right position here.
AKT: How did the two of you meet initially?
Gay: I met Tony Bennett in the locker room of a club. It wasn't a rich club, it was an ordinary neighborhood club.
AKT: To play tennis?
Gay: Yes, 96th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, I think; on the West Side anyway.
AKT: And the year was?
Gay: Probably in the 1960s. He played a lot of tennis and I did too. But I don't play anymore.
AKT: Did you ever play together?
Gay: No, no, no, no. But I remember one time a guy I did play with, was the painter Frank Stella. He used to play there all the time. This guy was a good tennis player, Frank Stella. And also one time I saw Robert Redford and played with him there.
AKT: You played tennis with Robert Redford?
Gay: Yeah. He's a left-handed player. Tony was the best-liked tennis player there. Everybody liked him in the locker room.
AKT: When you played with Redford, who won?
Gay: Oh, we played doubles a lot. He is a nice guy. Redford is a very sweet guy, very friendly.
AKT: Have you seen J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost with him all alone on the boat?
Harvey Weinstein on Quentin Tarantino: "In an industry where there is no such thing as loyalty, Quentin Tarantino is loyal." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Gay: Wonderful. I thought he was wonderful. He didn't get the Academy Award, he didn't win any prize at all, did he?
AKT: Not that I know of. I asked Redford about the scene when his character shaves before the storm hits. That was such an impressive moment. It reminded me of the saying that a gentleman uses his butter knife even when he eats alone.
Gay: That movie was a triumph! I don't know how he did it. He was the only guy in the movie. And a couple of birds flying above him.
At that point, our private chat concluded, as Harvey Weinstein entered the Gansevoort Ballroom on Park Avenue.
Here are some of the highlights before the presentation:
Harvey Weinstein on The 400 Blows: I was a kid. I was 14 years old and I went to John Browne High School in Queens. I ran with a group of friends and my little brother [Bob], who was 12 at the time. We used to see everything. Hercules, Hercules Unchained, Hercules Unchained Again. Much of it was for the action but also because the girls were really cute in those films. Anyhow, we heard that there was a movie called The 400 Blows. We thought The 400 Blows referred to something a lot different. So we walked into the Mayfair movie theater, six of my buddies and my brother, and this beautiful movie in black and white by François Truffaut started, which had nothing to do with sex but everything to do with about how I was feeling. Adolescent rebellion. I was captured by it. Four or five buddies left, I stayed, my brother stayed and the two of us had this big experience. Years later, I would distribute a film called Cinema Paradiso, and it so reminded me of my own youth. Because every week I would go back to that movie theater and I'd see Fellini or Philippe de Broca with Jean-Paul Belmondo making That Man From Rio or Cartouche. I got my education, like the boy in Cinema Paradiso, at the Mayfair movie theater.
First Time Fest poster
On distributing Cinema Paradiso: Cinema Paradiso had the worst review in the history of The New York Times. They called it like an episode of Rin Tin Tin. Vincent Canby whom I respected immensely, so it was really tough for me. I liked Canby, he was such a champion of independent cinema, and he wrote that it was schmaltzy beyond belief and too sickly sentimental. So he destroyed the movie. In those days, when an art film got a bad review, it was banned. So with Cinema Paradiso, what do we do? I had just produced another movie that was first time that Martin Scorsese had produced with us that was called The Grifters that Stephen Frears directed. This was an action con movie and John Cusack was hot and Anjelica Huston, and all the theaters wanted it. And, you know, we just said to these guys, like right out of The Godfather, we made them an offer they couldn't refuse. If they didn't take Cinema Paradiso, they weren't getting The Grifters. So a long time ago, the corporate motto was born because I read Kurt Vonnegut's book Cat's Cradle and it says: "Good triumphs over evil if the angels are as organised as the mafia"… Because the theatres were forced to hold [Cinema Paradiso], lo and behold, they learned something too, which was that they could actually have a play in this world. They didn't have to blindly book what everyone else did. They can nourish something.
On Django Unchained director Quentin Tarantino: We produced every movie of his. It's been our family business. He is a brother. He built my company, he is the most ethical and he has the most integrity. In an industry where there is no such thing as loyalty, Quentin Tarantino is loyal. He is loyal to his friends, he is loyal to us, good times and bad times and subsequently, we've been loyal right back.
On Responsibility: I'm so sick of movie companies never taking the blame when something doesn't work. An artist does a great job on something and because we screw it up with bad marketing or bad timing or no courage and we mis-read the tea leaves. I did a movie called Into The West. It's one of my favorite movies. Gabriel Byrne told me a story in a bar about two gypsy kids who steal a white horse. Jim Sheridan wrote the screenplay, Mike Newell directed it. A beautiful fable. I didn't know how to sell it. We sold it as a kids movie which was so stupid at the end of the day. Really it was like this adult fairy tale. I was so flabbergasted, I took out a half page ad in The New York Times: The reason that this movie Into the West you are not seeing is because we did a shit campaign.
On being an independent company: It was rough for a while. The dialogue was right out of Giant. It was like what James Dean said to Rock Hudson: "You should have killed me when I was born." But no more pity parties for us now. When they had us, they should have killed us.
On diversity at the Academy Awards: It's funny, people were talking about diversity at this year's Academy Awards because of Selma. Try this one on for size. I did 130 million dollars with The Butler press, 16 million on Fruitvale Station and 25 Million on Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and I didn't get an Oscar nomination for all three. They said 12 Years A Slave is going to be the one movie that was nominated. So what happened? You can't put three black actors in the Best Actor category? You can't put two black screenwriters in? Oprah Winfrey, who killed it, Forest Whitaker and David Oyelowo supporting [in Lee Daniel's The Butler]. Where were you defending me last year?