With that inimitable San Franciscan condescension toward anything too popular, various eyes rolled skyward when the SF Film Society announced the tributees at the 50th SF International Film Festival would include the two most famous Hollywood-type people who live hereabouts, George Lucas and Robin Williams. Like a canyon-echoed foghorn, bass exhalations of "borrrrrr-ing" filled select pockets of local airspace. But really, wouldn’t those same naysayers be wondering aloud whether the fest lacked sufficient clout if it hadn’t pulled such big guns for its 50th anniversary?
Intellectual purists might think fondly of the SFIFF’s 1987 tribute to Hungarian Gyorgy Szomjas or of 2004’s ahead-of-the-cusp Malaysian cinema showcase, but the festival has always courted and attracted celebrities. If inventors could perfect a time machine, there’d be a huge queue to revisit some of its earliest stellar events.
World cinema giants passed through the SFIFF’s gates from its beginning in 1957, when it was local theater owner Bud Levin’s all-volunteer baby and veteran Hollywood star Franchot Tone played the role of MC. But the press was naturally always more intrigued by visiting stars, nubile starlets, and what designer couture socialites wore to gala events. Indeed, as the ’60s evolved, fashion and the bountiful femininity it decreasingly cloaked often overshadowed public discussion of Luis Bunuel, Jean-Luc Godard, and John Cassavetes. A near-topless North Beach dancer known as Exotica riveted attention in 1964, the same year several Playmates of the Month attended. Actress Carroll Baker’s see-through ensemble did the trick in 1966, while the suicidally plunging neckline of uninvited guest Jayne Mansfield meant she was asked to leave. The same year, festival chairperson Shirley Temple Black quit to protest the inclusion of the Swedish feature Night Games, which she considered pornographic.
In 1965 the late SFIFF program director Albert Johnson commenced an extraordinary series of epic afternoon tributes to Hollywood legends. No one else was doing such events, so he got the cream of the back-harvested crop: Gene Kelly, Lillian Gish, Howard Hawks, Henry Fonda, Rita Hayworth, Fred Astaire, Bette Davis, John Huston, Frank Capra, and more. Soon everyone began imitating Johnson’s clips-and-chat template.
But the SFIFF was hardly done with lassoing big names both nostalgic and current. The 1975 festival featured the strange-bedfellow roll call of Shelley Winters, Dyan Cannon, Natalie Wood, Jack Nicholson, Robert Evans, Burt Lancaster, Roger Vadim, Gale Sondergaard, and Merv Griffin. In 1979, Sir Alec Guinness, still basking in Lucas-bestowed glory, was honored in the festival’s first (and last, to date) opening-night tribute. Among the glittering attendees were O.J. Simpson and then-girlfriend Nicole Brown. How sweet.
Due in part to an increasingly cutthroat festival landscape, in recent years the SFIFF has tilted toward sober rather than silly celebrity visitors. Tabloid types now need it even less than it needs them. Still, there have been felicitous highlights among latter-day tributes: Fillmore resident Winona Ryder’s refreshing public dis of one local print gossip hound as "a parasite"; Clint Eastwood’s lovely penchant for crediting collaborators whenever he was faced with a direct compliment; Annette Bening shouting anecdote prompts to onstage spouse Warren Beatty; Geena Davis admitting that unlike most self-conscious actors, she loves to watch herself onscreen.
Less ingratiating moments are often memorable for what they reveal about a beloved (or not) figure. Dustin Hoffman’s bizarre ramblings in 2003 reminded me of the tribute to a ditzy Elizabeth Taylor that I’d witnessed at a festival in Taos, NM, a couple years earlier. I’ve never felt such pained sympathy for an interviewer as during Harvey Keitel’s curt cutoff of every respectful Q&A path during a 1996 event. Then there was the time Sean Penn’s ever-so-rebellious cussin’ before a full house at the Kabuki Cinema sent Robin Wright storming out with kids in tow just minutes into his 1999 tribute.
The SFIFF is never going to be the kind of festival Paris Hilton feels she need attend. But even the talented are capable of charmingly awkward – and just awkward – moments. The SFIFF’s awards often cast unexpected light on professionals we’d hitherto identified by their roles; this can make for lurid fun. Still, I prefer it when talents I admire keep their personality flaws off my windshield. Once those bugs get embedded, it’s hard to enjoy a clear view again. *
FILM SOCIETY AWARDS NIGHT May 3, 7:30 p.m., $500-$25,000. Westin St. Francis Hotel. 335 Powell, SF. (415) 551-5190
FILM SOCIETY DIRECTING AWARD: AN EVENING WITH SPIKE LEE May 2, 7:30 p.m., $20-$25. Castro
FIVE-O: STORIES AND IMAGES FROM 50 YEARS OF THE SF INTERNATIONAL May 8, 6:30 p.m., $9-$12. Kabuki
FOG CITY MAVERICKS With George Lucas and others. Sun/29, 7:30 p.m., $20-$25. Castro
PETER J. OWENS AWARD: AN EVENING WITH ROBIN WILLIAMS May 4, 7:30 p.m., $20-$25. Castro