Holly Hunter, Marcia Gay Harden, Stanley Tucci, Frances McDormand, the Coen Brothers and a host of film industry insiders raised glasses to salute, in the words of David Lynch Saturday night, “the grandfather of midnight films.”
Ben Barenholtz, who effectively invented the midnight movie when he began showing late night films — like Lynch’s “Eraserhead” — at his Elgin Theater in Manhattan forty years ago, was toasted and roasted by a host of famous faces at the Hamptons International Film Festival. The Lynch tribute came in the form of a short, subtitled video message which featured the director on screen, speaking backwards. “He is a great man,” Lynch reiterated during Saturday night’s event at the Second House Tavern.
“All of us are here because of the way you’ve changed our lives with your vision of independent film,” praised Marcia Gay Harden, who served as a the M.C. for the Montauk salute to Barenholtz. She got a big break in Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Miller’s Crossing” twenty years ago. It was one of a number of early Coen films that Barenholtz backed after supporting their first feature, “Blood Simple” in 1984.
“The mischievous pope of independent cinema” is how one journalist described Barenholtz, a pioneering indie film figure who just last week celebrated his 75th birthday.
A leading indie exhibitor, distributor and producer Ben Barenholtz was the original owner and operator of Manhattan’s Elgin Theater and has been a key player in New York City’s independent film scene since the late 1960s.
A fixture on the night party scene at film festivals around the world, Barenholtz fittingly created the midnight movie concept, in 1970, with Alexander Jodorowsky’s “El Topo” and then John Water’s “Pink Flamingos.” His Elgin Theater was not only the place to revisit works by Buster Keaton, but also early indies by filmmakers including Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme. Barenholtz was also a founder of specialty distributors Libra Films and Circle Releasing, key companies of their time. Along the way he also executive produced Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem For a Dream.”
Friends and colleagues from his career took to the stage at the standing room only Industry Toast on Saturday night, co-hosted by indieWIRE, with previous recipients Marcie Bloom and Bob Berney — as well as plenty of champagne — on hand for the festivities.
Speakers emphasized Barenholtz’s fondness for vodka, women and independent cinema in remarks that ranged from touching to hilarious.
“Where would we all be without you?” wondered Jim Jarmusch in a recorded message, while Frances McDormand praised his longtime support of indie cinema, giving him a long, warm hug when she returned to her seat right next to him after her brief remarks. McDormand was a crucial catalyst in making the tribute happen, along with her husband Joel Coen and his brother Ethan Coen. She flew back from the set of “Transformers: The Dark of the Moon” in Los Angeles to participate in the proceedings. Coen Brothers’ fixture John Tururro, also appearing in the Hollywood tentpole, had to miss the night and sent a video greeting, wondering if Barenholtz would mock him for making the mainstream movie.
“When young men would ask me out in the 1970s…” began Annette Insdorf during her remarks, she would always say “yes” to a midnight film at the Elgin theater, admitting that she also had a big crush on its owner, Ben Barenholtz.
“What is cinema in America without Ben?” wondered filmmaker Gaylen Ross, who sent a taped message along with comedian Lewis Black. Stephanie Sharis from SnagFilms, who produced Barenholtz’ directorial debut five years ago, “The Music Inn,” shared a list of lessons learned through her work and friendship with him. His celebration of beauty, grace and youth speaks to his focus on the promise and potential of cinema, she praised.
Longtime friends Bingham Ray, Eamonn Bowles and Arnie Sawyer collaborated on a multimedia presentation that featured film clips, Photoshopped photos and an array of witty one-liners, delivered by Ray and Bowles from the stage.
“It’s a good bet that most of us are here tonight because we’ve been touched by Ben Barenholtz,” began Bingham Ray, “Some no doubt inappropriately.” He continued, with Magnolia’s Eamonn Bowles by his side, noting, “We’re not here to venerate him, his real friends have taken care of that. No, Eamonn and I are here to tell the truth about Ben. We know too much. It’s high time we got it off our chest.”
“The truth is this,” Ray elaborated, “Ben Barenholtz was born old. Literally. As it happened Ben left his native Russian and landed in Hollywood a full grown elderly man, hell bent for fame, dames, glory and riches. He made an immediate impression on Mary Pickford and was invited to join United Artists…”
The first 5 minutes of the Bingham Ray & Eamonn Bowles on-stage tribute to Ben Barenholtz.
The eclectic array of speakers, in person and on video, offered a variety of insights on Barenholtz, leading up to the Oscar winning siblings seated at the head table.
“Ben was our guide,” saluted Joel Coen, who recounted tales of traveling the world with Barenholtz to watch and present movies at festivals and film events. Standing alongside his brother Ethan, he continued. “He taught us to take work seriously and that you can have fun doing it.”
“Welcome to my second briss,” Barenholtz began after taking the stage to an extended standing ovation. “They didn’t get enough the first time,” he said wryly. Fifty years ago, Barenholtz was on the East End of Long Island working as a carpenter not far from the site of Saturday’s Montauk toast. That was after a youth that was marked by his experiences during the Holocaust (and before he made his mark on American independent film).
Barenholtz was both serious and silly during his on stage acceptance, taunting the Coens for not casting him in “A Serious Man” and also warmly embracing friends and colleagues.
“I’d like to thank my agent Roderick Jaynes, who along with God, was my rock and inspiration,” Barenholtz deadpanned at one point in his remarks, eliciting laughter from the Coens’ table and a bit of confusion from others. (That’s the fictitious name that Joel and Ethan Coen use for themselves when they edit their own films).
“Thank you everybody for the love,” Barenholtz concluded on a more serious note, before he was greated with a chocolate birthday cake and a gift from Nicolas Feuillatte champagne, “It was really wonderful.”