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It’s a Wonderful Life: A Memorial for the Generous, Cantankerous and Irreplaceable Bingham Ray

It's a Wonderful Life: A Memorial for the Generous, Cantankerous and Irreplaceable Bingham Ray

If Bingham Ray’s two-and-a-half-hour memorial February 10 at Manhattan’s Paris Theater had been a movie, Ray would have said it was too long. His audience, however, disagreed.

Friend after friend took the stage to recall moments with the indie pioneer and newly appointed director of the San Francisco Film Society, who died in Utah on January 23.

An ensemble led by bass player and Ray’s high school buddy, Frank Canino, warmed up the crowd with selections from the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Grateful Dead. “Bingham was a Deadhead,” noted Tim Jensen, a schoolmate from Scarsdale who said he’d known Ray for 50 years.

Oliver Platt and Patricia Clarkson hosted the event. They were the stars of “Pieces of April,” a film Ray made at United Artists before he lost that job. Platt remembered that Ray had a flair for overstatement, even when fighting losing battles with studio executives.

“He recognized in me a fellow deviant and we became fast friends,” the actor said to crowd that could be heard sobbing at first, but laughed and applauded as the stories kept coming. Speaker after speaking quoted Ray as saying, often self-mockingly, “I’m fucking Bingham Ray.”

Clarkson shared the view of many that Ray could be “a pain in the ass,” but noted that “I believe that he was the independent film world’s Prospero, because he was able to make rough magic.”

In the premiere-driven world of film events, this one had its own world premiere of a film directed and photographed by Bing Ray (high school student), “The Futile Attempt.” A tale of a loner/criminal who ends up on what looks like a prison farm, The Futile Attempt had an austere look that, as a critic might put it, took it beyond or beneath its origins in Scarsdale. One shot of its protagonist walking away from the camera down a country path had a rough Altmanesque lyricism to it – no surprise, given the pre-eminence of the 1970’s Hollywood New Wave at the time.

Another essential ingredient of any film event is an award. This came in the form of the announcement of an annual Bingham Ray Award, a $25,000 prize given by the IFP to an emerging filmmaker.

It wasn’t all people from the film world. Jensen recalled that Bing, as Ray was known to his Scarsdale friends, had a fondness for actors. Sterling Hayden was one. “We used to say that Sterling Hayden was a poor man’s Lee Marvin, until we realized that Lee Marvin was a poor man’s Sterling Hayden.”

A trio of high school friends stood in support as Annabel Ray, Bingham’s oldest daughter, struggled through memories of her father. Like the event, she gained strength as humor became the matrix of memory.

Randy Ostrow, a high school friend who headed production at October Films, shared what was on the minds of many at the Paris: Running the San Francisco Film Society, and its associated festival, looked like a good fit for Ray at 57. “It was the job that he seemed to have been waiting for,” Ostrow said. “It was as if he’d gotten tenure and no one could take it away from him.”

Ray had indeed bounced around the business after what many called the “glory days” at October. It was a jolt, but he seemed ready for it, as we heard on archival tape from one of the many ceremonies that honored him. After getting a job offer from Columbia Pictures when David Putnam and Tom Rothman were there, Ray abandoned the institutional sangfroid and called his mother with the news. He delivered her response with all the optimism of the indie film world’s Rodney Dangerfield: “She said to me, ‘You mean you’re changing jobs again?’” he recalled.

One peer who had watched Ray’s trajectory in the film world was John Pierson, now at the University of Texas in Austin. Pierson told of recently driving west with Ray toward San Francisco over more than 20 hours with the blustery Ray, sharing everything from memories to music. “It was great to play ‘El Paso’ by the Grateful Dead just as we were entering El Paso, but he had to play the whole version of Pig Pen singing ‘Turn on Your Love Light’ – THREE TIMES. One time would have been OK.”

Ray had a past as an exhibitor, where many in New York met him, before turning to distribution. Jim Jarmusch, who wasn’t scheduled to speak, told how he (“a broke punk”) and his companion Sara Driver would linger in the lobby of the now-gone Bleecker Street Cinema, which Ray managed, without the cash to buy two tickets. Ray’s advice to them was to pretend to be reading magazines until all of the people with “legitimate tickets” went in, and then to follow the crowd quietly. The couple felt bad about crashing, until Ray drew them aside and said, “Remember, the Ophüls retrospective starts next week.”

Director Mike Leigh, through Ray’s October partner John Schmidt, listed a compendium of Ray’s attributes, including “giving a dramatic synopsis of a film’s plot, and giving a dramatic synopsis of a film’s plot in the presence of the director.”

John Turturro recalled that Ray and his partners wanted to please Turturro’s directorial debut, “Mac.” “You’ll remember that ‘Mac’ was about a guy who thought that there’s the right way to do something, and the way that I do it, which are the same – sort of like Bingham.”

Competitors don’t always make the most convincing mourners, but Michael Barker of Sony Classics spoke from the heart. Acknowledging that Ray was legendary for his imitation of Barker’s high-pitch Texan nasality, an act that Barker’s wife said was hit for her and the 20 people listening when she and Ray were waylaid at the Salt Lake City airport.

Ray was compared to everything from a cowboy to a frat boy, but Barker chose Jimmy Stewart from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He recalled seeing Ray shortly before he died, at the Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo, Utah — holding a visitor’s hand in one hand, and with the other, “trying to make that cell phone work.”

Said Barker, “It was a scene taken right from George Bailey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ Mr. Potter couldn’t destroy him.” He also noted that “there was a twinkle in his eye whenever he looked at his daughter.”

Ray was always true to himself, and couldn’t hide it, Barker noted. “Maybe that’s why he was such a bad poker player,” one friend said. 

From the Jacob Burns Center, where Ray had been a presence for years, Steve Apkon offered a tribute. Ray was there, as he often was, for a screening or an interview; he went to the concession stand to pay for a snack. And the kid behind the counter wouldn’t take his money. Ray insisted, as was his wont, but the kid stood her ground, and offered a lesson in film history. “But you’re fucking Bingham Ray,” she said.

Ray had heard the line before, but this time, for once, he may have been speechless.

David D’Arcy is a veteran arts writer as well as Ray’s longtime friend and a high school classmate.

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