A coterie of strapping and stylish Israelis gathered at the Writers Guild of America Theatre on April 18 for the opening night of the 27th annual Israel Film Festival, which doled out honors to the former head of Paramount Pictures, Sherry Lansing, and the actor Martin Landau.
After cocktails and hors d’oeurves, festival attendees piled into the 540-seat theater for a screening of “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring” and a short ceremony emceed by Jewish L.A.’s go-to guy, comedian Elon Gold. Gold, who admittedly performed gratis, reprised his chockablock Jewish routine which by now is mostly recycled shtick. But he did manage to get a good laugh when discussing President Obama’s recent trip to Israel, and in particular, his introduction to the newly crowned, Ethiopian-born Miss Israel, Yityish Aynaw, who is roundly celebrated as “the first black Miss Israel.”
“Boy that worked out well,” Gold deadpanned.
After introducing the producer Avi Lerner, Chairman and founder of Nu Image and Millennium Films (the latter of which has since been put on the auction block) as a longtime supporter of the festival, Lerner’s extremely pithy remarks prompted a clean and clever retort: “That was the least amount of words ever spoken by an Israeli,” Gold said.
Lansing was more prolific with her prose, recounting major steps in a long, colorful career. She ultimately became the first female ever to head a major Hollywood studio before “rewiring” to run the non-profit Sherry Lansing Foundation. Lansing began her remarks with a generous acknowledgement of the Israeli entertainment industry.
“Israeli movies and TV shows are so original, we’re copying them,” she said, adding that what sets Israeli culture apart is its willingness to be self-critical. “That’s very unusual,” she said, citing films like the Oscar-nominated “Waltz With Bashir,” “Lebanon,” and one of Israel’s two 2013 Oscar nominees, “The Gatekeepers.” She also said “Homeland” and “In Treatment” are “two of my favorite shows in my entire life.”
It was a reflective night for Lansing, who, at 67, was being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award though she shows no signs of slowing down. She is now a prolific philanthropist, focusing on education and healthcare as well as a Regent of the University of California, among other involvements. And although her moviemaking days are over, she celebrated their legacy in her life, films that inspired her growing up on the south side of Chicago to overseeing icons like “Titanic” and “Forrest Gump.”
“Through movies I learned about love, about social justice,” she said, naming “The Pawnbroker” and “To Kill A Mockingbird.” “I got lost in the magic of the movies, films so powerful they changed my life. And a lot has changed since I ‘rewired’ but one thing hasn’t changed,” she said, addressing the filmmakers in the audience: “You can think of anything and you can make it happen.”
So, “keep making films, make them better and more challenging. Make us think, make us feel,” Lansing said.
Landau, who was presented with a career achievement award for film and television work spanning six decades, including Oscar nominated roles in “Ed Wood” and Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” was eloquent and even poetic comparing his personal journey to that of Israel’s.
“Israel and I grew up together,” he said, noting he was 28 and working in the art department at the New York Daily News when Israel became a state. When he was struggling to make a living, “Israel too was struggling to survive… to convert a strip of arid land into a fertile farmland.” Landau also noted some of Israel’s progressive triumphs, such as electing a female Prime Minister at a time when it was “unheard of.”
He spoke of his abiding love of movies, old movie palaces and the still glamorous but seemingly ancient movie stars like Garbo, Gable and Lombard. “I longed to be a part of it all, part of the magic, and so I became an actor,” he said.
Now 85, Landau concluded a nostalgic night on an optimistic note: “Israel and I have aged together, witnessed and experienced massive change, but we’re still very much alive.”