There were more than 100 films screened during the Hamptons International Film Festival this past week, but some of the high points came during live events—as when the overflow crowd at Guild Hall on Sunday afternoon was treated to a Steve Buscemi highlight reel during the actor’s “Conversation With ...” segment.
Alas, perhaps his best remembered scene—from “Fargo,” when his foot is protruding from a wood chipper—was not included.
The interview with Mr. Buscemi was the last of four “Conversation With ...” installments held on Saturday and Sunday that featured a satisfying mix of personalities. The first one, on Saturday morning at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, was with a genial Alan Alda. The interviewer, TV personality Judy Licht, focused on his early life and years as a struggling actor, with many of her questions tailored to Mr. Alda’s best-selling memoir, “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed.”
Mr. Alda’s parents were Alphonso Giovanni Roberto D’Abruzzo and Joan Brown. His father became the actor and singer Robert Alda, and his mother was a former Miss New York. Born into the theater world as his parents toured the country with burlesque and vaudeville shows, Mr. Alda told the audience on Saturday about being photographed smoking a pipe at the age of 2 to help publicize one of his father’s shows in Toronto.
He also described a sort of caste system among the showgirls: “The better their language and vocal skills, the fewer clothes they had to take off.”
When he was 7, he was stricken with polio, and the treatments were more painful than the disease itself. He recovered, and by age 9 he had made his professional debut as an actor, doing the “Who’s On First?” routine made famous by Abbott and Costello with his father.
“I remember that feeling of power of being able to turn the laughs off and on, to sort of manipulate the audience,” Mr. Alda recalled. “Maybe it was inevitable that I would be in show business, but it was also what I really wanted to do. I loved it.”
His most well-known role was as Hawkeye Pierce in the TV version of
“MASH,” but this “Conversation With ...” revealed how diversified his career has been. He wrote the screenplay for one of his early films, “The Seduction of Joe Tynan,” which gave Meryl Streep her first lead role. He directed “The Four Seasons” and other features. For 11 years he was the host of a PBS science series.
He appeared on and Off-Broadway in numerous plays, starred on TV shows including “The West Wing” and as Alec Baldwin’s father in “30 Rock,” and played both good guys and villains in movies—including in Martin Scorcese’s “The Aviator” and three directed by Woody Allen.
With typical self-deprecating humor, after Mr. Alda was praised by an audience member on one side of the theater, he turned to the other said and queried, “Did you all hear how great I was?” Asked about his biggest achievement, Mr. Alda declared, “Being married to my wife for 52 years.”
Mr. Alda’s TV son, Alec Baldwin, was the interviewer on Saturday afternoon for the “Conversation With ...” producer Martin Bregman at Guild Hall. His highlight reel was impressive, too, with scenes culled from “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The Bone Collector,” “Scarface,” and several from movies that he made with Mr. Alda.
Mr. Baldwin made it clear that Mr. Bregman was an old-school filmmaker, and he meant that in the best possible way.
Mr. Bregman started out in the film business as a talent manager, which he found maddening because “every time there was a difference of opinion, the talent reminded me that he was paying me.” However, his ace in the hole was that among his clients was a very promising young actor: Al Pacino. And one day Mr. Bregman was handed a screenplay based on Mario Puzo’s best-seller, “The Godfather.”
“If you read Bob Evans’s book, he makes it seem like he invented that entire movie,” Mr. Bregman said, referring to the film’s principal producer. “But the fact was, he did not want Francis Ford Coppola to direct and he did not want Al Pacino to play Michael Corleone.”
Mr. Bregman secured the backing of Charles Bludhorn, then CEO of Gulf & Western, which owned Paramount Pictures. The next day, he received a call from Mr. Evans, who said, “I do not appreciate you interfering in my casting decisions. Pacino will play that part only over my dead body.” Mr. Bregman, who had grown up with mob families in New Jersey, replied, “That can be arranged.”
“Thank you for this memorial service,” Mr. Bregman told the audience, but it was more a celebration of producers like him who genuinely loved making movies. He made the switch from manager to producer to do “Serpico” with Mr. Pacino, and more than three decades later he continues to develop projects. Even so, he expressed chagrin about the filmmaking landscape today.
“It’s not that there is too much product out there, it’s that there is too much bad product,” Mr. Bregman said. “Most of the creative decisions being made today are by accountants and marketing people who are bent on dumbing down the audience. The taste level has changed. The Hollywood studios used to export good films to the rest of the world. Now they are making crap, and only the independents are making intelligent films.”
The interview series returned to Bay Street early Sunday afternoon, where Ms. Licht again was the interviewer, this time with Sharon Stone as the guest. Her highlight reel seemed a bit sparse in contrast to the others because she is still in mid-career and hasn’t made a lot of movies, virtually none since “Bobby” in 2006. She explained that she has turned down numerous roles to raise her three sons, mostly as a single woman.
“It’s me time now, though,” Ms. Stone said, announcing that with all three boys now in school she was returning to acting, with a film titled “Satisfaction” set to begin shooting in January.
She first gained notice in 1990 in “Total Recall” with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it was “Basic Instinct” with Michael Douglas three years later that put her on the star map. She described how she had to practically trick the director to test her for the part of the sociopathic serial killer, and even then it was only eight months later and after 12 other actresses had turned the part down that she was hired.
Especially interesting was that she no idea that the notorious leg-crossing scene was in the final cut until she attended an advance screening in a theater. Back at home later, she called her lawyer, who told her she could file a lawsuit to halt the release of the movie. Though furious, she didn’t do that.
“I had to weigh my hatred of the director with what was probably right for the character and best for the movie,” Ms. Stone said. “To this day I know I made the right decision, but unfortunately there are people who think the movie was a hit because of that scene and not that it’s a well-acted, gripping story.”
Mr. Buscemi almost outdid Mr. Alda in being self-effacing. “I just bring myself to every role I play,” he told Tom Hall, the interviewer, and the audience. “I don’t think about it that much.”
The thread throughout his “Conversation With ...” is that Mr. Buscemi is not a cerebral actor who must be convinced about his characters’ motivations and deep thoughts. Instead, he said, “If it feels right” and he likes the script, he’ll do the role.
Like Mr. Alda, Mr. Buscemi has been surprisingly versatile. He has done big-budget blockbusters like “Armageddon” and “Con Air,” which, he said, allows him to take on such independent films as “John Rabe” and “The Messenger,” both part of the Film Festival, and the upcoming “Saint John of Las Vegas” and “Handsome Harry.”
He grew up in Valley Stream and he cited as early influences not French cinema or Hitchcock but the Three Stooges, Little Rascals, and “Gilligan’s Island.” “I was heartbroken every week when they weren’t rescued off that island,” he said.
After high school he was a member of the New York City Fire Department for four years, then quit to devote himself full-time to acting and stand-up comedy. At a recent retirement party, Mr. Buscemi reunited with four firefighters who had been his friends on the job. “You blew it,” they told him about resigning. “Now we’re retired, and you’re not.”
He repeatedly expressed gratitude for being able to work with filmmakers like the Coen brothers (his breakout role was in “Miller’s Crossing”), Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorcese—with whom he has just done “Boardwalk Empire” for HBO—and for getting the chance to direct three of his own films.
Mr. Buscemi seemed to speak for all of the interview subjects when he said of his very busy and varied career, “I really like to work. And I’m very fortunate that I can earn a living at it.”
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