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Her Russian Nights

“The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!”
By Cassendra Gava

was all I could think of on that week leading up to the 4th annual RUSSIAN NIGHTS FILM and CULTURAL FESTIVAL, stationed in LA’s royal blue architectural gem, the Pacific Design Center. Now I love attending film festivals, especially exotic ones, but helping to organize them is another can of beans entirely. As a creative consultant to my “mad Russians”, as I tenderly refer to them, I was quickly driven to slurp the vodka and guzzle the beer that our generous sponsors Rodnik and Anheuser Busch provided. With a day to go before showtime, Donghia and Wolfgang Puck’s Ken Harper miraculously lent us the furniture to decorate the VIP room and a team of my actor buddies led by the formidable Andrew Alden swept into position helping with maneuvering the furniture, the food, the bars, the photographers and journalists, the TV camera crews, the parking lots, the visiting filmmakers and dignitaries from Moscow, the hordes of other chattering guests, the fans and lookieloos, the VIP room, the backstage Green Room, and the breathlessly anticipated limos and cars delivering my very special guests of the festival and the current recipients of the Tower Awards.

It started with legendary producer ROGER CORMAN, the man who launched the careers of many a Hollywood icon such as Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorcese, Sylvester Stallone, James Cameron, and Jonathan Demme. Roger spoke of his affection for Russia and the time he spent there making films with Mosfilm Studios. His wife Julie had also premiered one of her films at the Moscow Film Festival. Then the suave and dapper
DENNIS HOPPER, accompanied by wife Victoria, arrived flush with excitement about the opening of his Art Exhibition---a giant retrospective at the prestigious Ace Gallery--and talking enthusiastically about his new series with Benjamin Bratt “The E-Ring”, and his upcoming performance of a spoken piece at the Apollo Theatre with The Gorillas. I had attended Dennis’ Art Opening on Thursday night and was completely astounded by the texture, skill and range of his paintings and photographs, as well as the celeb studded crowd which included Golden Boy producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Viggo Mortensen (another painter), my pal Jacqueline Bisset, Michael Keaton, Danny Huston, and many other famous faces. Dennis is a charmer and gave me a peck on both cheeks when he left.

Many actors seem to be leaning toward the visual arts as another form of _expression and I myself have taken a liking to the paintbrush.

Fresh from filming the latest installment of “Rocky”, an enthusiastic BURT YOUNG also came to RUSSIAN NIGHTS to present some of his new paintings that were on display in the Russian Art Gallery opposite the Silver Screen theatre where all the films and celebrity presentations took place. Burt had invited me to his
first exhibition in New York at a gallery in Soho and to another one last fall in Montreal. I had invited Burt to Art Cologne where he met many movers and shakers in the international are scene.

The parade of stars at the festival continued on the Closing Night with the statuesque NATASHA HENTSRIDGE whose boyfriend is hot British pop idol Darius Danesh. She presented an award to cinematographer ANDRZEJ BARTKOWIAK who effortlessly captured her beauty in “Species”. Then the male hearts started fluttering with the arrival of one of cinema’s most formidable sex symbols, RAQUEL WELCH. Our own Russian host was stammering “I’m going to introduce her as the most beautiful woman in the world”. Raquel came to talk about the awe-inspiring GORE VIDAL, considered “America’s greatest man of letters” and said that her film “Myra Breckinridge” based on Gore’s best-seller was a movie and book far ahead of its time, before “Transamerica” and “Brokeback Mountain”. “Myra” is now considered a cult classic. Vidal spoke of his admiration of the homeland and friendship with another great writer, Vladimir Nabokov, and how they both used to exchange insults in the newspapers. Nabokov had told him that there is a phrase in Russia “one who has seen grief”. Vidal countered that “anyone who has been under contract for several years to MGM has seen grief, referring to his own trials and tribulations in Hollywood. He did however enjoy working with three Hollywood ladies—Raquel, Elizabeth Taylor and Katherine Hepburn—seeing it as an interesting way of finding out how movies are made.

Another beauty then came onstage, SHOHREH AGHDASHLOO, the Iranian actress with the sexy voice who garnered an Oscar nomination for her portrayal as Sir Ben Kingsley’s wife in “The House of Sand and Fog”. She spoke of the dream come true opportunity to work with Kingsley and Russian director VADIM PERELMAN in the movie. Shohreh then recited lines from one of her favourite Iranian poets, lines that evoked sighs from the audience such as “I belong to the beloved” and “I am the only breath that is breathing” as she presented the Tower Award to Sir Ben.
The very elegant SIR BEN KINGSLEY beamed on stage affirming that here he was, standing with a great
Iranian star and a Russian director and that as artists, they can build bridges between cultures and
chip away at “the horrible misconceptions”. He went on to say that he hated the phrase “We must respect
our differences” and felt that the more important phrase should be “We must celebrate our similarities”.
He made an eloquent and moving comment on the tragic state of affairs in the world today.
Sir Ben is a really funny guy telling jokes in the Green Room and showing off his variety of accents, especially mimicking a Russian one. Vadim Perelman told me that Sir Ben had a Ukrainian grandmother. When I met him a few years ago at the European Film Awards in Berlin he was regaling a sophisticated crowd and showing that he had a magnetic way with the ladies.

I must say that being the hostess of the Green Room mixing vodka for everyone and passing the shrimp cocktail while listening to everyone’s jokes is going to be my new occupation and I must improve my skills.

Gore Vidal got up from his wheelchair for a minute and HARRISON FORD sat down in it with Gore muttering in observation “He needs it more than me.”

Speaking about Harrison Ford, I can’t believe we prepared the Green Room with all kinds of food and drinks but forgot the water. Here he arrived, looked at the goodies and said “I’d like to have some water” and I sent three assistants tripping over each other and running to the big reception room to try to find the water bottles. Now I’ve had a crush on Mr. Ford ever since my mother said she had a crush on him after seeing “Raiders of the Lost Ark” which she saw before I did, so fuggedaboudit!
Here I am tearing my hair out trying to find a bottle of water for Harrison Ford!

The lovely and poised THORA BIRCH who played Harrison’s daughter in “Patriot Games” and “Clear and
Present Danger” then appeared, excited about seeing Harrison again as a grown up young lady after so many years. As we all quitely huddled in the green room while the dialogue and music of a Russian film was
blaring loudly on stage, Thora exclaimed “This is the most serious Green Room I have ever been in” causing everyone to start cracking up. As Thora was going on stage to present the Tower award to everyone’s favorite hero, I had the pleasure of tapping Harrison on the arm and saying “It’s your turn”.
Harrison then stepped out to address the standing room only crowd that was wildly applauding and there were so many lightbulbs flashing that it elicited a surprised “Wow” from one of our biggest superstars.
His brief acceptance speech touched the crowd as he acknowledged that for a long time he had never noticed his Russian heritage but when making a movie there he recognized that the people on the street had a certain familiarity and he was then able to “reference to my mother and grandmother who came from Russia and I could get a sense of where I came from”.
He enjoyed Moscow and St. Petersburg and wished he had been able to spend more time in order to appreciate the great country and what is happening there. He then graciously thanked the audience for their kindness and attention. Again a big applause and more flashbulbs. Everyone loved him and wanted to escort him to the car and protect him from all the autograph hunters crowded downstairs.
But this is a man who respects his fans, and he greeted them warmly and proceeded to sign all of their
photos and posters.

Speaking of posters, I had a poster of “Raiders” in the Green Room as well as one of “House of Sand and
Fog” and Dennis Hopper’s Art Exhibit and did I ask anyone to sign them?

I didn’t even get that photo with Harrison that I promised to give to my mother.

By the way, did you know there was a first Harrison Ford who got his name on a star on Hollywood
Boulevard? The first Harrison Ford was an old time silent matinee idol who started in films in 1915 and blossomed all through the twenties. You can see himco-starring with Lon Chaney in a 1922 movie called
“Shadows” and in comedies like “Up in Mabel’s Room” and “The Nervous Wreck”.

Back to this Harrison, I handed him a modest goodie bag of Russian Vodka and African teas, and after seeing him safely transported away by my trusted Russian driver Ruben, I then jostled my way to the party floor determined to finally track down some of those crackers covered with caviar. After all what is a Russian party without Vodka and Caviar?
Well, I couldn’t find any, so next time I am going to have to hide my own stash. I decided to check out the action. I strode into the VIP room and watched Sir Ben holding court and taking photos with ROB SCHNEIDER.
Did you know that Rob also has a Russian grandmother?
I knew he had a Filipino mother and he gave me a high five when I told him that I also had a Filipino mother. I wonder which one trained him to be outrageously funny—the Russian grandmother or the Filipino mother.
I am now going to have to investigate my whole ancestry thoroughly in case I also have a Russian or
Ukrainian grandmother hiding somewhere, like everyone else.

IRVIN KERSHNER, director of “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”, came up to me looking for Harrison and explained that he loved the show so much he forgot to go backstage. Kershner also has a Russian-Ukrainian grandmother, and grandfather, and mother and father and I had invited him to come along last year to the Kiev Film Festival as President of the Jury so he could search for his roots.

Gore and Raquel took up a table and seemed to be catching up on old times. VINCENT SPANO and JOHN
SAVAGE who both starred in “Maria’s Lovers” for Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky both stopped by the party to say hello to everyone. Vincent wanted to meet Natasha and John wanted to meet any of the girls.
I told John that he had missed a terrific live performance of “HAIR” in Russian by a Russian cast flown in from Moscow and GARY BUSEY had jumped up on stage to join them and belt out “Aquarius” and some of the songs.
As the evening was closing down, my wonderful friend Nira who sponsored the African Tea and Coffee booth, came around handing steaming cups of aromatic tea to everyone.
The festival was a success and everyone had a jolly good time and the Russians all headed home the next day with lots of pictures and exciting tales to tell the folks back home about seeing Harrison, and Sir Ben, and Raquel, and Dennis, and Gore and Burt and all sorts of other people real and imaginary.

And I can get back to work getting my two movies off the ground. Or write a cool screenplay. Or try to get
a part in the next “Indiana Jones” movie. And visit another film festival.

Oh, speaking of movies, a quick word about the movies at the festival. The Russians always bring the best
Russian films to be seen. Often, they show classic films, such as “Battleship Potemkin” and “The Cranes Are Flying”. Leonardo Di Caprio, who has a Russian grandmother, showed up for the screening of “Potemkin”, one of the best movies ever made and a must in film schools, as Sergei Eisenstein is his favorite filmmaker. Leo was wearing a hat and was sitting in front of me so I had to move over to see the screen.

Two years ago, I had invited Dustin Hoffman to the festival and he told us about his Russian grandparents. Dustin was quoting passages from his favorite Russian poet who happened to be sitting in the audience, so you can imagine Dustin’s surprise when the poet himself came up to embrace him.

Sharon Stone also came to the festival and was very endearing to the Russian audiences who were captivated with her.

The always fascinating Oliver Stone accepted my invitation to come to the festival last year and without a Russian grandmother, Oliver has a thirst for life, a “Joie de Vivre”, which probably came from his French mother.

Shirley Mac Laine also came to the festival to receive an award as she had been a Russian in her past life
and probably had an affair with Rasputin

This year’s crop of films represented the best of Russian Cinema and included Berlin and Venice Film
Festival standouts “First On the Moon”, “Garpartum”, “Remote Access”, “The Italian” and “Dreaming of Space” which won the top prize at the Moscow Film Festival.
The Russian experience was further enhanced by an unusual concert, the Sergey Obraztsov Puppet Theatre, the SIRIN Ensemble of Russian Sacred Music at the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church, and the Igor Butman Jazz Quartet as well as the “Hair” presentation and in the Gallery, superb selections from the Kolodzei Collection of Russian and Eastern European Art.

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