DEAR DIARY: A REPORT FROM THE 1997 USA FILM FEST Image

[ Sat., April 19: ] Arrive in Big “D” from Los Angeles with Mom in tow. We’re here for the screening of my movie, “Former Child Star,” a minor motion picture about, well, former child stars, with a musical version of “Oedipus Rex” tossed in for good measure. But that big fun and/or potentially excruciating experience isn’t until Tuesday. Until then, we are lovers of the arts, visitors of a great metropolis (that feels suspiciously like freeway-obsessed L.A.), diners at the hotel-close IHOP.
The festival opened two nights ago at the AMC Glen Lakes 8. (A fine, spacious facility trapped in suburbia – located right next to a Toys “R” Us,
no less.) In all, there will be 56 film programs offered over the festival’s
eight nights. At its heart, this is a feel-good event – no agents in black
swarming the premises, no cel phone calls during screenings, no ballot stuffing audience awards (the only competition here is for short films). Of course, that also means no frenzied, open-checkbook bidding wars. Such is the trade-off. Here, you get movies and people who want to see them, plus for the locals – a touch of Hollywood, with Tommy Lee Jones, Hume Cronyn, Molly Ringwald, Mia Farrow, and Liza Minnelli, among the big-names scheduled to make appearances.
Convince Mom we need to see “Skidoo,” a 1968 “comedy” that plays like the electric Kool-Aid acid version of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Screening under the festival’s “Bad Movies We Love” program, “Skidoo” is a
miscalculation (unavailable on video, thus the “need to see” status) of legendary proportions about (I think) the mob and L.S.D. The cast is an even
bigger miscalculation: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing (who, in a terrifying
scene, strips and writhes on a bed for Frankie Avalon), plus seemingly anybody who did time as a Bat Villain in the 1960s – Frank (“The
Riddler”)Gorshin, Burgess (“The Penguin”) Meredith, Cæsar (“The Joker” Romero – all directed by Otto (“Mr. Freeze”) Preminger. Mom doesn’t really get “Skidoo,” but does anybody? What can you say about a movie that pretty much stinks right up until the last shot (Groucho Mark smoking a joint) and the most enchanting end credits in the history of cinema – entirely sung by Nilsson.
Drop tuckered-out Mom back at the hotel and check out a festival reception hosted by a local bigwig. Make a beeline for the food table. Pocket (and ingest) three very tasty brown-sugar-and-butter brownies. Sugar coma sets in. Hazy condition makes the following overheard conversation all the more surreal – Michæl Davis (writer-director of Roger Ebert-praised indie comedy, “Eight Days a Week”) to friend: “What’s happening?” Friend to Davis:
“You are.” Stuff another brownie in my mouth and wonder how cold hell would have to be for somebody to use that line when referring to my career.
Check out the midnight screening of Phillip B. Roth’s self-explanatory (and self-revealing) documentary, “I Was a Jewish Sex Worker.” The best scene: A TV clip from Roth’s appearance on a gay cable talk show. Sure, he’s naked – but the funny stuff starts when his stage makeup starts dripping into his eyes, and the host refuses his request for a Kleenex. Tough love, talk-show style.
[ Sun., April 20: ] Screenings don’t start until 5 p.m. So, take a lesson in how to kill time in Dallas : (1) Grassy knoll; (2) Grassy knoll; (3) Grassy knoll.
Head out to Dealey Plaza for the whole JFK experience. Make Mom sift through the bushes at the grassy you-know-what. Looks for empty shell casings. Nothing. Picked clean during the Oliver Stone shoot, no doubt.
Back at the AMC Glen Lakes: Attend screening of Adrienne Shelly’s “Sudden Manhattan,” a surreal comedy about life and love in NYC. Caught this at last year’s Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. Remember Shelly not being too chatty before her screening, bravely letting the film speak for itself. (Me, I plan on issuing nothing short of profuse apologies prior to mine. Wondered if she’d be a little more forthcoming this time. The answer: Not really. She just lets you watch the movie. And that’s good enough.
[ Mon., April 21: ] Screenings don’t start until 7 p.m. So, on to Dealey Plaza and the grassy knoll (again). This time, we visit the former Bookstore Depository. Lee Harvey Oswald’s alleged sixth floor perch has been converted
into a museum. Real sign on museum door: “No handguns allowed on premises.” Sadly, I’m told the rule wasn’t strictly enforced until after 1963.
Meanwhile at the festival, the thought of showing my movie to all these nice people is starting to terrify me. Last time one of my movies had a public screening (not “Former Child Star” – something I shot on video a couple years ago), the nicest thing a Los Angeles critic would say about the flick was that it was “coherent.” What if I can’t live up to that?
Sarah Jacobson’s being Sarah Jacobson. Introducing her Sundance-anointed “Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore,” Jacobson apprises the audience that she’ll be in the lobby afterward, selling T-shirts and videos. I need to hire her as a publicist or something.
Pop my head into Leslie L. Smith’s “David Searching,” starring “Rent” guy Anthony Rapp. The room is packed. I take a seat on the floor, expecting to stay a couple minutes. An hour-plus later I’m still there. A really sweet, witty movie about a guy (Rapp) and his gal-pal roommate (Camryn Manheim) both in search of Mr. Right.
Mom doesn’t catch “David Searching.” She’s out in the lobby, resting her leg and bonding with the theater employees. Later, I take her to that night’s reception – a shindig at a Mexican restaurant. Spy Gregory Hines eating an
hors d’oeuvre. He’s in town for a festival screening of “Good Luck,” which
had a rough time at movie theaters earlier in the year. Decide to take advantage of my likely one chance to introduce myself as a movieland peer of Mr. Hines. Shake his hand. He eyes my badge: “JOAL RYAN … FORMER CHILD
STAR.” He asks me what work he should know me from. I start to say, “Uh …
Nothing.” Then I realize he thinks I’m a former child star. And how sad that would be were it true.
[ Tues., April 22: ] The big day. Pick my husband (and movie co-star) up at Dallas-Fort Worth airport. We have a few hours to kill ’til the screening,
so I take him to the Dealey Plaza (but, of course). My third trip there in three days. This one’s not as enjoyable – my eyes are red and watery; my nose is itchy. Then, it hits me: I’m allergic to the grassy knoll. Mr. Stone, please remove me from your list of suspects!
Drive out to the AMC Glen Lakes a little early. Notice a beat-up camper van in the parking lot. The bumper sticker says it all: “Happiness is a Liza Minnelli concert.” You see, in addition to this being “Former Child Star” night at the USA Film Festival (not really), there’s also the matter of Liza.
Ms. Minnelli is supposed to be on hand tonight to introduce a 25th anniversary print of “Cabaret.” Dallas is abuzz. But, wait something’s wrong. Camper Van Lady (a short, plump woman in her 50s with a perky
Liza ‘do who claims to be Liza’s “archivist”) tells us that something has happened-there’s a rumor Liza is NOT coming! Camper Van Lady promises to get to the bottom of the matter. She works the pay phone outside the multiplex, badgering Liza’s New York publicist. When we last see her, Camper Van Lady is fighting back tears. Liza “with a Z” will not be in the building tonight, we presume.
Well, Liza didn’t show, but – darn it – I’m still here! Festival artistic director Alonso Duralde says some very nice things about my movie, and against my better judgment, I take the mike from him and introduce the feature – foolishly giving the audience a good look at me should they later go into hunt-and-burn mode. To make a medium-length story short, they don’t
get ugly. They actually, and mostly, laugh. (Maybe I can stop calling this thing an “alleged” comedy.) Even get asked to sign an autograph (on the back
of a picture of the “Facts of Life” gang, clipped from an old issue of Dynamite magazine). I’m drunk with power! Stand back world – from now on I’m “Joal With a Z!'” … Er, “J.”
[ Wed., April 23: ] Catch a cold. Catch a plane. Mom’s ear drum bursts in-flight, freaking out the flight attendants. A festival to remember!

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