World War II redux, versatile Kingsley

GOOD MORNING: It’s showtime at the White House tonight. To be more accurate it’s Showtime’s “Varian’s War: A Forgotten Hero” screening in the 45-seat theater. Invited by the President to the showing of the film, which airs April 22, are Showtime’s Matt Blank and Jerry Offsay, the film’s writer-director Lionel Chetwynd, costars Julia Ormond and Gloria Carlin, a few members of Congress and reps of the American Jewish Committee, United Jewish Communities and B’nai B’rith. Chetwynd is responsible for the print getting to the White House. He’s known the President for four years and “has supported him” during the campaign and most recently was backstage at “The Tonight Show” when Bush guested. He allows this screening is a “tremendous gesture” by the President, “but it is good for the film industry as well.” Showtime chairman-CEO Blank, who allows he’s “an old Democrat,” says the film is great and it’s important that the film get this exposure. It’s about American Varian Fry, who risked his life while rescuing French artists, including Chagall, from the French Vichy, Nazi-controlled government, by taking them over the Pyrenees mountains. Producers of the film include Barwood’s Barbra Streisand and Cis Corman and (Prince) Edward Wessex. The producers were not invited. Of course we know the political party leanings of Streisand and Corman, but they weren’t invited, I was told, “because it (the screening) happened very quickly.” Politics aside, Chetwynd told me he and Corman worked together during the entire production and Barbra was “very helpful with music cues” at the finale of the film. Chetwynd is a longtime conservative (when Variety reviewed his “Hanoi Hilton” on March 25, 1987, for example, reviewer Lawrence L. Cohn said the story of U.S. prisoners during the Vietnam War “emerges as a right-wing tract” and accused him of “taking right-wing potshots that do a disservice to the very human drama of the subject.”) Chetwynd is now writing and will direct a PBS feature, “The Carl Foreman Letter,” about Foreman’s heartbreak letter to the N.Y. Times’ Bosley Crowther, Aug. 7, 1952, recounting what happened to him after he was called by HUAC. Chetwynd continues chronicling U.S. history on film with the story of Eisenhower, the last few days before D-Day, and the 1704 “Deerfield Massacre,” a feature for Col with Frank Price and Alan Greisman producing.

“UNSPEAKABLE, UNIMAGINABLE, un-actable,” a few of the descriptions of the horrors in “Anne Frank,” ABC’s May 20-21 mini as described to me by Ben Kingsley, who plays papa Otto Frank. He also costarred in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” you recall, and he says the emotions in both are “very close.” He had just received a Santa Barbara Film Fest salute, having arrived from the Prague location of Frank where the holocaust camps of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen were duplicated. This mini is based on the book by Melissa Muller and differs from “The Diary of Anne Frank,” George Stevens masterpiece of 1959 which won six Oscars and six other nominations. Kingsley told me he had not seen the Stevens pic (which was based on the play) and didn’t want to before taking on the role played by Joseph Schildkraut. “I wasn’t anxious to have other (actors’) influences,” he said. But he did look at documentary footage of Otto Frank; “It was like gold for me.” He miraculously survived the death camps while his wife and two daughters were murdered. Otto Frank lived to 91. Kingsley says the pic’s scenes in the death camps “are relentless, but in the right way.” He hails young (14) Hannah Taylor-Gordon, who plays Anne, as “an extraordinary actress.” He was very close to her during the filming. “She was very brave.” The versatile Kingsley has a varied group of films arriving. In “The Sexy Beast” (reviewed by Variety‘s Derek Elley at the Toronto Film Fest) Kingsley is described as giving “a jaw-dropping performance as a foul-mouthed Cockney gangster.” I told you Kingsley, the Oscar winner for “Gandhi,” was versatile. He also completed “Triumph of Love” in Tuscany opposite Mira Sorvino and next is in “Tuck Everlasting” for Disney to film in Baltimore in which, he says, “I play the man in the yellow suit.”

SHOWBIZ CONTINUES TO RELIVE the horrors of WWII, reminded by film and theater: Aside from TV’s “Anne Frank” and the Oscar-nominated docu “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport,” B’way’s Longacre theater is in previews for Abby Mann’s “Judgment At Nuremberg,” continuing the legacy begun with “Playhouse 90” that continued with the classic star-studded 1961 feature by Stanley Kramer. On stage, Max Schell is playing the role played in the pic by Burt Lancaster; Schell’s movie role is played by Michael Hayden. Mann says “Audiences are so emotional when they leave the theater many are crying.” He reminds the play is timely as the U.N. is debating a treaty based on the Nuremberg findings. “Remember this (Nuremberg) was a trial of judges. There are a lot of parables today” … A new sight on Wilshire Blvd.: the east side of the Academy’s building boasts a banner — 84′ high, 57′ wide — touting the 73rd Academy Awards March 25. There’s another big banner on the building at the corner of Highland and Hollywood Blvds., the home of all future Oscars.

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