Gala to be Keys’ 30th, and last

Director pushed Streep to accept Society honor

She’s the one who almost got away.

While Meryl Streep has been a guest speaker at other Film Society of Lincoln Center galas, she always eschewed the honor herself. As the actress put it to gala director Wendy Keys, “I couldn’t bother my friends.”

No problem, said Keys: “I’ll bother your friends.”

The two women were backstage last year at Diane Keaton’s tribute at Avery Fisher Hall when Keyes finally made the hard sell. “I have to pay tribute to you. It’s a terrible blank on our list,” she said.

When Streep continued to resist, Keys let her know, “Meryl, I’m not going to do this much longer.”

“OK, it’s a deal,” Streep said.

Both women kept their word. Streep will be honored, and tonight will be Keys’ 30th and last gala as director.

Not every legend has given the nod to Keys. “Katharine Hepburn said she’d rather go to Antarctica,” she recalls. Bette Davis, on the other hand, shot back, “What took you so long?”

Keys has actually been with the org from its first tribute, in 1972, when the society honored Charlie Chaplin. Back then, Keys was an associate director, and she recalls typing letters for society prexy Martin Segal to help the exiled star secure his visa to visit the United States. Later that year he accepted an honorary Oscar in Los Angeles. But the Film Society award came first.

“You could feel the electricity in the air with Chaplin standing up in the box,” Keys recalls. “You could feel his excitement as well.”

The following year, the Film Society honored Fred Astaire, who waved to Ginger Rogers in the orchestra. “He didn’t want her to sit with him in the box,” Keys notes.

Neither Chaplin nor Astaire spoke, but in 1974, Alfred Hitchcock made a film to unspool at his gala. Nowadays, the honorees, as well as a few of their movie friends, make speeches. And, of course, there are plenty of film clips.

In that department, Streep’s vast oeuvre presented its challenges, Keys says: “I knew going in there was this incredible range. But putting together her excerpts, I couldn’t link them. There is no thread, really. They lurch one to the next. With other actors, I could take a thematic thread and put one clips against another. With Streep, she never has allowed the actress’s persona to harden.”

In addition to Streep, the gala aud will also hear from Amy Adams, Jonathan Demme, Robert De Niro, Garrison Keillor, Mike Nichols, Robert Redford, Uma Thurman, Stanley Tucci and Christopher Walken.

The tribute to Streep has raised in excess of $1 million. “It sold out faster than ever before — two weeks earlier than usual,” Keyes says. “Streep has broken records for us.”

That’s good news for film buffs. The Film Society’s turf includes, among other projects, the New York Film Festival, Film Comment magazine and the Walter Reade Theater.

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