AFI Marks a Momentous Milestone — and Gives D.C. a Political Respite

WASHINGTON — Morgan Freeman offered a toast to the lawmakers, celebrities, and media stars gathered at the Great Hall of the Library of Congress on Wednesday for the American Film Institute’s 50th anniversary.

“Tonight is not about politics. Tonight is about art,” he said, which, august as it sounded, actually was a bit refreshing to a D.C. crowd accustomed to the relentless onslaught of news in the Trump era.

The institute, and underwriter AT&T, probably couldn’t have found a loftier venue for the event, and Freeman, who has played presidents and even God, matched the moment. (He also had some fun; as he exited, he pretended to get zapped in the security zone.)

Among those at the event were Bradley Cooper, Christopher Nolan, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Alan Greenspan, and Andrea Mitchell, and filmmakers Lesli Linka Glatter, Lori McCreary, Jon Avnet, and Grace Guggenheim. Howard Stringer, chairman of the AFI board of trustees, and Jean Picker Firstenberg, the AFI president emeritus, were also there.

Bob Gazzale, the president and CEO of the AFI, said marking the anniversary in Washington was important because “this is a place where the nation’s artists can stand together with the nation’s leaders.”

“That is an important conversation to have with those two groups,” he said. He then showed movie clips of a diverse array of iconic moments, instantly recognizable to most film audiences.

As he signed legislation creating the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson announced the creation of the AFI at a Rose Garden ceremony.

George Stevens Jr., the founding director of the AFI, said “they knew what to do about music and dance and theater, but they didn’t know what to do about film. As we used to say, they couldn’t give a grant to Warner Bros. So we came up with this idea of an American Film Institute.”

He recalled Gregory Peck, the first chairman, coming to his Georgetown garden on a springtime Sunday afternoon in 1967 to write the press release to announce the formation.

The AFI launched its conservatory in 1969, with Terrence Malick, Caleb Deschanel, and Paul Schrader in the first class.

But the “urgent challenge,” Stevens recalled, was saving motion pictures, as less than 10% were being preserved.

Stevens recalled establishing a partnership with the Library of Congress, with the AFI coordinating the search for missing films, and the Library of Congress transferring threatened movies from nitrate stock, which decayed into a fine brown powder, to new film stock.

“The battle cry was ‘nitrate won’t wait,’ and a worldwide search and rescue operation began,” he said.

In total, there are now 37,000 motion pictures in the AFI Collection at the Library of Congress preservation and vault facility in Culpepper, Va. Among the most significant treasures: “Richard III,” a 1912 movie found in the basement of a film projectionist in 1996 and donated to the AFI. As the oldest surviving feature film, Gazzale called it a “classic example of how we never give up the search.”

Peck’s first movie role was playing Soviet guerrilla fighter Vladimir in the movie “Days of Glory,” and as passionate as he was about saving film heritage, “I remember Mr. Peck., somewhat sheepishly, hinting to the archivists that too much time should not be devoted to preserving ‘Days of Glory,'” Stevens said to laughs.

The AFI started with funding from studios, the Ford Foundation, and the NEA, the latter of which is the chief federal agency for arts funding.

Stevens noted that the AFI now “sustains itself without government funding.”

In this brief respite from budgetary battles, that remark drew a healthy dose of audience applause.

Popular on Variety

More Politics

  • Lowell Smokes Cafe Marijuana

    With Cannabis Lounges, On-Site Consumption, Marijuana-Infused Meals Go Legit

    Can this century’s Roaring ’20s repeat history but with pre-rolled joints instead of whiskey flasks and soccer moms as the new flappers? This month, West Hollywood will see the opening of the nation’s first at least quasi-legal cannabis consumption lounge, officially dubbed Lowell Farms: A Cannabis Café, located at 1211 N. La Brea between Fountain [...]

  • President Donald Trump waves as he

    Trump Holds Fundraiser in Hollywood's Backyard

    President Trump paid a visit to Los Angeles on Tuesday, as part of a West Coast fundraising swing expected to raise $15 million. Trump is set to appear at a dinner at developer Geoffrey Palmer’s house in Beverly Hills, where tickets range from $1,000 to $100,000 for VIPs. Though set in Hollywood’s backyard, the event [...]

  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Burning Image Debate Ad

    ABC Runs Debate Ad Showing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Burning Image

    ABC aired an ad during Thursday’s Democratic debate that depicted a burning image of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and likened her politics to those that caused the Cambodian genocide. New Faces GOP funded the ad, which features Elizabeth Heng, a Republican who lost a bid for a Fresno-area congressional seat last year. Ocasio-Cortez responded on Twitter, [...]

  • Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris.

    ABC News' Democratic Debate Lacked Energy and Purpose

    At long last, former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren were on the same stage. And the result was a long and fairly dull evening. After two Democratic Party debate stages in which the field of candidates had been bifurcated — splitting, in both cases, the perceived frontrunners from the establishment and insurgent [...]

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden responds

    Protesters Interrupt Joe Biden During Democratic Debate

    Protesters interrupted presidential candidate Joe Biden during Thursday’s democratic debate. The chants came nearly two and a half hours in as moderator George Stephanopoulos asked the former vice president about any professional setbacks he’s faced and how he recovered from them. “We’re going to clear the protesters,” Stephanopoulos said as the chants began. “We’re sorry.” [...]

  • Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren,

    Dems Debate in Houston: Moderates Push Back on Medicare for All

    The third Democratic debate on Thursday was billed as the first showdown between the top contenders: Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Biden did challenge the liberal senators on health care early in the debate, which was broadcast on ABC. He asked repeatedly how they would pay for their multi-trillion [...]

  • Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth WarrenSecond 2020

    How to Watch the Third Democratic Primary Debate

    The leading Democratic candidates will once again go head to head tonight in Houston, Tex. for the party’s third debate ahead of the primaries. The anticipated debate, which will include the 10 Democratic candidates currently leading in the polls, will kick off at 8 p.m. ET and will broadcast live on ABC and Univision. ABC [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content