Be it ever so humble, this job has its perks.
Last week, by virtue of my media status, I got to hobnob with up-and-coming indie filmmakers, bona fide Hollywood movie stars, a world famous author, and a bunch of other cool people during the Beaufort International Film Festival – better known by the jaunty name BIFF. Though I didn’t get to see as many films as I wanted to, I did manage to plow through a marathon of cocktail parties like some crazed college coed on Spring Break. It was a whirl of a weekend for a girl like me who doesn’t get out much, and while I was dazzled, I was also a little dazed. When it was all over, I felt like Cinderella after the ball – grateful, a bit wistful, but really glad to be out of my glass slippers.
Glamour is great fun in small doses, isn’t it? But it’s an illusion… a mirage. Try to grab it – to hold it – and it evaporates. Art… friendship… community – these things are real. These things last. And nobody knows it better than the trio of “glamorous celebrities” who graced our environs last weekend – Michael O’Keefe, Blythe Danner, and Pat Conroy – all of whom took part in BIFF not for the glam factor (Sundance, it ain’t), but for their love of art, their love of each other, and their love of this town we’re all lucky to call home.
You know that delicious little thrill you get when you spot a celebrity… the one that never goes away, no matter how old and jaded and sensible you’ve become? I felt it, big time, when I first laid eyes on Blythe Danner at the opening reception last week. There’s this funny, familiar moment of recognition when you think, “Wow! She looks just like herself… but a real person.” It’s somehow shocking and reassuring all at the same time. We want our movie stars larger than life – but not – and Ms. Danner complied perfectly.
I had the happy privilege of chatting with her briefly – thanks to our mutual friend Frances Brewer, who’s remained close to the actress ever since they became pals during the filming of Santini – and she was just as genuine and lovely as she seems on screen. I introduced her to “Mark Shaffer, our Features Editor” and she graciously took his hand, replying, “Oh, a Future Senator!” (It was a noisy party.) I cleared up the misunderstanding and she quipped, “A friend of mine always says, ‘Some people speak in tongues; Blythe hears in them.’” See? Lovely. I didn’t spend much time talking to Michael O’Keefe – though our “Future Senator” did, and you can read his interview on page 10 – but he, too, was very approachable and gentle of spirit. Maybe a little shy? As for Pat Conroy… well, many of you already know our hometown celebrity, and know that he’s as real as it gets. Warm, funny, sometimes brutally honest. A big personality, yes, but never anything less than authentic.
I remember saying to Mayor Billy at the opening reception, “This is so great. Who knew famous people could be so real?” He replied, “These aren’t real famous people. They’re real people who just happen to be famous.”
I thought about that remark all weekend as I mingled at BIFF functions. Friday night we attended a fancy party at Tidalholm, aka The Big Chill House, aka The Great Santini House. Danner, O’Keefe and Conroy were the guests of honor, and I figured there would be local celebs there as well. This kind of event always inspires in me equal parts excitement and anxiety. What should I wear? Will I know anybody there? Will anyone talk to me? Can I hold my own with the ‘beautiful people’? How will I embarrass myself this time – wine down the dress or foot in the mouth?
As my husband and I walked toward the gorgeous old house – I in my hand-me-down, dress-me-up clothes, clutching Jeff for moral support – I remembered Mayor Billy’s comment: They’re real people who just happen to be famous. I took a deep breath and decided to keep those words in mind as the night unfolded. I don’t think Billy meant to apply them universally – to all famous people, that is – but that’s what I decided to do.
And Tidalholm was, indeed, teeming with “famous people” – by Beaufort standards, anyway. There were state and local politicians, business tycoons, well-known academics, artists, theologians and socialites… I met Jenny Sanford’s sister and Bishop Alden Hathaway’s son, chatted with B3C historian John McCardell – who also happens to be the new Vice Chancellor of Sewanee – and caught up with writer Bernie Schein. Senator Tom Davis was there and so was State Rep. Shannon Erickson, along with Carlotta Ungaro, director of the Beaufort Chamber. USCB theatre guru Bonnie Hargrove was on the scene, as was our governor’s sister, Sarah Sanford Rauch. Comedy writers Terry Sweeney and Lanier Laney (Lowcountry Weekly’s own Happy Winos) were in their element, co-hosting the shindig with Caroline Hoogenboom.
As I made my way through this crowd of interesting, attractive, accomplished people – not to mention the aforementioned guests of honor – I began to relax a little… my butterflies began to subside. The wine helped, but not as much as the dawning realization that many of these luminaries were my friends, folks I know in “real life.” Many of them live out their days, to some extent, in the public eye – they each have a public “image” – but that image is a mere chimera, no more substantial nor definitive than the one I had of Blythe Danner based on a few movies. Or even the one you might have of me based on a few columns.
Ironically, many of those whom we treat as idols – setting them up like alabaster figures on some ridiculously high pedestal from which we, perversely, also enjoy knocking them – are those who have shown us their truest selves, who have “kept it real,” urging us to look beneath the surface of this image-obsessed world we inhabit so much of the time. We ache for genuine human connection in this superficial age, and when we find it in art – in word or music or on screen – we repay the artists by dehumanizing them… or super-humanizing them… or something. We reward them by making them “celebrities” and treating them as something… other. We forget why we loved them in the first place: Because they were so much like us.
The BIFF weekend culminated in an Awards Ceremony unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed here in Beaufort, where I’ve lived for almost 20 years. It was wonderfully moving to watch the independent filmmakers receive their awards; everyone longs for affirmation of his work and vision. But I couldn’t help wondering how much affirmation is too much. I saw O’Keefe, Danner and Conroy in the audience, and I knew that each of them must envy, in some small way, these fledgling artists still laboring in obscurity. Still able to walk around unrecognized… still free of any image to uphold or dispel.
Later, we watched some extraordinary clips from films based on Conroy’s novels. There was Michael O’Keefe as a very young man, slowly falling apart beside the Beaufort River, before the rage of Robert Duvall’s Bull Meechum in The Great Santini. There was Blythe Danner on the beach at Fripp, with her swimming-pool eyes, pleading for her husband’s love in The Prince of Tides. There was Nick Nolte, in the same movie, driving over that Lowcountry marsh, to that exquisite music, and that unforgettable narration: “But it’s the mystery of life that sustains me now…”
Oh, how I wept watching those clips. And how I continued to weep when my friend – my friend – the great American writer Pat Conroy stood up and spoke about his friends Michael O’Keefe and Blythe Danner. There was so much love in that auditorium, and it was all focused on Conroy, but he was giving as good as he got. “Blythe, you are the movie star of my lifetime,” he said. And, “Michael O’Keefe, you played me better than I ever played myself.” And when he spoke about Beaufort, about how he’d chosen it as his hometown at age 15 – “and it chose me right back” – I doubt there was a dry eye in the room.
Some people share with us such honesty, such vulnerability, such pain, such beauty… we don’t know what else to do but go and make them celebrities. And that can spoil things a little – for us and for them. But this night was different. This was not a night about Famous People. This was a night about real people – some of whom just happen to be famous. And it lifted us all. Because we need each other.
As another celebrity with a Beaufort connection once sang, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”