Are the luckiest people in the world — if they have a friend like Milton. The Film Society of Lincoln Center held their 40th annual Chaplin Award fundraising gala in Avery Fisher Hall on Monday night. This year the honoree was Barbra Streisand. Milton is a HUGE Barbra fan, and I am, too. Both of us have been fans since the 60s when he was a boy in Nebraska and I, a girl in San Francisco, decades before we were destined to join forces in 21st century New York City.
It was a black tie affair with Liza Minnelli, Wynton Marsalis and Tony Bennett performing. The speakers included Michael Douglas, Catherine Deneuve, Pierce Brosnan, Blythe Danner, Ben Stiller and, oh yeah, Bill Clinton was presenting the award to Barbra. With such a superstar honoree and that cast of stellar supporting players, the price of admission cost $200 to $500. Seats at the post-show dinner ranged from $1,500 a ticket to $100,000 a table. On my meager alms, no way could I attend. Milton was resigned to going solo and that bothered him.
He is a long-time Film Society member. In March, he purchased his Barbra ticket the second they went on sale to members — members get first crack before the general public. He selected Tier 1, Box 3, seat 5. His seat was close to the stage, directly across from Barbra. The event sold out quickly. It generated $2 million for the Film Society, a million dollars more than any other Chaplin gala honoree. I suggested to Milton:
Me: Maybe they should have held it in Yankee Stadium.
Milton: For those prices, she’d have to sing.
As the honoree, Barbra’s job was to appear, soak up the adulation, accept her award from the 42nd president of the United States and give an acceptance speech. Nice work if you have the resume that rates it.
Last Thursday, something extraordinary happened. The Film Society announced that they were releasing a block of $25 partial view seats in Tier 3. Milton happens to know the layout of Avery Fisher Hall about as well as his own living room. For example, he can point out exactly where he and his mother sat when they saw Sarah Vaughn perform there in 1977. Milton scrutinized the cheap seats and he knew that Tier 3’s, Box 3, seat 15, would not only rock, but it was not partial view. In fact, this was the absolute best nosebleed seat in the house for it was in the box two tiers above his. He pounced and yes, I was there.
I was sitting directly across from Barbra’s box, too. From my bird’s eye view, I could even see where Hillary Clinton was sitting — center orchestra row six on the aisle next to a bald guy that looked a lot like former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. I doubted that was who he was. Other celebrities that I thought I recognized were Bill and Melinda Gates. They weren’t sitting in Tier 3. I saw them riding up the escalator as we were people watching in the lobby.
The event was bursting with the Swells of New York. Milton being Milton, he did have some qualms with the way some of the attendees were attired, especially the young woman in the short hot pink sheath with tall black boots.
He did give the two gay guys in matching skinny blue suits with brown dress shoes a pass.
Milton: They’re making a statement.
Me: Like what, they’re both colorblind?
The overall crowd was quite gay or as Milton put it:
Milton: I see a lot of men with their mothers.
There was a significant lesbian turnout, too.
The entertainment, as expected, was top notch. Liza Minnelli took to the stage first. Even though she now has hip problems and was supposed to perform while seated, she forced herself to stand and she belted her heart out.
Wynton Marsalis serenaded Barbra on his trumpet with Hello Dolly and 87-year-old Alan Bergman, who co-wrote the lyrics to The Way We Were with his wife, Marilyn, sang a very poignant version of that song to her. He wrote some new lyrics celebrating The Way You Are.
Presenters included some of her leading men. Omar Sharif and Robert Redford appeared on a screen in previously taped tributes. Kris Kristofferson, her co-star in A Star is Born was there. He recounted that “the bathtub scene” with her was “a lot of fun”. George Segal who starred opposite her in The Owl and the Pussycat, joked that he did not know what was more improbable in that film; his role as a failed writer or hers as a failed hooker. Amy Irving, who starred with Barbra in her directorial debut, Yentl, recalled that their kissing scene was, “The best girl on girl action a girl could hope for.” Meow!
Ben Stiller, who referred to himself as Barbra’s “cinematic son” — she played Mother Focker to his Greg Focker, in some of the Fockers comedies, introduced Bill Clinton. Clinton declared that every great person is driven, “But if that person has massive talent, big brains and a bigger heart, you want to go along for the ride.”
Barbra delivered an eloquent acceptance speech. She recounted tales from her youth, how she longed to be an actress who would perform the classics, but “no one wanted a 15-year-old Medea.” When she was 16, she had to perform a love scene opposite a guy she felt no attraction to. What she did to make the scene work was place a piece of chocolate cake behind him so she could look longingly at it. She admitted, “Thank God I was given a good singing voice.” She knew that her vocal gift was the key that opened the doors to her acting, screenwriting, producing and directing careers or, as she called herself, “a hyphenate.” As she closed her remarks, she mentioned memories and added, “I feel like I should sing a song or something.” The audience went wild, hoping to hear her rendition of The Way We Were, but she quickly waved away that idea.
Former President Clinton returned to the lectern and delivered one more introduction. This was for Tony Bennett. He closed the event by singing Smile. Charlie Chaplin wrote the music to that song which was first heard in the film, Modern Times. Thanks to Chaplin’s contributions to film, this prestigious honor was started in 1972. He was the first recipient.
Afterward, I joined Milton outside. We agreed that we had just witnessed 90 minutes of bliss.
Milton: I’m so glad we live in New York!
Me: I’m so glad I know you!