Black and white: James Toback (left) received an award and Francis Ford Coppola delivered one at the Film Society's benefit for its Youth Education Program.

Film Society Awards: Ballard, Coppola, Redford and Toback

Susan Gerhard May 1, 2009

Francis Ford Coppola surprised the black-tie audience during Film Society Awards Night at the Westin St. Francis Hotel Thursday night by turning over the Founder’s Directing Award he received to longtime colleague Carroll Ballard.

"I would have never gotten to stage one in this business without Francis. He kept me from falling in the toilet at least a dozen times," said Ballard, who got his first solo directing job (The Black Stallion, 1979) from Coppola. Among Ballard’s other films are Wind (1992), Fly Away Home (1996) and Duma (2005).

"I’m touched, as you can imagine," Coppola told the audience, "because this is my hometown." The director replied to Ballard, "When you have the kind of god-given talent that Carroll does, you can never fall in the toilet."

The San Francisco Film Society’s annual benefit dinner for the SFFS Youth Education Program raised approximately half a million dollars for the endeavor, said SFFS Executive Director Graham Leggat to an audience that included ex-Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, fundraising giant Dede Wilsey and the legendary George Lucas, among others. Leggat thanked Film Society Awards Night Chairs Penelope Wong and Tim Kochis, who he called "fundraisers in a time of cholera," for taking on the project in a difficult economic climate.

A clip-reel helped the assembled visualize the Education Program’s work over the past year, and Leggat offered testimony about one particularly ambitious educational event: a Balboa Theatre screening of Ballard’s Duma—a film about a South African boy’s friendship with a cheetah—that actually included the appearance of a live "wild cat."

Besides Coppola, the evening honored another lion of the filmmaking world, Robert Redford, who received the Peter J. Owens Award for Acting. And along with Ballard, it honored another undersung talent: James Toback, who received the Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting.

The Dick Bright Orchestra played "That’s What Friends Are For" as critic/author David Thomson took the stage to introduce a filmmaker/screenwriter he knew all too well. With characteristic wit, he offered a list of James Toback’s credentials that began, "Jim’s mother was a two-time president of the League of Women Voters…" He called him a "brilliant rascal."

"I love it when a filmmaker makes the same film over and over again," Thomson said, sincerely, comparing Toback’s work with/on football player Jim Brown ("an encounter with … a fearsome man") to his work with/on Mike Tyson (Tyson is Toback’s latest, a documentary on the boxer playing the Festival and opening for general audiences next weekend). On Toback’s brand of filmmaking, which includes Fingers (1978) and Black and White (1999) among many others, Thomson said, "Jim is not independent, he is wild."

Toback responded to the award with earnest pleasure. "It’s the first time I’ve been properly acknowledged in America." He said he felt like he existed on a "parallel plane" in the film world. "The mainstream apparatus is as close to my way of thinking and making movies as a coal mine would be."

Young director James Gray (The Yards, Two Lovers) introduced Francis Ford Coppola with a personal story about his own education—the day his father took him from Queens to Manhattan to see Apocalypse Now. Said Gray, "That day film became art." He was 10. "Through Coppola’s films," added Gray, "I discovered Wagner, Cocteau… and spaghetti sauce recipes. He was the best teacher I never had."

After Coppola and Ballard left the stage, Sid Ganis, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 2005, and a member of the San Francisco Film Society Board of Directors, introduced Robert Redford, who, he said, makes films with social and cultural relevance. He lauded the actor/director’s work in creating the Sundance Institute, his longtime dedication to politics and the environment. And, he added, "He’s gorgeous."

Redford graciously accepted the award for acting not by looking at his triumphs, but by reminding the audience of his failures. "Watching Francis and James," he said, "my mind has travelled back. None of us parachuted into position in this business. We all started at some lower point and worked our way up."

He shared anecdotes of humility—overheard insults and misfiring speeches—one of which involved a group of bankers in Utah who weren’t taking to his "Why-can’t-anyone-get-a-loan-in-this-town" harangue. "I realized I shouldn’t delude myself about my power as an actor."

"Tonight brings me full circle," he said, pleased to be concentrating on the acting itself. ‘What’s special for me is that this is where it started. This is where my heart was."

Tyson screens Saturday, May 2, in An Afternoon with James Toback, which includes Q&A, at 4 p.m., Sundance Kabuki. More at SF International.

Rain People screens Friday, May 1, in An Evening with Francis Ford Coppola and Friends, which features discussion, at 7:30 p.m., Castro Theatre. More at SF International.

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