Biographical documentaries dominate at this week’s Woodstock Film Festival

Actor/producer/director Griffin Dunne is the nephew of the celebrated journalist and novelist Joan Didion. Dunne profiles her in his new documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, which will screen at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck at 5:45 p.m. on Friday, October 13. (Julian Wasser | Courtesy of Joan Didion)

Arthur Miller: Writer is a documentary about the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist directed by his daughter Rebecca Miller. (Woodstock Film Festival)

As a rule, despite its pride of place as a hotbed of “Fiercely Independent” cinema, Woodstock Film Festival tickets tend to sell out quickest for screenings of works directed by or starring known quantities in the movie biz. In most cases, those sought-after titles are narrative features; so if you’re feeling stymied, pursuing the filmfest’s wealth of documentary offerings can often prove a productive avenue.

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The 2017 lineup is particularly striking in its concentration of celebrity biographies, in several cases made by close associates or even family members of the individual in focus. Some of them, as of presstime, even have tickets still available.

You’ll have to take a chance on Standby status if you have your heart set on catching either showing – at the Woodstock Playhouse at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 14 or at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck at 6 p.m. on Sunday, October 15 – of Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, directed by Emmy-winner Alexandra Dean. Dean herself, along with producers Susan Sarandon and Adam Haggiag, are scheduled to participate in the question-and-answer sessions following the screenings.

Photo of Susan Sarandon by Austin Hargrave (courtesy of WFF)

It might be worth waiting for a seat to open up, because Lamarr’s story is a fascinating one, and largely untold. Renowned as the most beautiful actress of her day, she was also incredibly intelligent. Her 1938 Hollywood debut in Algiers was a sensation, but the studios didn’t really know what to do with her exotic looks and heavy Austrian accent, beyond casting her as seductresses with few lines to deliver. Bored, she started inventing things, giving then-lover Howard Hughes useful designs for airplane wings based on cross-sections of birds and fish.

Then, during World War II, Lamarr heard about the German Navy jamming the signals guiding radio-controlled Allied torpedoes. Recruiting her friend, avant-garde composer George Antheil, to aid in the war effort, together they designed what came to be known as Frequency-Hopping Spread Spectrum technology for military radio, obtaining a patent in 1942. Though the government was more interested in having Hollywood stars hawking war bonds, a variant of Lamarr’s system was eventually employed during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and today it is cited as one of the precursors of Wi-Fi technology.

Another misunderstood Hollywood star was Sammy Davis, Jr., whose extraordinary talent as a singer, dancer, actor and comedian enabled him to walk the tightrope of the mid-20th-century color line. A veteran of increasingly outdated show business traditions trying to stay relevant, Davis strove to achieve the American Dream in a time of racial prejudice and shifting politics, caught between the bigotry of white America and the distaste of black America. (And by embracing Judaism, he yoked himself to another persecuted minority.) Peabody- and Emmy-winning filmmaker Sam Pollard has now documented that complicated career in Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, which features interviews with Billy Crystal, Norman Lear, Jerry Lewis, Whoopi Goldberg and Kim Novak.

Tickets are available on a standby basis only for the US premiere of Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me at 4 p.m. on Saturday, October 14 at the Woodstock Playhouse. However, as of presstime, you could still get tickets for the showing at noon on Sunday, October 15 at the Rosendale Theatre.

Looking for a biopic subject more New Agey than Hollywoodish? Tickets are still available for the New York premiere at the Woodstock Playhouse at 10:15 a.m. on Sunday, October 15 of Ram Dass: Going Home, directed by Derek Peck. Born Richard Alpert, a spiritual seeker who experimented with LSD with Dr. Timothy Leary at a commune in Millbrook in the early 1960s changed his name to Ram Dass after traveling in India in 1967. His books, especially Be Here Now (1971), were the introduction for many members of the hippie counterculture to Eastern religions and the consciousness-expanding potential of psychedelics. Ram Dass: Going Home is described as “a profound and poetic encounter with cultural and spiritual icon Ram Dass at his home on Maui…in the final chapter of his life.”

Actor/producer/director Griffin Dunne is the nephew-by-marriage of the celebrated journalist and novelist Joan Didion. Famous for bringing order to disorder through her words, Didion exposes, examines and divulges the most pivotal events in American history, making her one of the most recognizable and influential voices within the literary world. Dunne profiles her in his new documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, which features interviews from Didion herself, as well as close family and friends, interwoven with contextual archival footage and stills to visualize her writing.

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold screens at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck at 5:45 p.m. on Friday, October 13. Admission is available on standby basis only.

Another leading literary light gets analyzed by close kin in WFF’s Closing Night Film, screening at the Woodstock Playhouse at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, October 15 – and this time, you might still be able to snag a ticket. Rebecca Miller, writer/director of Personal Velocity, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and last year’s Greta Gerwig vehicle, Maggie’s Plan (http://bit.ly/2ybtEsU), has made a documentary about her famous father, Arthur Miller: Writer. The film contains material never before seen by the public, including in-depth interviews and home-movie-style glimpses into Miller’s persona – quite different from the face that was presented in formal interviews and to the press. Rebecca Miller opens the door to the man behind the icon, delves into the roots of his life as an artist and explores his character – both its strengths and its weaknesses.

Even if all of these sell out, you’re bound to find a movie or three in the WFF 2017 lineup that tells a compelling story of someone, famous or not, that richly deserves to be told. To view the full lineup, visit http://woodstockfilmfestival.org. Or visit the box office at 13 Rock City Road in Woodstock.

 

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