It was certainly a starry night in Chicago on June 23 when three major cinematic forces came together for a brilliant evening of food and film. Nestled in the back of the Ritz Carlton, Academy Award-winning director and screenwriter Alexander Payne moderated an intimate post-dinner Q&A with Academy Award-winning actress Reese Witherspoon at the annual Gene Siskel Film Center benefit, which also honored Ms. Witherspoon with the Gene Siskel Film Center's Renaissance Award.
While Witherspoon and Payne are clearly powerhouses of modern cinema, The Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute has been a guiding light of film programming for 40 years, "presenting independent and international cinema, film festivals, cutting edge programs, premieres, retrospectives and classic films. Recognized internationally for its original film programming, the Film Center annually presents approximately 1,500 screenings and 100 guest artist appearances to more than 80,000 film enthusiasts." Proceeds from the benefit will support the Gene Siskel Film Center's programs, including lecture series and discussions with visiting scholars and filmmakers.
Early in the evening, current programming director of the Gene Siskel Film Center, Barbara Scharres, was highlighted for her tremendous accomplishments in eclectic, meaningful and visionary programming. Later, Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow congratulated Reese in a playful video that played before a packed room of Gene Siskel Film Center supporters. The evening concluded with the president of the School of the Art Institute, Walter Massey, and Chairman of the GSFC Advisory Board, Ellen Sandor, presenting Ms. Witherspoon with the Renaissance Award.
However, the juiciest part of the evening, once the red carpet plump with over-zealous paparazzi shut down, was the in-your-living-room-like Q&A between Mr. Payne and Ms. Witherspoon. The questions, posed by a relaxed and lounging Payne, focused on Reese's long-standing career beginning with her first film, Man in the Moon, when she was just 14. She also discussed her breakout role as Tracy Flick in Election, in which she was directed by Payne, the far-reaching power of her role as Elle Woods in Legally Blond and, of course, the work involved with creating her Academy Award winning role as June Carter in Walk The Line. In deciding whether or not to take on a role, Reese cited focusing on the depth of the character and the vision of the director.
Some of the most interesting moments of the evening were when the two dialogued together about the intricacies of comedy. "Comedy is part pathos, part compassion. It is commitment to character, " Reese noted. "The less self-aware you are as a character, that's funny." Payne agreed with her adding, "There is almost no reason for an actor to know they are in a comedy." Payne, whose screenplays are piercingly perceptive of human nature, won Academy Awards for his dark comedy, adapted screenplays, Sideways, and The Descendants, films which he also directed.
The two communed on the exciting pressure of being nominated for an Academy Award and potentially having to make a speech, saying that it is almost a relief if you don't win. Both also had wonderful inside comments about such acting greats as George Clooney (Payne: He finds utility in his popularity by using it to get conscientious films made) and Meryl Streep (Witherspoon: She is just as great as everyone thinks). For a final bit of Trivial Pursuit, Reese said her favorite film is Raising Arizona.
Incredibly, the very pregnant Witherspoon was headed off the next day to begin work on her next film, Devil's Knot, and remained gracious even as the midnight hour drew near. As is obvious in the interview above for Fear No ART, she is intelligent and incredibly sweet, despite being hounded by inhumane mobs, and discusses her roles in both Walk the Line and Election. Mr. Payne is also a lovely interview, responding authentically and thoughtfully about the juxtaposition of dialogue and silence in films and comically about the demanding role of being a director. Enjoy these videos which give a glimpse into a stellar evening when the stars aligned to benefit the Gene Siskel Film Center and honor one of its own.
Follow Elysabeth Alfano on Twitter: www.twitter.com/fearnoartchgo