Last night I went to a dinner party at the home of Jim and Paula Miller; he is the Kolikoff Caviar guy I have written about. (Dinner was uni (sea urchin) on creamy scrambled eggs, broiled Maine female lobsters with tomally, soba noodles with Kolikoff caviar, and homemade tiramasu. Unbelievable). I was astonished to see on the living room wall an excellent reproduction of one of the most famous paintings in the world, the Gustav Klimt 1907 masterpiece, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I." I said to them that I had just attended a private screening of the Helen Mirren-starrer, "Woman in Gold," which opens this week. You are probably aware by now that this is the new movie from the Weinstein Company and BBC about the Austrian woman, Maria Altmann, whose family had owned a number of great Klimt paintings until they were illegally confiscated by the Nazis when they overran her country in 1938. In 1998, sixty years after that event, while living in Los Angeles she began her efforts to sue the Austrian government for their return, with the aid of a young Los Angeles attorney doing it as a pro bono endeavor.
"Why do you have that painting on your wall," I asked the Millers....and heard a fascinating story from Jim and Paula. It seems that some years ago they had called a chimney repair company to fix their exhaust system. The young man who ran the company, Jimmy Altmann, came with his crew and repaired the system.. Coincidentally, Jim's sister Lisa was married to an Altmann. Jimmy mentioned that his family, father Felix and mother Maria, owned a company which sold cashmere sweaters. The Millers became friendly with the Altmanns and some years later Maria gifted them with this beautiful reproduction of the famous painting. Jim told me that Maria had died in 2011 at the age of 94. I explained that I was writing this review of the compelling real-life movie....and now I could see up-close a faithful replica of the subject painting. Of course, the entire world knows by now that all turned out well, with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Maria could sue the Austrian government in a U.S. court, which then ruled that they must arbitrate the return the glittering gold Klimt painting. Rather than face a horrible court trial, the Austrian government reluctantly relented and returned the painting to her. She in turn sold it to cosmetic heir Ronald S. Lauder in 2006 for $135 million. It is now in his Neue Galerie in Manhattan, going on display there today.
I just read Pete Hammond's excellent story in Deadline Hollywood about the critical brickbats thrown at the movie over the weekend by critics at the Berlin Film Festival, and my immediate response was that the Germans and Austrians were being unfairly defensive. It was a film which I deeply enjoyed and admire. (Director Simon Curtis told Pete that the critics may have been misguided but he didn't think that they were prejudiced. I'm not so sure.) Curtis said they played in Berlin to a massive house of 2,000 people and it played astonishingly well. "We were not even quite finished. The score by Hans Zimmer and Martin Phipps wasn't completely done. Yet the response just blew us all away. Then the Weinsteins and BBC allowed us to finish it the way we wanted. Which is why the negative reviews were so confusing."
The movie is based on the true story of Maria Altmann, a Jewish woman who had fled Vienna during the Second World War. Sixty years later, living in Los Angeles and making a living selling cashmere sweaters, she examined some revealing documents at the death of her sister and decided to go after her family's possessions and the five Klimt paintings, especially the Klimt painting of her aunt on display in Vienna's Belvedere Palace. She was the only woman whom Klimt painted twice. Several lawyers laughed and turned her down cold before she found a young attorney here named Randol Schoenberg (played in the film by Ryan Reynolds.) Does the name Schoenberg strike a musical note? He was a grandson of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, also a refugee from the Holocaust. Jim told me that Maria related to him that Randy's senior attorneys had 'suggested' he do some pro bono work and after he failed in a few cases, they gave him one more shot. This was it. The journey took them six years and to the highest courts in both Austria and the United States. Mirren said this week in an interview about Maria: "She was very regal, highly educated, very intellectual, incredibly cultured, very beautiful taste, and to see that world and that culture trampled into the dust, spat upon, basically in the most brutal, cruel, savage, mundane, banal way and to see the triumph of stupidity over the world that they came from is just unspeakable."
Curtis had previously directed a nice film, "My Week With Marilyn," for BBC and the Weinsteins, which saw Michelle Williams as Marilyn nominated for an Oscar and which we reviewed favorably here. I predict that 'WOMAN OF GOLD" will find a wide and enthusiastic audience. I found myself tearing up through much of it, especially the ending. But I was also pleasantly surprised at the humor which we see tbroughout. The fond relationship between the 69-year old Mirren and the dashingly handsome 38-year old Reynolds is apparent; they like each other and are in the fight of their life together. There is a moment when someone says to them, "You are trying to take away the Austrian Mona Lisa. It will never happen." The movie was shot primarily in London, with many British actors playing Americans. The production notes say that the Supreme Court scenes were filmed in the Lord Mayor's Mansion House. Here's a note for all of us "Downton Abbey" fans: Director Curtis is married to actress Elizabeth McGovern, who plays the Countess of Grantham. Here she has a small role as a California judge. The German actress, Antje Traue, plays enchanting Aunt Adele as she poses for Klimt, portrayed by Moritz Bleibtreu. (I have read rumors that they may have had an affair but no one knows for sure.)
Incidentally, I read a story in the L.A. Times about how Scenic Artist Steve Mitchell painted the reproduction of Klimt's painting seen in the film. I had seen the original in 2006 when the Altmanns recovered it and it was displayed at our LACMA (Los Angeles Country Museum of Art), remembering that I waited some two+ hours on line to get in. Klimt took three years to finish the painting, but Mitchell said that he had only five weeks to do the reproduction for the film. He spent about $350 in gold leaf to do it, using five different kinds of gold leaf, noting that his reproduction could never be seen in public. "I think the director has it hidden in his home." I asked Jim and Paula Miller if they would ever give up their fine copy and they laughed, "No way. It is our legacy for our daughter Sophie."
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