Roger Watkins memories

by Ron Holloway

The Roger Watkins I remember with some affection was a Variety mugg packed to the brim with jokes. My German friends hailed him as a fast-talking ad-salesman who could pepper a scene with a pinch of barbed humor. And, if I can borrow an observation from a mutual friend in the trades, Roger was considered as a past master of the ploy that could pay dividends. Whatever that meant.

Ploys, it seemed, were a way of life in Roger’s book. Ask him about Charlie Chaplin, and he would rave on and on about Buster Keaton. Mention the resurrection of the historic Globe Theatre on the banks of the Thames, and he would hawk the merits of Times Square. Once, I ventured a friendly remark: “Roger, you’re a Walter Mitty!” He countered: “Why not Walter Matthau?”

I marveled at the way he could easily pull the wool over the eyes of an erstwhile festival director. Moritz (or whatever his name was) liked to see his name in print. So Roger got him to compose a string of quaint advertising pages in Variety to announce the next festival. Month after month appeared a “howdy letter” with bone-head, down-home, come-hither previews of coming attractions. Funniest festival ads I ever saw in those hallowed pages. And I always figured that Watt. himself was the ghost writer who had composed them.

Roger liked to retell favorite anecdotes. I liked the one about “How the Limey Came to Manhattan.” As the story went in my jumbled memory tank, he walked into a bar and ordered a “limey.” “What’s that?” asked the bartender. Without batting an eye, Roger expounded on his private drink: “Take a lime, cut it in half and drop it into a mug of Real British Ale, then shake it a couple times – that’s a limey!” The next day, Roger happened to stop by the same bar again. There, chalked on the board was a “New Drink From London – the Limey, $5.”

Our days together in Berlin were generally relaxed affairs. The German film industry, if it could be called that, was anchored in Munich. Berlin was only worth a visit because of the Berlinale and a colony of tax shelter moguls and film investment bankers. Roger stayed at the Kempinski but ate at Hardke’s on Fasanenstrasse, a tourist oasis for beer and sausage. It took a while, then Roger broke the ice with one of the Berlin moguls by offering him an interview in Variety. I went along for translation help but understood absolutely nothing – not even when the interview appeared later in print. Still, the mogul did pay for a splendid dinner in a first-class restaurant. “Better than the sausage links at Hardke’s,” I said.

Ask Roger about the black ink that left smears on the hands and clothes of anyone who picked up Variety, and you could get him going with another story from the “good old days” at the Cannes festival. Every year, he watched bigshot producers stop by the stand at the Carlton to pick up the bulky International Film Number (IFN) and march off to the action at the Palais. “Watch the ones with the white suits,” he said. “They’re going to advertise our front page all over the Croisette!” The “ink joke” ended when Syd Silverman put a cover on the IFN issue. My first acquaintance with Roger at Cannes was back in the early 1970s. There, below his window at the Hotel Suisse, was a column of telexes streaming down the wall in some order of importance, all meant for the office on 46th Street from the “ad hoc editor” on the Riviera. The Cannes “beat” was a feather in his cap. Once, I asked him when was the last time he saw a movie in the Palais. He said he couldn’t remember. That just wasn’t his game. And I don’t think he thought too highly of us critics who squatted for hours at screenings, breakfasted with actors and filmmakers, and roamed the festival oases in search of the next Pasolini or Tarkovsky.

But he was curious all the same. At one Cannes festival, when he had nothing special to do at his filing desk, he went to an auteur film in the Competition – and came back shaking his head. “We write about that stuff?” he laughed.

My chance to get even came when Apocalypse Now and The Tin Drum were running neck-and-neck for the Golden Palm. Roger sent me down to the Palais to see if Variety could get the news of the winner first. Luckily, I met Pierre Rissient on the Croisette, the one journalist in town who knew all the inside dope on jury deliberations. Armed with the good news, I hurried back to Roger.

“It’s ex aequo,” I said.

“Great! Who’s the director?”