Longtime Variety mugg David Stratton has just published his recollections of a life in film, titled “I Peed on Fellini” (Random House, Sydney), and has kindly sent us an autographed copy.
David’s book is an autobiography, which in his case means that it is chock full of references to people, places and films he came in contact with over a lifetime dedicated to viewing and reviewing films throughout the world. Hundreds of people, from Paris Variety scribe to Federico Fellini, are mentioned (unfortunatley there is no index), and occasionally sections pop up relating to the old Variety and some of its staffers.
So we thought the best thing to do would be to excerpt a few of these.
After a Foreword by Aussie film director Peter Weir, David explains in his Preface that he only had one encounter with Federico Fellini. It was in 1966 when he was 26 years old and had recently directed his first Sydney Film Festival. That year, during his first visit to the Venice Film Festival, he attended a party held in the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) and after downing a number of glasses of champagne, and dazzled by the legendary thesps and helmers around him, he went to relieve himself at the men’s room. As he stood up against the porcelain, feeling a sense of relief, he noticed a big man was standing next to him who looked vaguely familiar. Urinating next to him was none other than Federico Fellini! He turned towards the great man. “Mr Fellini,” he began. And he peed all over his shoes.
“One result of this brief, unfortunate, encounter was that I learnt an Italian word: ‘Stronzo’. It means ‘Asshole.’ It was well deserved.”
“One of my most important contacts, and the beginning of a close friendship, was Variety’s legendary Paris representative Gene Moskowitz… I was very familiar with his work long before I met him. Mosk was a large man, with a round face and sparse, crinkly hair. He ws heavily suntanned, smoked cigars and looked for all the world like a caricature of a Mexican bandit. As soon as he discovered that I was knowledgeable about films and that I shared many of his enthusiasms he took me under his wing and introduced me to his many friends. “My boy” he used to call me affectionately, and we used to hang out together for much of the time.
“Mosk always travelled with a small portable typewriter, on which he composed the reviews he sent to the New York headquarters of Variety. I learnt later on that, although he was prolific, his colleagues back in America often dreaded the arrival of his copy because he wrote in a peculiar, haphazard style which was borderline incomprehensible and always had to be extensively rewritten.” (pp 124-125).
“In addition to my great friendship with Variety’s Paris bureau chief, I found, as I travelled the world, that in every major city there was usually a Variety ‘mugg’, as they were called, who would be of invaluable assistance with advice, contacts and moral support. Bob Hawkins, one of Syd’s most trusted lieutenants, seemed to cover whatever territory was required, and turned up at many of the major film festival. The Rome bureau chief was Hank Werba; in London, there was the exuberant Roger Watkins; from Copenhagen, Keith Keller covered all of Scandinavia; in Madrid, there was Peter Besas, who became the paper’s archivist and historian; in Chicago, there was Frank Segers, a specialist in Asian cinema; and so on.
“The editorial office in New York was located at 154 West 46th Street. The editor sat on the first floor at the front of the building, where a large window enabled him to look down on the passing parade in the street below; the printing presses were out in the back. You expected to see James Cagney or Joan Blondell pass by at any moment. In addition to the box-office reports, the news, the gossip and the obits, Variety published reviews of just about every film which screened publicly in most countries of the world. The reviewers signed their pieces with traditional four-letter nicknames – Mosk, Werb, Besa, Kell, Hawk.
“In the late 1960s there had been a Variety stringer in Melbourne called Raymond Stanley who contributed the occasional review, but I had noticed that these contributions had recently ceased. Not that there were many Australian films to review in those days, and Variety didn’t cover short films. But in February 1971 I saw Three to Go, a three-part film produced by Gil Brealey for the Commonwealth Film Unit which featured the work of three young, up-and-coming directors: Oliver Howes, Brian Hannant and Peter Weir. The film was impressive and I thought it was a shame that it would probably not be covered in Variety, so I decided to submit a review myself.
“I copied the paper’s house style as closely as I could and wrote a very positive review. I signed it Strat and mailed it to the editor in New York. It hadn’t occurred to me that Strat consists of five letters, not four, and it obviously didn’t occur to the editor either because my review duly appeared in the paper on 7 April 1971. There had been no correspondence from New York about this but I waited eagerly to see how much my fee would be. No money arrived and nobody contacted me. I learnt later that stringers were expected to invoice the paper for their work. Disappointed at the complete silence from the other end, I decided not to write any more unsolicited reviews. To this day I’ve never been paid for the review of Three to Go.” (pp. 192-194)
“One morning in 1975 I received an unexpected call from the Variety office in London. Harold Myers (Myro), a British-based troubleshooter for the paper, was on the phone. Since it was obvious that big things were happening in film production in Australia, he said, Syd Silverman, the paper’s publisher, had decided to establish a Variety bureau in Sydney; was I interested in running it? I was amazed by this proposition, because, apart from my occasional contributions to The Bulletin, The Age and Men in Vogue, I had no experience – and certainly no training – in journalism. I wondered if someone at Variety had been impressed with my unsolicited review of Three to Go, or perhaps I’d been recommended by some of my friends who worked for the paper? Although I was very flattered to be offered the job I didn’t think I was suited for it; but I knew who’d be perfect in the position.
“Mike Harris was, at the time, reviewing films for The Australian, having taken over from Michael Thornhill when the latter left to direct films. Mike was American-born, British-raised and was married to an Australian, Carolyn. He was a born journalist, erudite, amusing, witty – a lover of food and drink and good company… When Harold Myers arrived in Sydney to discuss the Variety position with me I told him that I thought Mike would be a far better candidate for the job and I drove him and his wife, Maxie, to meet the Harrises. As I expected, they hit it off immediately and before long Mike was establishing Variety’s first Australian bureau in a small office in Albion Place, just behind the George Street cinemas. Mike arrived on the scene in time to cover the Australian film revival for Variety, which he did with wit and perception.” (pp. 2432-244).
In November 1982, after stepping down as the Director of the Sydney Film Festival, David met Roger Watkins in London:
“The first person I told about my decision (of stepping down) was Roger Watkins, the London Bureau Chief of Variety. Roger was one of those immensely likable people who always seemed to be cheerful and easygoing but who was obviously a formidable entertainment journalist. I admired him a great deal and tried to catch up with him whenever I was in London. We were having lunch together when I told him about the changes I was planning. To my surprise, he immediately suggested that I review films for Variety on a regular basis. This was just a few weeks before Mosk’s tragic death, but it was already obvious that a replacement would be needed for the man who, for a quarter of a century, had been the paper’s main reviewer in Europe. I’d always written program notes for the SFF catalogue and had contrinued the odd review and article here and there; I’d also been writing on Australian cinema for Peter Cowie’s International Film Guide since 1973, but I still didn’t see myself as a reviewer. Roger had the confidence in me I didn’t have in myself and I’ll always be grateful to him for that.” (pp. 270-271).
ROGER’S PITCH TO STRAT “Early in 1986 Roger Watkins approached me about a special assignment within Variety. He was now the paper’s Editor-in-Chief and had relocated from London to New York. He wanted to rationalize the way films were reviewed at the festivals that the paper covered in Europe. Todd McCarthy, whom I’d known for 16 years, was now the senior reviewer for the paper in North America and was effectively coordinating the review coverage there. Roger wanted me to come to Europe, to be based either in Paris or London, and to take over the film review coverage of the paper for the rest of the world outside America. It was an exciting prospect. Roger was very keen but the final decision had to be made by the owner of the paper, Syd Silverman. I met with Syd in Cannes in 1986 and we had a very positive discussion about the proposal. He agreed in principle, but the stumbling block was the cost of my relocation from Australia to Europe. I told him I’d work out a figure and phone it through to him after my return to Sydney. When I phoned him I could tell he’d gone cold on the idea, and I think now it was probably because he was in the process of negotiating the sale of the paper. In any event, the idea came to nothing and after the paper had been sold Derek Elley assumed approximately the role that Roger had been talking about with me…
“When Syd finally sold the paper, he sent me a note thanking me for my contributions and enclosing a check for $500. Since I had only been writing for the paper on a regular basis for three or four years I thought this was remarkably generous. Syd was a gentleman of the old school and this gesture was typical of him.” (pp. 279-280)