August 29, 2008

Ava and Gary Couldn’t Be Here Tonight to Accept …


AVA GARDNER and Gary Cooper won top acting honors as the Naro Expanded Cinema's highly successful festival of classic movies came to a close with the audience voting in a party mood. The festival, programmed and hosted by your Virginian-Pilot film and theater critic, me, is in its fifth year; this is the third year in which awards were presented.

Designed to support classic movies and to provide an alternative to the current commercial bookings, the series of seven screenings drew more than 3,000 ticketbuyers with some sellouts that forced the theater to turn away as many as 75 people. The Naro seats 530 patrons and is one of the few movie "palaces" left on the East Coast.

Co-owner Tom Vourlas presented the award for the festival's most popular film, "Mogambo," a 1953 romantic comedy-drama filmed in Africa and co-starring Gardner with Clark Gable and Grace Kelly.

"It was very close," Vourlas said. "Both 'Mogambo' and the opener, 'The Philadelphia Story,' were total sellouts, but we had more turn-aways for 'Mogambo,' so that breaks the tie."

Gardner, a native of Smithfield, N.C., who went to high school in Newport News, won the best-actress vote by a wide margin. She played Honey Bear Kelly, a party girl marooned in Africa who competes with Kelly for the attentions of Gable. The role also netted her an Academy Award nomination. It was her first nomination in the local festival.

The win set off a celebration at the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, N.C., the day afterward, where museum Director Angela Lawson said, "When you think about it, this may be the last award Ava wins. She won a film festival award in Spain for 'Night of the Iguana,' but this one is particularly nice because it was voted on by the audience." The museum director had attended the screening of "Mogambo" in Norfolk.

The other nominees in the best-actress race were Jean Seberg in "Bonjour Tristesse" (1958), who received a surprising amount of support; Katharine Hepburn in "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), who received surprisingly little support; Melina Mercouri in "Topkapi" (1964); and Jean Arthur in "Shane" (1953).

Cooper won the best-actor award for playing Sheriff Will Kane, a man who stood against the odds in the classic Western "High Noon." The other nominees were James Stewart and Cary Grant, both in "The Philadelphia Story"; David Niven in "Bonjour Tristesse"; and Alan Ladd in "Shane." In political-convention style the audience demanded that Gable ("Mogambo") and Timothy Bottoms ("The Last Picture Show") also be included in the vote.

The closest race of the night was in the supporting-actor category, won by Ben Johnson for his performance in "The Last Picture Show" (1971). The win was a narrow one over Peter Ustinov in "Topkapi." Other nominees were Jack Palance and Brandon De Wilde, both for "Shane," and Jeff Bridges for "Picture Show."

A popular winner as supporting actress was Cloris Leachman for "The Last Picture Show." She won over her co-stars, Ellen Burstyn and Cybill Shepherd, as well as Katy Jurado for "High Noon" (1952) and Kelly for "Mogambo."

While introducing the film, I noted that five members of "The Last Picture Show" cast had worked in Norfolk and Virginia Beach in film or theater roles. I also noted that most of the nominees could not be there Monday night for a very good reason. They are dead.

Bonnie Primm of Norfolk accepted for Gardner, giving thanks to Frank Sinatra. Local actor Gary Ball accepted for Cooper and got laughs when he also thanked Frank Sinatra. Ed Brickell, former superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools, accepted for Johnson and quipped that "the hardest thing about the role was rolling those cigarettes." Johnson played a homespun Texan.

Having programmed the films, I was gratified to see the long lines down Colley Avenue each Monday night for the past seven weeks. One patron said she drove 50 miles to see "Picture Show" because "it won't ever be shown in a theater again." Another said he cut short his London vacation to return to Norfolk for the screenings of the two Westerns.

Vourlas said that the festival proved there is an audience for classic films and that, consequently, the theater plans to periodically show classic films, such as upcoming bookings of "Some Like it Hot" and "West Side Story."

Mal Vincent, (757) 446-2347

[email protected]

Originally published by BY MAL VINCENT.

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