Special something about 'Mary' doc just might connect with Academy voters


It's too bad Oscar voters can't transfer those five extra best picture noms to the documentary feature race, where having a few more slots would really come in handy.

Among the docs already hoping to make Oscar's mid-November short list are: "The Cove" (dolphin killing in Japan), "Tyson" (the champ warts and all), "We Live in Public" (Internet pioneer Josh Harris), "Every Little Step" (casting Broadway's revival of "A Chorus Line"), "Capitalism: A Love Story" (Michael Moore back in action), "Valentino: The Last Emperor" (the fashion designer's life), "Collapse" (Michael Ruppert's apocalyptic vision) and "Food, Inc." (America's corporate controlled food industry).

Add to the list: Here Media's "Mary Pickford, the Muse of the Movies" from director-producer-editor Nicholas Eliopoulos. Narrated by Michael York and Pickford herself (through restored vintage audio and video), its screenplay is by Janelle Balnicke.
Among those appearing are Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Lillian Gish, Amelia Earhart, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Adolph Zukor, Walt Disney and "Keystone Cops" creator Mack Sennett.

"Mary," which played Oscar-qualifying engagements in New York and L.A. in September, will open early next year via Here Films/Regent Releasing. It premieres in late January as the opening-night film for the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center's weeklong Pickford Festival. It then plays in New York and L.A. before rolling out to a half-dozen other top markets.

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The challenge for all but the highest-profile Oscar contenders is getting Academy members to make time to see them. "Mary" could benefit from Academy voters' presumptive interest in the legend's life as well as in the larger story of how the film industry developed.

It doesn't hurt that Pickford was one of the Academy's 36 founders. Louis B. Mayer invited them to the Ambassador Hotel on Jan. 11, 1927, to create an organization to mediate labor disputes and polish Hollywood's tarnished public image. Douglas Fairbanks, Pickford's second husband, was elected the Academy's first president.

It was Pickford's third husband, Buddy Rogers, who inspired Eliopoulos to make the film. The University of Kansas alums met at an '80s reunion. After Rogers graduated in the late '20s, he headed to Hollywood and became a star. His films include the war drama "Wings," which won the first best picture Oscar in 1929.

Rogers (to Eliopoulos in Kansas): "When you come back to Hollywood, come on up."
Eliopoulos did just that. "I went to Pickfair Lodge, which Mary built for Buddy on the Pickfair estate," he recalls. "They designed it to house all her memorabilia that she had at the real Pickfair before they sold it."

As Eliopoulos learned more about Pickford's life, he saw there was a story to tell. Pickford was the first actress to earn $1 million in a year and the only star ever to receive 50% of her movies' profits. She co-founded United Artists in 1919 and established the Motion Picture Retirement Home in 1927. She was the first movie star whose name went up on marquees.

"She's the one who brought the novel 'Robin Hood' to Fairbanks," Eliopoulos said. "She's the one who told them about 'Zorro.' She's the one who had the idea for putting footprints in front of Grauman's Chinese."

Pickford, who died on May 29, 1979 at age 87, made 141 short films and 52 features. Her career began on the stage in 1900 when she was not quite 8.

She won the first best actress Oscar for a sound movie in 1930 for the drama "Coquette." The Academy awarded her a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1976.

"Mary had purchased nearly 90% of her films, which were in the vaults," Eliopoulos told me. "As they lent them to me to watch, I was just amazed. So I started this little project."
"If I knew it would take me 15 years, I may never have started it," he said with a laugh.
Actually, it's been more than 15 years. He first interviewed Rogers in 1990. The lengthy production reflected difficulties in putting the financing together.

"It was all private," he said. "My fellow producer, Elizabeth Coldicutt, was with me the whole time. She raised the money privately -- most of it is her own money -- because she loves Pickford, too."

A film and sound editor for 25 years, Eliopoulos won an Emmy for the miniseries "Wallenberg, A Hero's Story" and a Golden Reel for "Out of Africa." His two previous doc features are "Russia, A Peoples Journey to Democracy," which included interviews with Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, and "Visions of a New World," with Ted Danson.

Eliopoulos' background in sound editing is one of "Mary's" strengths -- it enables him to restore and reconstitute many of Pickford's audio interviews and then use them to let her narrate about half the movie. Having Pickford discuss her career and talk about Hollywood's earliest days is particularly effective since he cuts her narration to scenes from her films and vintage home movies showing her with the likes of Chaplin, Fairbanks and Griffith.

"Mary" shows how little Hollywood has changed. Today's huge star salaries are right in line with Pickford's hefty paychecks. In 1913, Eliopoulos points out, Zukor signed her to star for Famous Players for $500 a week, or nearly $11,000 in today's dollars. By 1916, she was getting $10,000 a week -- about $196,000 now.

And that, he adds, was before income tax, which didn't start taking a big bite out of earnings until 1917 or '18. "That's how they were able to buy all that Beverly Hills property like Pickfair and do so much more with their money," Eliopoulos said.

Another indication that the more things change, the more they remain the same in Hollywood is the vintage footage of Pickford & Fairbanks, Hollywood's power couple of the time.

Today, it's Angelina & Brad and Tom & Katie. "That's why a lot of young people who see the film relate to it," Eliopoulos said. "They go, 'Oh, wow. This is how it started, and this is a lot like the way it is now.'"

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