New York Film Fest: 'Seymour' Subject Performs During Ethan Hawke Tribute

87-year-old piano master Seymour Bernstein, the subject of Hawke's new doc 'Seymour: An Introduction,' performed publicly for only the second time in 40 years
Scott Feinberg
Seymour Bernstein, Ethan Hawke, Ryan Hawke and Jonathan Sehring at Tuesday night's New York Film Festival tribute to the actor-writer-director

"I have to admit something," Ethan Hawke told New York Film Festival director Kent Jones in the middle of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Tuesday night tribute to the actor-writer-director at Lincoln Center's Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse. "It [the acceptance of Hawke's new documentary Seymour: An Introduction into the highly selective fest] meant a lot to me. Hamlet was rejected here. Before Sunrise was rejected here. Tadpole was rejected here. Before Sunset was rejected here. I mean, you know, it's been a lonely 30 f—ing years — I needed Seymour Bernstein to get my ass in this chair!"

Not long after the audience's laughter died down, Bernstein — a professional classical pianist turned piano teacher who has become a life coach to Hawke and the subject of Seymour — rose and offered a tribute of his own to the man who has made him, at 87, a celebrity of sorts. Bernstein, who had performed publicly only once since walking away from his recital career in 1977, for Hawke's doc, said, "This afternoon I went over one piece and I thought, 'Well, I'm gonna give it a try.'" He walked over to a grand piano in the corner of the room, which had theretofore been manned by his former NYU pupil Jiyang Chen, and, after a humorous introduction, played a long and beautiful Brahms intermezzo.

Read more 'Seymour: An Introduction': Telluride Review

(See THR's video of Bernstein's tribute and performance at the bottom of this post.)

Afterward, Bernstein received a standing ovation and an emotional Hawke hugged him and cut short the rest of his conversation with Jones, feeling that nothing could or should follow Bernstein. But prior to that point, he and Jones had covered a wide variety of topics pertaining to his life and career, which is in the spotlight as much as ever at the moment thanks to his back-to-back IFC films: Boyhood, for which he is a — in my opinion, the — frontrunner for this year's best supporting actor Oscar, and Seymour, which will be a frontrunner for next year's best documentary feature Oscar.

At the outset of the evening, Hawke publicly acknowledged IFC chief Jonathan Sehring and AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan for "the passion and dedication it took to make Boyhood." He emphasized, "The biggest miracle of that movie is that somebody believed in the idea enough to [potentially] not recoup on their investment in a world where everything is about money and what's happening next year. These guys, who are here tonight, said, 'You know what, I'll take a break from that line of thinking for a minute and I'll give Richard Linklater a chance.'" As the audience applauded he added, "I am really indebted to you guys. I wouldn't be here tonight if you guys didn't greenlight that movie."

Hawke also discussed his decades-long relationship with Linklater, a fellow native of Austin, Texas, with whom he has collaborated on many films — most famously, apart from Boyhood, the three Before films, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and last year's Before Midnight — and credited Linklater's 2008 documentary about a zen-like baseball coach, Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach, for helping to inspire Seymour.

Many cineastes have wondered if Linklater and Hawke might reunite for a fourth Before film, but Hawke seemed to pour cold water on that possibility: "This idea of making a third film was very important to me. I'm not sure about a fourth. It's possible — but if the second film was a call, the third film was an answer, and I feel that if there were a fourth film it would be starting a second trilogy. It would be a new call-and-response." 

Hawke says that having the Before franchise and the 12-year-long Boyhood project "both end within these last 14 months has felt like a huge loss — a snake shedding its skin or something." Moreover, he added, "Seymour and I had been working on this documentary for a few years and it finished this year. I did Macbeth across the street last year, which was kind of a culmination of a decade-long rededication to the theater. And so, for some reason, I feel incredibly naked here tonight. This moment is a finishing moment for me, and I don't really know [what's next]."

Hawke then shared a poignant memory of the making of Dead Poets Society, the movie that made him a star 25 years a go opposite the recently deceased Robin Williams. He referenced Norman Lloyd, the veteran character actor who played the headmaster in the film, and who will turn 100 in November, but who, Hawke said, "seemed ancient to me" even during the making of Dead Poets, when Hawke was just 18. Hawke recalled that one day, when he was horsing around on the set, Lloyd, with whom he had bonded, pulled him aside for a talk:

"Norman came up to me and he said, 'You have no idea what's happening now, do you?' I was like, 'What do you mean?' And he said, 'You're having one of the most amazing experiences of your life and it's not the right time to be joking around. I forgive you for not understanding, because you have nothing to compare it to,' he said, 'But you know, I worked with Orson Welles — we were part of the Mercury Theatre Company — and I thought I was gonna have dozens of these experiences. I thought I was gonna meet a million people like Orson Welles. But instead I was having one magical experience that would light my whole life and give me things to work toward. You're having one of those right now and instead you're making it small.'"

Read more New York Film Fest: ''71' Offers Showcase for 'Unbroken' Star Jack O'Connell

Hawke remembers that he more or less cleaned up his act after that conversation and to this day, he noted, "I think about Norman Lloyd all the time."

Among those in attendance at the event: Hawke's wife and Seymour producer Ryan Hawke; Boyhood producer John Sloss; Michael Almereyda, Hawke's director on Hamlet (2000) and the forthcoming Cymbeline (2015); actor-director Mathieu Amalric, who is here at the fest with his latest film The Blue Room; Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker and recent MacArthur "Genius Grant" recipient Joshua Oppenheimer, who's at the fest with his latest film, The Look of Silence; the Film Society of Lincoln Center's 2014 Filmmaker in Residence Lisandro Alonso; and FSLC director Lesli Klainberg and deputy director Eugene Hernandez.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg