Guest Blog by film critic Jack Garner
Silent film legend Buster Keaton was long known as “Old Stone Face” because he never cracked a smile, even while houses collapsed around him and tornadoes blew through town. However, at least one thing was known to put a smile on his face: his George Eastman Award from Eastman House. Author Marion Meade noted in his biography, Cut to the Chase, the great comedian considered his Eastman award more prestigious than an Oscar®.
Keaton was part of the astonishing first group of winners of the aptly nicknamed “George” award, on Nov. 9, 1955. He joined an all-star roster that included Charles Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Ronald Colman, Cecil B. DeMille, John Ford, and Lillian Gish. Though not all came to Rochester for the honors, many did, including Keaton, Pickford, Swanson, and Gish. They attracted a sellout crowd at the 3,000-seat Eastman Theatre.
Lillian Gish speaks from the Festival of Film Artists stage at the Eastman Theatre in 1955.
In the more than a half-century since, Rochester and George Eastman House have been host to a sparkling array of Eastman Award winners, from Fred Astaire and Jimmy Stewart to Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, and Meryl Streep. The award ceremony is held every few years, the centerpiece of a night of black-tie celebrating and important community fundraising at the Eastman House and its Dryden Theatre.
The event adds prestige to the Eastman House film archive, generates awareness and enthusiasm for the collection and the Museum’s motion picture preservation activities among important Hollywood figures, and is a great excuse for a grand party.
And sometimes, the honorees return the favor with important gifts to the museum. Director Martin Scorsese, the 1994 honoree, now stores some 8,000 titles from his world-class film collection at Eastman House, where they are often scheduled for screenings and will eventually be a permanent part of the Eastman House collection. And the 1997 honoree, actress Isabella Rossellini, has made Eastman House a repository for films by her famous father, Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini.
The awards began in 1955 as an idea by the Museum’s first director, Gen. Oscar Solbert. Founding film archivist James Card recalls in his memoirs that with the proliferation of film festivals in 1955 — and the growing popularity of the Academy Awards® — he should have foreseen that the “PR-conscious director” would conceive of a ceremony of his own. Card wrote that he was called into Solbert’s office: “ ‘We will award Georges,’ he announced. I firmly believed he was confident that in a manner of time, the Oscars® would be superceded by Georges.”
Certainly, that hasn’t happened. Yet the awards, which are held in high regard among those who’ve been honored, and probably a few who wish they would be honored.
First called the Festival of Film Artists Awards in both 1955 and 1957, the name was changed to the George Eastman Award “for distinguished contribution to the art of film” soon after but has had the nickname ‘The Georges” on and off since.
“The George Eastman Award was the first token of recognition established by a US cultural institution to pay tribute to the artistic achievements of the leading artists of the film industry,” says Patrick Loughney, a former Motion Picture Department curator at Eastman House, and now at the Library of Congress. “In terms of longevity and the prestige of past recipients, only Oscar® stands in comparison.”
Part of the initial attraction of the Georges was that the 1955 and 1957 honors were awarded to stars, directors, and cinematographers from 1915 through 1930, and were selected through extensive balloting, organized by Card, through mailings to any and all significant surviving participants of that important period of film history.
After the initial flurry of the 1955 and 1957 honors, the complex and difficult balloting process was put aside, and the museum directors, archivists, and boards began the process of selecting the stars, which were usually just one per ceremony, and usually about once every two or three years. The new process began in 1965 with Fred Astaire, and continued in the ’70s with Johnny (Tarzan) Weissmuller, Blanche Sweet, and director George Cukor (who, before becoming Katharine Hepburn’s favorite Hollywood director, honed his craft in the ’20s at Rochester’s Lyceum Theatre).
This reporter’s observance of the Georges began in 1978, when the incredibly likeable Jimmy Stewart was honored. As part of the ceremony, the Dryden Theatre hosted a screening of the then-rare and out-of-circulation Vertigo, which drew film aficionados from around the world.
1978 Eastman Award honoree James Stewart poses playfully on the site of the Schuyler C. Townson Terrace Garden while touring the Museum grounds.
The Eastman House also revisited the concept of honoring several stars at a large Eastman Theatre celebration in 1982, when several exceptional women were honored simultaneously: Joan Bennett, Dolores Del Rio, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan, Luise Rainer, and Sylvia Sidney.
The seventh of these legendary women was Louise Brooks, the silent screen siren who spent her last decades living in Rochester, and who had spent many hours studying films at Eastman House for her memoir, Lulu in Hollywood. The ill, apartment-bound recluse didn’t make it to the ceremony, but she sent word that she was thrilled with the honor — which came only three years before her death.
The Eastman House has continued to be remarkably successful in attracting prestigious names
to receive Georges and to be the all-important magnets for the fundraising ceremony. Fortunately, the awards establish their own natural sort of celebrity networking. Martin Scorsese, for example, led Eastman House to his friend and former wife, Isabella Rossellini, which led to another award (and to important treasures for the archive).
Meryl Streep in the Dryden Theatre with her 1999 Eastman Award.
As Meryl Streep said when she was honored in 1999, “I can see I’m in very august company.” And, since she’s an Oscar® champion and arguably the greatest actress of her generation, she and the newest recipient to be named, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award winner Richard Gere, make the company even more august when future Eastman award recipients are determined.
The only time things didn’t work out as planned was in 1994 when Scorsese was honored and had to withdraw from attending at the last minute because of complications on the set of his movie, Casino. In his stead he sent Griffin Dunne, who’d starred in Scorsese’s After Hours.
On one of the grandest nights of Eastman Award history, on Oct. 24, 1987, recipient Gregory Peck was surprised by the appearance of one of his favorite co-stars, Audrey Hepburn. “I’m honored to bring to this ceremony the film industry’s admiration for your talent, their respect for your integrity, and the love they feel for you.”
Peck was delighted. But he also said he was happy because the Eastman House honors also put a spotlight on the Museum’s important role as a leading center of film preservation.
“For a long time, Hollywood didn’t realize the importance of preserving its films,” he told the audience here. “These old films are an invaluable source of information for film students. And, for the general public, they’re a window into the past.”
Audrey Hepburn shows her Eastman Award to a sold-out Dryden crowd in 1992, after its presentation by then-chairman of the Museum’s board of trustees Bruce Bates.
Five years after Peck’s ceremony, Hepburn would herself be honored with an Eastman Award. Though her adoring fans didn’t know it at the time, they witnessed history. Those close to Hepburn knew she was quite ill, though she put on a brave and stunningly gorgeous face. Ultimately, it was a bittersweet occasion, the last major public appearance by the Hollywood icon, who died four months later.
Jack Garner was staff film critic of Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle for 28 years and for 20 of those years was the nationally syndicated chief film critic of Gannett News Service. A fixture in Rochester journalism since 1970, he was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Attica prison rebellion in 1971. Today he is a member of Eastman House’s Motion Picture Acquisitions Committee and the Eastman House Council, and in 2007 was honored with the George Eastman Medal of Honor for his contribution to motion pictures and the community.
Dresden Engle is the Public Relations Manager for George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.