Q&A with Aviva Kempner about Hank Greenberg – Part III
In March 2000, in a hotel lobby in downtown Seattle, I interviewed director Aviva Kempner, who was visiting Seattle to promote her documentary “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” which was showing at the Jewish Film Festival of Seattle.
This month, Ms. Kempner will be appearing with a friend, John Rosengren, author of “Hank Greenberg: Hero of Heroes,” at events in Washington, D.C. on April 4; in New York April 25; at the Yogi Berra Museum on April 26; and at the Jewish Community Center in New York on the evening of April 26. John’s full schedule can be found here. Here’s a link to his book. Here’s a link to her DVD. And here’s my review of the documentary from back 2000.
How was the film funded?
A charitable foundation made the film. I think it’s how Dominici used to fund the great statues.
I could have made this entire film in three years. [But] it is ten years of fundraising. It’s just what it is. Because I wanted to make it my way. I’m still raising money for the music rights. I’m raising money for the P and A. I’m … You don’t want to know. I’m married to Hank.
My form of fundraising is based on a line from “A Streetcar Named Desire”: “I depend upon the kindness of strangers.” It was really wonderful people who thought the world of Hank, and some state humanities boards, that helped me. But I recently re-saw the movie version of “Streetcar Named Desire.” You know when Blanche says that line? At the end of the film. Carted off to the looney bin. So I keep telling my friends, “I hope that’s not going to happen to me.”
You made “Partisans of Vilna” with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Why not again? I mean I would’ve think you’d established your credentials.
It’s called timing. When I was applying for the National Endowment for the Humanities on my Hank Greenberg film, which I would argue had some real humanities issues in it, there was a man named Ken Burns applying for his baseball movie. Need I say more? To this day I’ve never seen [Burns’ baseball documentary].
Was it a help or hindrance, the fact that he made it?
I think it’s two-pronged. I think I was the single filmmaker in the country most affected, funding wise, by Ken Burns. Because NEH went for him. When it went to PBS, they said, “Why do we need any more on baseball?”
On the other hand, I think he helped open up the door that, you know, baseball is a wonderful, glorious, American pastime, and there’s enough material there to make credible documentaries.
How did you get Walter Matthau?
Walter Matthau joined the Beverly Hills tennis club just to meet Hank Greenberg—is that great?
I had once seen a Walter Matthau movie, where, in the middle of the end credits, they have him in the bathtub. Funniest scene I ever saw. I thought, “I’m going to do that too.”
Then I realized the theme was what Hank still meant to these people: the kids, Arn Tellem, Maury Povitch, who comes out of nowhere...
And who screws up the history.
Oh, he got it all wrong! But that’s what’s so great. The three things Jews most say to me about Hank is: 1) he didn’t play on Yom Kippur; 2) they didn’t give him good balls [to hit when challenging Babe Ruth’s HR record] because he’s Jewish; and 3) he married a Gimbel. I try to give both sides.
Do you think they didn’t pitch to him that final week in ‘38?
Ira [Berkow] has done the math. It isn’t that way in terms of … I mean, maybe there was one pitcher … Actually, what hurt him most was the rain in Cleveland. And Bob Feller. Oh, who knows? But Jews totally believe it.
I come from a family that emphasized the arts and working hard. It was my awakening 20 years ago to first do a film about Jewish resistance against the Nazis and then do a film about Hank. And sort of my M.O. with my foundation is to counter negative stereotypes against Jews. I just feel like that’s what I’ve been put on earth to do. Don’t ever underestimate how important it is, the kind of childhoods we grew up with. My mother’s an artist, my stepfather’s a professor and my Dad was very political. And it formulated me. Where did you grow up?
Minnesota Twins? You stole them from my city! Did you see my dedication in the film? Dedicated to the return of Major League Baseball to Washington.
Well, you got another team right away. Then you lost them to Texas.
We can’t vote in Congress, we don’t have a baseball team. We’re a colony! I live in a colony. I’m third world.
You know, Camden Yards is just a train ride away.
Oh, don’t give me that.
What surprised you the most while making the doc?
Probably what a good person [Hank] is. I get criticized for making a love letter, so called, or that I don’t have any dirt or scandal? Guess what? There isn’t a lot of scandal. The worst things you can say about Hank is that in his managing years he’s really tough. But if fate gives me a story where Hank meets Jackie Robinson at the end of his career, you think I’m going to go beyond that? That’s the greatest ending. It’s what fate gave me.
Documentaries have beginnnings and middles and ends. I have this really dear friend who just saw the film in LA, and he comes out and says, “Act one was this, Act Two was this and Act Three was this,” and I just ate it up, because that’s what we were trying to do, my editor and I. Him being a theater person, he got it.
The other thing that gripes me: Where is it written that every documentary has to give a balanced report? Mine is a flaming love letter that’s humorous and makes you cry and that’s what I wanted to do. People loved Hank, there was a lot to love, and I want to make fun of it but I also want to tribute it. Exposes? Go watch “20/20.”
I was talking with Ken Holtzman who was with me last Saturday …
Ken Holtzman, the pitcher?
Here. Because you know baseball. The night before I opened in New York I’m with Ted Williams and Yogi Berra. Want me to tell you a Yogi Berra story? Yogi’s sitting there watching the film and I’m waiting for him to say something. I thought, “God, this great line I’m going to have from Yogi Berra! I’ll be able to quote it for days.” He gets up, and he says to Dave Kaplan, who runs the Yogi Berra Museum, “Boy, those seats are hard.” Doesn’t say one thing to me about the movie.
What did Yogi think of your film? The seats were hard. I mean, did you ever?
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