Q&A with Aviva Kempner about Hank Greenberg Ė 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 ďThe Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,Ē which was showing at the Jewish Film Festival of Seattle.
This month, Ms. Kempner will be appearing with a friend, John Rosengren, author of ďHank Greenberg: Hero of Heroes,Ē 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. Johnís full schedule can be found here. Hereís a link to his book. Hereís a link to her DVD. And hereís my review of the documentary from back 2000.
How was the film funded?
A charitable foundation made the film. I think itís 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. Itís just what it is. Because I wanted to make it my way. Iím still raising money for the music rights. Iím raising money for the P and A. Iím Ö You donít want to know. Iím married to Hank.
My form of fundraising is based on a line from ďA Streetcar Named DesireĒ: ďI depend upon the kindness of strangers.Ē 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 ďStreetcar Named Desire.Ē 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, ďI hope thatís not going to happen to me.Ē
You made ďPartisans of VilnaĒ with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Why not again? I mean I wouldíve think youíd established your credentials.
Itís 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 Iíve never seen [Burnsí baseball documentary].
Was it a help or hindrance, the fact that he made it?
I think itís 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, ďWhy do we need any more on baseball?Ē
On the other hand, I think he helped open up the door that, you know, baseball is a wonderful, glorious, American pastime, and thereís 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 Greenbergóis 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, ďIím going to do that too.Ē
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 thatís whatís so great. The three things Jews most say to me about Hank is: 1) he didnít play on Yom Kippur; 2) they didnít give him good balls [to hit when challenging Babe Ruthís HR record] because heís Jewish; and 3) he married a Gimbel. I try to give both sides.
Do you think they didnít pitch to him that final week in Ď38?
Ira [Berkow] has done the math. It isnít that way in terms of Ö I mean, maybe there was one pitcher Ö 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 thatís what Iíve been put on earth to do. Donít ever underestimate how important it is, the kind of childhoods we grew up with. My motherís an artist, my stepfatherís 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 canít vote in Congress, we donít have a baseball team. Weíre a colony! I live in a colony. Iím third world.
You know, Camden Yards is just a train ride away.
Oh, donít 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 donít have any dirt or scandal? Guess what? There isnít a lot of scandal. The worst things you can say about Hank is that in his managing years heís really tough. But if fate gives me a story where Hank meets Jackie Robinson at the end of his career, you think Iím going to go beyond that? Thatís the greatest ending. Itís 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, ďAct one was this, Act Two was this and Act Three was this,Ē and I just ate it up, because thatís 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 thatís humorous and makes you cry and thatís 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 ď20/20.Ē
I was talking with Ken Holtzman who was with me last Saturday Ö
Ken Holtzman, the pitcher?
Here. Because you know baseball. The night before I opened in New York Iím with Ted Williams and Yogi Berra. Want me to tell you a Yogi Berra story? Yogiís sitting there watching the film and Iím waiting for him to say something. I thought, ďGod, this great line Iím going to have from Yogi Berra! Iíll be able to quote it for days.Ē He gets up, and he says to Dave Kaplan, who runs the Yogi Berra Museum, ďBoy, those seats are hard.Ē Doesnít say one thing to me about the movie.
What did Yogi think of your film? The seats were hard. I mean, did you ever?