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Q&A with Director Aviva Kempner about “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg”
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. Here’s my review of the documentary and my profile of Ms. Kempner.
What follows is the full Q&A with Ms. Kempner, edited and condensed.
There’s a scene in “Portnoy’s Complaint” that reminds me of what you do with immigrant parents and baseball in “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.” As a boy, Alexander Portnoy is at the park playing baseball with his father, who is calling out to him, “Okay, Big Shot Ballplayer.” But he’s gripping the bat with his hands reversed, and Alexander is overcome with sadness at how little his father, the great man in his life, knows. I’m curious if you tried to get Philip Roth for the documentary?
I wanted to but he said he wouldn’t be filmed. He’s very reclusive. [Notices a man at a nearby table lighting a cigarette.] Is that a smoking area? I may have to move.
What Roth writes about, which is the one thing I wanted on film, was how his grandfather, who was an Orthodox Jew, would get up every morning and pray. Do you know what tefillin is? Well, it’s a very Jewish thing. Orthodox Jews put on leather straps every morning. [Roth’s] grandfather would lay tefillin every morning and pray and smell the leather straps. He would get up every morning, take his baseball mitt [smacks palm], and go like that.
That’s when I knew I was onto something. I had already been working on the film five years and when I read Philip Roth I realized that for the children of immigrants, and some immigrants themselves, baseball was the way you became American. It became a new religion.
Not just for Jews. This was true for Italian immigrants, Irish immigrants. That’s why I wanted the beginning of the film to be what baseball was to immigrants. Our parents spoke with accents, they could hardly understand the game. The scene in “The Pride of the Yankees” where Lou Gehrig’s mother, says “What are those pillows doing there?” with an accent.
A German accent.
It’s close enough to Yiddish. That and “Gentleman’s Agreement” were the first Hollywood clips I decided to use, and then after that it became a structure of my film.
Why use such clips?
Well, look it. I’m of the view that the most important source of footage in my film is the archival shots that were shown in the movie theaters: the MovieTone footage of the World Series and things. I paid an arm and a leg to get it and worked with my editor to craft it into the film.
But I’m also under the belief that feature films can be archival—can also connote an era or a feeling. When I’m talking about domestic anti-Semitism, well, I think “Gentleman’s Agreement” is the best and only great film out of Hollywood on domestic anti-Semitism [at the time]. That scene of checking into the hotel is a incredible personification of the social discrimination against Jews. There are other scenes where the Gregory Peck character uses the name Green or Greenberg to get access. Well, no one can tell me that when Laura Hobson wrote that book she wasn’t thinking of Hank.
Plus I can say that I have Gregory Peck in my film.
Any footage you heard about but couldn’t get?
We don’t know what we didn’t get. What I’m waiting to hear is … I’m going to be on this tour [for the documentary], and the film’s going to be out for the next year, and somebody’s going to come to me and say, “You know what I just found in my grandfather’s attic?”
There are a lot of stills I didn’t use. I love black-and-white. I just had to limit how much I had—there was once a three-hour version of the film—but I’m hoping to do a photo essay that accompanies the movie.
There’s a three-hour version?
A three-hour rough cut that will never be seen. I’m afraid to say that out loud. When I say it publicly someone always asks, “Can I buy the three-hour version?” Unlike a lot of new Hollywood movies, which are three hours, I think people have a capacity [for how much they can watch].
I’m fighting something greater: getting people in to see a documentary. I just had to make it quick and strong and fast, and that’s why it’s 95 minutes.
What did you hate to cut?
A lot of things. Hank’s first date. He was in North Carolina and he got fixed up and went on a date and we had footage—guy going into a shop with a girl—I mean it was an adorable scene. I tend, because I’m a female and very romantic, that’s why I have so much romance in my film. I think it’s part of baseball. I think women fans have big crushes on baseball players. Harriet Colman is me.
Men fans too.
Well, gay men probably...
Or even straight men. Little boys.
Well, that’s actually interesting … Although I think the heroism is a little different. For us, it’s a real, romantic...
Actually there’s two first basem—
You cut yourself off there.
This is a family movie, I don’t want to be quoted otherwise.
But the important thing is that crushes have always existed in sports. The single most-asked question I get is “Where did you find [Harriet Colman]? Where did you find the groupie?” The reason I met her is that someone came up to me in my synagogue seven years ago and said I know you’re doing a film on Hank Greenberg—you know I’ve been working on this for over 15 years—and says to me, “If you’re going to make a film about Hank Greenberg, you have to interview my mother. Hank was everything for her.” Luckily I listened.
The second-most asked question is, “Why isn’t Sandy Koufax isn’t in the film?”
Steve Greenberg, Hank’s son, who is so eloquent and knowledgable in the film, I asked him about interviewing Sandy. He said he’d met Sandy through the years, and Sandy wasn’t really influenced [by Hank]—you know, it’s really 30 years difference. I also know Sandy’s a recluse so I never approached him. However, my month has been made because I recently received a message that Sandy saw the film and loved it. A lot of things are making me float lately but that’s a top floater.
Where did you grow up?
In Detroit. I grew up always hearing about Hank Greenberg. My father was an immigrant—took my brother and I to games—he was crazy about baseball. I remember my father either watching baseball or listening on the transistor radio. Later when he moved to Isreal he always said he was going to miss two things: his children and baseball. But I was never sure of the order.
I recently made that joke to someone and they looked at me and said “Oh, that’s awful. You think he missed baseball more?” And I thought: This woman has no sense of humor.
I think it’s pretty obvious from my film that having a sense of humor is a primary matter. People ask me who my influences are in making this film. The single most voice that was behind my head in making “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” style-wise, is Barry Levinson’s “Diner.” I think it is the perfect comedy. It so identifies how men love sports. He wouldn’t marry her until she knew the Colts. That’s what I wanted to capture. That wonderful obsession, adoration, involvement …
It’s pride, too. When I decided to do the film, I was opening up my first movie, which I produced, called “The Partisans of Vilna,” about Jewish resistance to Nazis, and I heard Hank died. And I’m obsessed with the thirties and forties. I was born in Berlin after the war, ’46, and Fascism obviously had a very negative affect on ... my family dynamics. I never knew a grandparent, I never knew an aunt, they were all killed by the Nazis.
But the day I heard Hank died, I knew I had to do it, because I wanted to deal with the anti-Semitism in America. My father talked about not being able to get into medical school, he talked about the anti-Semitism he faced in...
Your father is American?
No. My father was originally from Lithuania but he came here in the ’20s.
Joined the U.S. Army and was sent first to the Pacific and then to Berlin after the war, where he met my mother, who—I’m going to have a bagel, I hope you don’t mind—who’s ... My mother’s Jewish but passed as a Polish Catholic in [Nazi] Germany. Her parents and sister perished in Auschwitz. Then she was liberated by Americans and brought to Berlin. My Dad wrote a story about a brother and sister being reunited, and it was my uncle surviving Auschwitz and my mother surviving passing as a Polish Catholic.
I grew up in Berlin and I came to America when I was four. To Detroit, where my uncle lived.
Do you remember Europe at all?
Totally blanked. Even the language.
I grew up in Detroit, going to games with my father, and every time we passed “The Shrine of the Little Flower”—that’s Charles Coughlin’s Church—my father would point his finger and say, “That anti-Semite!” And every Yom Kippur I would hear about Hank Greenberg. I thought it was part of the Yom Kippur liturgy.
So you’re wondering why at age 40 when I heard Hank died that I didn’t know this was my next film? It was the culmination of everything that I had grown up with. And it’s my love letter to Detroit.
But I didn’t know when I started how far-spread Hank’s adoration was in the Jewish community. I thought maybe it was more a Detroit phenomena? But time and time again, older Jewish men, older Jewish women, say to me, “This is what Hank meant to me.” And then you have that guy who gets married with the Hank Greenberg card? Arn Tellem grew up in Philly. When I met Arn—he’s a big sports agent, his wife’s the VP of CBS—and he told me his stories, and how he joined his law firm because Steve Greenberg was there, I realized that I wasn’t the only second-generation [American] brought up like I was, that Hank was as powerful a figure to the Jewish community as Jackie Robinson was to the black community. And I’m just proud that I was able to bring it to the screen.
Look, if you look at the image of the Jewish male on the screen you think he’s a nebbish, you think he’s a nerd; and hopefully Hank, thirty feet tall in the movie theater, is going to counter that.
There’s a lot of heavy agendas I have in making my movie.
Did you ever think of using a narrator? You did in “Partisans.”
I never wanted a narrator, it’s just not my style. I think we took an extra six months to a year to edit just because I didn’t want to use a narrator.
But I do think there’s a narrator in the film, and that’s Hank’s voice. For his biography, “The Story of My Life” by Hank Greenberg, edited by Ira Berkow—hopefully it will be re-released very soon—Hank talks with the microphone. And if you look again at the film you’ll see that throughout the movie he really tells his own story. And I love that New York accent. And I love... He talks about “Some broad would come up to me...” I have a young assistant editor, who’s a woman, and she said, “You can’t use that!” And I said, “What are you talking about? That’s how the man talked.” And later on, after the film was finished, his widow said to me, “I love that you used ‘broad,’ because that’s how Hank talked.” I’m a flaming feminist but I’m not going to censor something that’s so much the nature of that period.
What else can I talk about?
Were there other talking heads you couldn’t get?
One that didn’t work out was Joe DiMaggio. He just declined. I don’t know why.
How about Ted Williams?
I approached Ted. I could not get an on-camera interview, I did it over the phone, and it didn’t work. But he did come out for my opening at the Yogi Berra Museum the night before I opened in New York. He loved, loved Hank, and he just gave the best quotes for the film.
Where did you get some of these other guys—like Bert Gordon?
As I said, I wanted to replicate “Diner,” but it’s really replicating my father. My father died in ’76, I could never get him; but I grew up with his humor about being Jewish and being a fan. So I had to seek out fans. I think the everyday fan can be as funny as Walter Matthau.
Since I grew up in Detroit I had an advantage, I wasn’t going in cold. Bert Gordon is a family friend of my mother and my step-father’s best friends. So I knew about Bert right away and I went to him.
Bert Gordon is no longer with us; he never saw the end of the film. But Bert was the funniest man alive. There are two men that when I was filming I literally had to keep my mouth like this [clamps hand over mouth] so I wouldn’t start laughing? Walter Matthau and Bert Gordon. The day Bert said, “We were all five-foot-four, buzzing around … I never saw a Jew so big,” I thought I was going to piss in my pants.
And he said, “Well, you gotta interview the other people I used to go to games with, who Roger Angell has written about,” so…
In one of his New Yorker essays.
Wait, those are those guys? The Tiger fans in “Five Seasons”?
Oh, you’re good. Yeah, those are the fans: Max and Bert and Don. I started interviewing 10 years ago. I had to stop because I didn’t have the money. Bert had the horrible habit of smoking, and he had emphazema, so he died. He’s under the dedication. Actually most of the people in my film have died, three-fourths of them, all the old players.
It also helped opening up the film after America’s re-love affair with baseball. I think Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa helped me a lot, too. The adoration of Sammy Sosa by Dominicans is a total repeat of Jackie and Hank. Driving around New York, these gypsy cabdrivers, who are Dominican, soap their cars with how many homeruns he had. The big, big difference is I didn’t hear any negative catcalling because Sammy was black or Latin. We’ve come a long way as a nation. John Rocker aside. And even the way Rocker was pounced on really shows how much growth there is.
But my film shows you how insidious [racism] was. Can you imagine going to work everyday and get that catcalling? Based on how you were born? I just can’t imagine that. Joe Falls says there were Irish, there were Italians, but there was only one Jew. But as Hank said, it made him do better.
It was like all those rejection letters [I got, asking for money]. Today, I’m really having fun thinking, “All those guys who said no to me...” Actually one man wrote me and said, “I’m so sorry I didn’t send you money, you’re getting all this coverage, congratulations, you deserve it,” and I wrote him back, “But you did give me money.” It was so cute. He was feeling guilty he hadn’t—he was an older man—and he’d forgotten he had.
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.”
The 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?