News Column

Versatile actress Shirley Knight will be honored at Ojai Film Fest

November 8, 2013


Nov. 08--To remember

Shirley Knight kissed Paul Newman back when Ol' Blue Eyes was a big-screen heartthrob. She was in the same acting class with Jack Nicholson in the late 1950s and ran into him years later in "As Good As It Gets," in which she played Helen Hunt's mom.

Knight is a two-time Oscar nominee who's won a Tony, a Golden Globe and three Emmys in a versatile career that once led the New York Daily News to proclaim she was "simply the best actress in the country."

These days, Knight gets street cred from "Grandma's Boy." Kids, she said, approach her because of Adam Sandler, whom she tongue-in-cheek thanked for "trying to ruin my serious acting career." (His production company did the raunchy 2006 film; Knight and Shirley Jones were roommates of the Grandma character played by Doris Roberts.)

"I swear to God," Knight told The Star in a recent interview, "I can't go anywhere without these kids coming up to me. They have me on their iPhones and what have you. It just makes me laugh; it's funny that young kids and college boys know who I am, and they all want to take their picture with me. I'm never going to live that one down. And I do tell them, 'You know, I was in some good films as well.' "

The folks at the 14th annual Ojai Film Festival undoubtedly will focus on Knight's more serious work when they honor her this weekend with a lifetime achievement award. The festival opened last week and continues through Thursday with 51 films in competition.

Knight, 77, will share lifetime achievement kudos at a Sunday morning awards brunch at the Ojai Art Center with cinematographer Dean Semler, an Oscar winner for "Dances With Wolves."

The Sunday nod is part of a weekend tip of the cap to Knight that begins Friday with an 8 p.m. screening of her latest film, "Redwood Highway," at the Ojai Playhouse. In the film, she plays a woman in a retirement community in southern Oregon who decides to walk 80 miles down the famed Redwood Highway to see the ocean for the first time in 45 years. The film also stars Tom Skerritt and James Le Gros.

"It's quite a good story," said Knight.

Following the Sunday awards event, Knight is slated to appear on an actor's panel at 12:30 p.m. at the Ojai Art Center. After that, a screening of "The Rain People," a 1969 film she did with director Francis Ford Coppola and co-stars Robert Duvall and James Caan, will be shown at 2 p.m. at the Art Center.

Knight lives in New York but has been to Ojai before and enjoyed its spas; her longtime close friend and former acting colleague, Geraldine Kennon, lives in Ojai and has been a film festival judge for years. Knight's daughter, Sophie (Hopkins), lives in Thousand Oaks and is a writer-teacher.

Being with Newman

The ever-busy Knight also stars as the title character in the horror film "Mercy," which is based on a short story from genre maestro Stephen King and due out sometime in 2014.

"I play the character of Mercy," Knight intoned, "and I show no mercy in the film."

To hear Kansas native Knight tell it, she was a budding opera singer who'd seen maybe three movies as a child and yet somehow stumbled into acting.

She wound up signing with Warner Bros. in 1958 as a contract player. She soon auditioned for a 1960 film called "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," based on the play from famed writer and fellow Kansan William Inge.

Her role as a 16-year-old girl landed Knight her first Oscar nomination. She was soon loaned to MGM and starred opposite Newman in 1962's "Sweet Bird of Youth," based on the Tennessee Williams play. She received her other Oscar nomination for playing Newman's hometown lover Heavenly Finley.

For the record, Knight said kissing Newman was "great." But she resisted his "invitation" to join him for some kissing behind the "Sweet Bird" set -- a lure Newman made in front of his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, who was pregnant at the time.

"Paul said, 'Shirley, we have to do this love scene in the movie, so I think we should go behind the set and smooch a little,' " Knight recalled. "I must have turned 50 shades of red, I was so shocked and embarrassed.

"And then Joanne said, 'Paul, Shirley's a little new and doesn't know you like I do,' " Knight continued.

It was her introduction to Newman's prankster side.

"He didn't mean it, of course," Knight said. "He was a practical joker. I'm sure you've heard about all the practical jokes he and Robert Redford played on each other."

Newman, she said, was "just who he was," and everything that people cracked him up to be.

"He was an extraordinary human being, and a wonderful actor," she said. "The people most revered are the ones not putting themselves in magazines. I don't think self-aggrandizement is very good, and he didn't do that at all."

Kennon said her friend was "a great ing nue" and that the youthful Knight could have traded on her striking looks to become a Hollywood sex symbol but chose not to, all for the better.

"She saw herself as an artist and not as a sexual being," Kennon said. "She went through her career the appropriate way. For her, it's always about the art, and that's why she works all the time."

Scattered pictures, in the corner of her mind

Knight leafed through her credits as if paging through a photo album.

"Dark Stairs" co-star Angela Lansbury, she said, taught her a slew of little acting tips, such as how to make eye contact with the other characters at certain camera angles.

She recalled how thrilled she was to meet legendary writer-director Ingmar Bergman when she did the 1973 TV movie "The Lie."

Knight called 1968's "Petulia," in which she worked with director Richard Lester and co-stars George C. Scott, Julie Christie and Richard Chamberlain, a "wonderful film that was so ahead of its time," adding that it deftly captured San Francisco's storied Haight-Ashbury district.

In "The Rain People," on the menu in Ojai on Sunday, Knight plays a pregnant woman who leaves her Long Island home to see if she could have made something different of her life. "I liked it because it was one of the first films about women's lib," Knight said.

Knight did "Dutchman" both on stage and in the 1967 film version, playing a white girl who seduces a black man on the subway.

She did the play in Los Angeles. The film version, the only movie Knight ever produced, won a critic's prize at the Cannes Film Festival and she won best actress for it at the Venice Film Festival.

"I'm very, very proud of that film," she said. "It's still shown in black studies classes at universities today."

It stirred controversy. Anti-black groups picketed showings, Knight recalled, and she got death threats. She was also arrested in the South for protesting in favor of civil rights.

Knight, who called herself "very political," also was arrested at the Nevada Test Site for protesting against nuclear weapons, and in New York City for protesting for women's rights.

Pass it on

Knight's three Emmy wins were for "Indictment: The McMartin Trial" (1995, for which she also won her Golden Globe), and for guest spots on "NYPD Blue" in 1995 and "thirty-something" in 1987.

She has more than 200 TV credits by her count, many of them guest appearances.

"Sometimes," Knight relayed with a laugh, "I go over those credits lists online and I think to myself, 'I don't even remember doing that.' "

Her Tony win (best actress) was for the Robert Patrick play "Kennedy's Children" in 1975. Theater, she said, is where her heart is -- and also the site of her greatest work.

Doing film and TV, she observed, "you don't get better at what you are doing. You don't go through the time it takes to develop a great character."

It was Williams who once told Knight that "when I think joyfully of theater, it will always be of you."

Yet -- outside of those "Grandma's Boy" fanatics -- Knight is far from a household name. But Knight is satisfied that within showbiz, she's known and respected as an artist.

"I don't know what famous is," she said. "The people who are famous are the ones who work hard at being famous, like the Kardashians."

Fame, she added, is nothing to aspire to; the idea is "to get better at what you do. That's what's important. There are actors at the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., who are lights-out geniuses at what they do, and no one knows who they are."

She imparts such lessons to acting students; she's taught special master's classes at New York University and Yale. This phone interview caught her in San Marcos, Texas, where Knight was going to act and talk shop with Texas State University students; her other daughter, Kaitlin, heads the musical theater department there.

She taught Bryan Cranston in a Shakespeare class in Los Angeles some 15 years ago, and said she's "so, so happy" that he's enjoying some success with "Breaking Bad," "Argo" and so on.

It can be a long road, one that Knight knows well.

"When I teach, I say, 'Know what your food is,' " she noted, "because if you want to be famous, you're gonna starve."

Ojai Film Festival

Longtime actress Shirley Knight will be honored with a lifetime achievement award at the 14th annual festival this weekend. The Knight festivities will begin at 8 p.m. Friday with a screening of her latest film, "Redwood Highway," at the Ojai Playhouse, 145 E. Ojai Ave. Knight will do a question-and-answer session afterward.

On Sunday, Knight will be given her lifetime achievement award (as will cinematographer Dean Semler) at an 11 a.m. brunch at the Ojai Art Center, 113 S. Montgomery St. After that, Knight is scheduled to be on an actor's panel at 12:30 p.m. at the Art Center. That will be followed by a free 2 p.m. screening at the Art Center of Knight's 1969 film "The Rain People" that she did with director Francis Ford Coppola and co-stars Robert Duvall and James Caan.

Here are other films to consider at the festival this weekend and into next week:

- "Redemption on the River" (12:30 p.m. Saturday, Ojai Art Center) is about a 260-mile endurance canoe race that enlisted the help of no less than 45 cameras to shoot it.

- "Pad Yatra" (3 p.m. Saturday, Ojai Playhouse) is a movie about people trekking across the Himalayas to save a glacial region under siege from global warming.

- "Fill the Void" (8 p.m. Saturday, Ojai Playhouse) is an Israeli film about a young girl's dilemma between true love and family honor and duty.

- "Big Easy Express" (10 p.m. Saturday, Ojai Playhouse) follows three indie folk-bluegrass bands through six cities on one train. The bands are Britain's Mumford & Sons, Tennessee's Old Crow Medicine Show and Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros.

- "Harmony" (3 p.m. Sunday, Ojai Playhouse) is a film about the devotion, in both time and money, that Prince Charles has given to global environmental issues.

- "Slow is Fast" (8 p.m. Sunday, Ojai Playhouse) is a Patagonia film about Dan Malloy's 58-day, 700-mile bicycle trip along the California coast. Malloy is a pro surfer who grew up in Ojai and graduated from St. Bonaventure High School in Ventura. Malloy and fellow filmmakers will do a q-and-a session afterward.

- "A City Divided" (12:30 p.m. Monday, Ojai Art Center) examines the USC-UCLA football rivalry. The film, billed as humorous, contentious and entertaining, notes how the rivalry often splits families 50-50.

- "Ground Operations" (3 p.m. Monday, Ojai Art Center) is about returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who become organic farmers.

Film festival events continue through Thursday. Individual tickets to all events are $10, except for the free "Rain People" screening and a two-day actor's workshop (Saturday and Sunday) that costs $60. Four-ticket discount packs are available for $30, and an all-access pass is $100.

For more information on tickets, other screenings and other events, call 640-1947 or visit


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