Golden touch, golden heart

MONTREAL NA­TIVE JAKE EBERTS was a rar­ity among film pro­duc­ers: a suc­cess­ful but hum­ble man who cared about qual­ity first

Montreal Gazette - - Arts - BILL BROWNSTEIN bbrown­stein@ mon­tre­al­gazette.com Twit­ter: @bill­brown­stein

There will be a memo­rial Fri­day at 2 p.m. at the Church of St. An­drew and St. Paul for Jake Eberts, who was, unar­guably, the most suc­cess­ful and re­spected film pro­ducer to sur­face from these parts. The Montreal na­tive passed away here two months ago at 71 fol­low­ing a brief ill­ness.

Doubt­less, fam­ily mem­bers, friends and film­mak­ers will be show­er­ing Eberts with the sort of praise he would have gen­er­ally es­chewed. Un­like most in the movie biz, the soft-spo­ken Eberts was un­com­fort­able in the spot­light and sought at­ten­tion only for the projects he cham­pi­oned. But as film lega­cies go, there are few to ri­val that of Eberts.

He pro­duced or fi­nanced more than 50 films. They gar­nered 37 Academy Awards, not to men­tion dozens of other ac­co­lades from around the planet. Talk about a ré­sumé: Char­i­ots of Fire, Gandhi, The Killing Fields, Dances with Wolves, Driv­ing Miss Daisy, The Dresser, Lo­cal Hero, A River Runs Through It, Black Robe, Ocean, Chicken Run, The Il­lu­sion­ist, Grey Owl. And talk about a dis­tin­guished group of col­lab­o­ra­tors: Robert Red­ford, Ben Kings­ley, Mor­gan Free­man, Bruce Beres­ford, Richard At­ten­bor­ough, Hugh Hudson, Pierce Bros­nan, Al­bert Fin­ney.

Eberts, founder of Gold­crest Films and, later, Al­lied Film­mak­ers, wrote an ac­claimed study of the film busi­ness, My In­de­ci­sion Is Fi­nal. A chem­i­cal en­gi­neer by trade, he was cred­ited with turn­ing around the British film in­dus­try sev­eral decades back. He was also cred­ited with bring­ing films of sub­stance to a world where most pro­duc­ers care only about bot­tom lines.

Per­haps more im­por­tant, though, was that, in a busi­ness where one rarely heard many good words about a pro­ducer, one never heard a bad word about Eberts.

Yet for all he brought to the film world, many feel Eberts — self-ef­fac­ing as he was — never got his proper due. That should soon change. Pres­sure will no doubt be put on the Academy of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sciences, the Academy of Cana­dian Cinema and Tele­vi­sion and the British Academy of Film and Tele­vi­sion Arts to hon­our Eberts with a post­hu­mous Academy Award, Ge­nie or British Os­car.

There is al­ready word that his buddy Red­ford will be pay­ing Eberts trib­ute at the ac­tor/di­rec­tor’s Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val in Jan­uary. (Also, ow­ing to the fact he was an avid skier, the fam­ily has learned that the Sun­dance Re­sort will be nam­ing a new ski lift for him: Jake’s Lift.) And Roland Smith, pro­pri­etor of Cinéma du Parc, is plan­ning a week­long homage in De­cem­ber, fea­tur­ing seven clas­sic Eberts films with seven guest speak­ers fa­mil­iar with him to in­tro­duce the works and of­fer com­men­tary on his ca­reer.

“The fact is that Jake has been re­ally quite sig­nif­i­cantly over­looked by the BAFTA, Ge­nies and Os­car peo­ple,” says his wife, Fiona Eberts. “That’s prob­a­bly be­cause this was a man who just went about his busi­ness and did all these great things, but also a man who didn’t have a PR agent. When­ever I would bring up stuff like that with him, he would tell me to for­get about it, that it was ut­ter non­sense.”

Fact is, one has to lobby to bring at­ten­tion, and that was some­thing Eberts was loath to do. But an­other fact is that we are bet­ter off cin­e­mat­i­cally thanks to him.

“Jake was such a great am­bas­sador for Canada and gave the coun­try enor­mous re­spect in the film world,” Eberts says.

“But the film busi­ness is so crazy and so geared to pro­duc­ing only fi­nan­cial hits to­day. Sup­pose you were mak­ing tooth­paste — would you say: ‘I’ll only make tooth­paste in bub­ble-gum flavours for the 9- to 12-year-olds, and ev­ery­one else, like you who need spe­cial kinds of tooth­paste, can all go to hell’? It’s such a stupid busi­ness model, just taken on the com­mer­cial as­pect. But pro­duc­ers would tell you: ‘Look, if it’s teenage boys who go to the movies and we sell 80 per cent of tick­ets to them, why would we care?’ But what hap­pens is that they’re miss­ing a whole chunk of the mar­ket. As a re­sult, there is so lit­tle to see or rent for so many of us.”

Eberts clearly didn’t subscribe to that busi­ness model, and most of his films were both artis­tic and box-of­fice hits. “His sole cri­te­rion for choos­ing a film: ‘Does it get me out of bed in the morn­ing?’ He only did films that pushed him to get out of bed.”

But his wife does ac­knowl­edge that he slipped up once. “He made the mis­take of do­ing Su­per Mario Bros. years ago, be­cause his kids loved those games. He didn’t like it, but he thought it might be good for a whole gen­er­a­tion. It turned out to be a com­plete dis­as­ter, even though it now has a strange life of its own as a cult film.”

Her favourite Eberts films are Dances with Wolves, Black Robe and Gandhi. But she never worked in the film busi­ness her­self: “Oh no, one crazy per­son per fam­ily is enough. I’ve seen too much of the un­pleas­ant side of the busi­ness. The mirac­u­lous thing is that Jake man­aged to avoid that. What was it that al­lowed him to nav­i­gate this path with­out ever be­ing tainted or smeared? He didn’t have to do a lot of the un­savoury things that many peo­ple in the busi­ness have to do. His in­tegrity was in­tact. He was so trans­par­ently straight. I re­ceived hun­dreds of emails and let­ters from peo­ple af­ter he passed, and con­sen­sus from the senders was that they were bet­ter peo­ple for hav­ing known him.

“Sim­ply put, Jake had an eye on the hori­zon, and he never veered from that. He just went for it. He was ut­terly and com­pletely authen­tic. He was a con­cil­ia­tor. He didn’t want to dom­i­nate peo­ple. His goal was sim­ply to bring peo­ple to­gether.”

The memo­rial for Jake Eberts takes place Fri­day at 2 p.m. at the Church of St. An­drew and St. Paul, 3415 Red­path St.

GAZETTE FILES

Jake Eberts, who will be hon­oured at a memo­rial on Fri­day, had one cri­te­rion for choos­ing a film: “Does it get me out of bed in the morn­ing?”

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