Golden touch, golden heart
MONTREAL NATIVE JAKE EBERTS was a rarity among film producers: a successful but humble man who cared about quality first
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.