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Posts Tagged ‘Ira Deutchman’

Donald Rugoff

“SEARCHING FOR MR. RUGOFF” My rating:B

94 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Searching for Mr. Rugoff” kicks off with a montage of co-workers, friends and family members discussing the late Donald Rugoff.

“A piece of work.”

“Reviled, feared.”

“A thorny, difficult man.”

“Self-destructive.”

“Really good at what he did.”

“A giant nobody knows about.”

That last comment is most telling, for Ira Deutchman’s documentary makes a case for Rugoff (1927 – 1989) being one of the most important figures in the film business.

Ruggoff didn’t make movies.  He showed them.  Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s his New York-based Cinema 5 distributed the creme-de-la-creme of foreign films, independents, art efforts and documentaries.

Moreover the iconic theaters he operated in Manhattan — the Beekman, Sutton, Paris, Plaza, Grammercy and Cinema I and Cinema II — became the physical embodiment of the whole film-as-art movement.

If back in the day you thrilled to the Maysles’ “Gimmer Shelter,” Nicholas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Bruce Brown’s “Endless Summer,” Robert Downey Sr.’s “Putney Swope,” Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage” or Werner Herzog’s “The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser,” you had Donald Rugoff to thank.

Director Deutchman — who in addition to his own wildly successful career as a distributor of art movies has for 30 years taught the Business of Motion Pictures class at Columbia — worked briefly for Rugoff in the ’70s. He explains for the camera that he was moved to make this documentary because a Google search revealed next to nothing about his infuriating, intimidating, insanely important mentor.

Dozens of Rugoff acquaintances — including filmmakers Costa-Gavras, Lena Wertmuller and Downey, critics like Annette Indsorff and a whole slew of past Cinema 5 grunts — lined up to talk about the man.

The picture that emerges is of an overweight schlub in mustard-stained shirts and ties who loved the movie biz above all human connections. He regularly reduced employees to tears — one recalls that he could be charming when hiring you, but that once on board you were his slave.

At the same time Rugoff was decades ahead of the curve in giving young women a foothold in a male-dominated industry (and apparently without even a hint of Weinstein-level predation). One source calls him “an equal-opportunity exploiter.”

Employees recall being stunned at coming to work to find Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard schmoozing in Rugoff’s office. If Don Rugoff picked up your film, he worked like a madman to make it a commercial and artistic  success. (Curiously, he was notorious for falling asleep during screenings; it may have had something to do with the brain tumor that eventually killed him, though there was also an urban myth that he had a steel plate in his head.)

His  Russian-immigrant father founded a nickelodeon business at the turn of the last century; Rugoff inherited the theaters (now showing films, naturally) when the old man died.

He was a visionary, if a mildly crazy one. His theaters looked like museum displays of modern-art furniture and decoration; he had an artist build life-size dioramas of each new movie and featured them prominently in his lobbies.

His idea of elegant theaters for upscale audiences was wildly successful, pulling the center of New York cinema from grungy Times Square to the Upper East Side. Under his ministrations the opening of a new art film became a cultural event; hip audiences lined up for blocks to see movies  that might barely play elsewhere in the States.

Rugoff was also a genius at old-school hucksterism.  To publicize “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” he dressed employees in costume company armor and had them gallump up and down the city streets to the clip-clopping of coconuts.

Because there’s relatively little archival material available on Rugoff (a few family photos, virtually no home movies or newsreels), “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” relies heavily on talking-head interviews.  These have been brilliantly edited to give the doc a specific rhythm.  


And one cannot underestimate the mental/emotional/cultural charge of the many clips from films Rugoff distributed…if like me you’re a veteran of that era, it’s a hugely pleasurable wallow in nostalgia.

Somewhat less effective — though modestly interesting — is Deutchman’s research into Rugoff’s final years on Cape Cod where, after having lost his company to a hostile takeover, he spent his last years converting a century-old church into a neighborhood film society. As is often the case with stories like this, he died a pauper.

After watching this doc you are left with the conviction that Don Rugoff, whatever his personal demons, changed film culture. He’s got my thanks.

| Robert W. Butler

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