Doc NYC Film Review: ‘Searching for Mr. Rugoff’

Owen Gleiberman

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Even given all the things we now know about Harvey Weinstein, few would dispute his place in movie history as the figure who put the American independent film movement on the mainstream map and kept it there. He remains a force of legend (even if he’s now an infamous accused criminal). And that’s why it’s extraordinary to consider that Weinstein’s career as a game-changing, big-tent ringmaster of cinema was, in more ways than not, a direct sequel to the career of Donald Rugoff — the irascible New York film exhibitor and distributor of the ’60s and ’70s who made smart movies into sexy addictive events the same way Weinstein did. The difference is that almost no one today has heard of Donald Rugoff.

Searching for Mr. Rugoff,” , was produced and directed by Ira Deutchman, the veteran film distribution and marketing executive who got his start in the mid-’70s working for Rugoff. Deutchman makes no bones about the fact that his subject wound up in near-total obscurity. But at the 2004 Gotham Awards, the art-film impresario Dan Talbot, who ran the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, was receiving a lifetime-achievement award, and he devoted the heart of his speech to Rugoff, whom he hailed as “the greatest exhibitor of foreign and independent films this city has ever seen.”

Deutchman, stoked by his own memories, googled Rugoff and found next to nothing (to this day, he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page). Yet Rugoff’s career as a movie baron, a behind-the-scenes influencer, was a seismic one. You could say that he helped to pave the way for the New Hollywood, and then bent the light of its success.

Here, just like Harvey, was a wily, ill-tempered Jewish monomaniac vulgarian who reveled in his power, berated and harangued his employees (he had to have two office temp assistants since one of them would quit nearly every day), scarfed deli sandwiches with gobs of mustard dribbling down his shirt, cut distribution deals with gangster panache — and, through it all, showed exquisite taste in movies, as well as a virtuoso instinct for how to get people into theaters to see them. (He basically invented turning foreign films into Oscar bait.)

“He was kind of a terrible person,” Deutchman tells us. “The way he treated people was bad.” At the same time, Rugoff’s office was an astounding place to work (you’d crack open a door and there would be Jean-Luc Godard), and, says Deutchman, “The paradox of Rugoff was that he was so physically disheveled all the time, yet he surrounded himself with all this beauty” (meaning the films). He looked like a sleeker Walter Matthau and spoke with a garment-district gruffness; the movies, in a sense, were a projection of what he wanted to be. And though, unlike Weinstein, he never produced films, he had the rare ability to define the movies he showcased.

With his collection of sleekly designed theaters (the Sutton, the Plaza, the Paris, the conjoined art-house palace of Cinema I and II, his Art Deco crown jewel the Beekman), all done up in a snazzy-with-a-hint-of-tacky modernist décor that might be called Formica Mondrian, he transformed the Upper East Side of Manhattan into a blockbuster cinema zone, a monopoly of adventurous good taste, making his mark on the habits and sensibilities of what became known as “the film generation.” The famous scene in “Annie Hall” where Woody Allen quarrels with a smug Fellini detractor? That’s a moment right out of Rugoff Land: the fact that they were standing in a line that long, the fact that they were arguing about movies — it was all a dimension of the Rugoff vision, to take high-end film passion out of the dark and turn it into a living, breathing mainstream force.

Yet Rugoff (pronounced Roog-off) ultimately lost his company, the fabled Cinema 5. Deutchman, as he was starting out to make the documentary, heard a rumor that Rugoff had been buried in a pauper’s grave (he died in 1989, at 62). He also kept hearing from former Cinema 5 employees, many of whom are interviewed here, that Rugoff had a metal plate in his head, and that this accounted for his difficult behavior; the rumors are part of his cracked-genius-mogul mystique. “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” is the chronicle of a scabrous saint of cinema who became, against all odds, a ghost of cinema.

Deutchman, an agelessly pleasant and becalmed chap, is the film’s investigator-protagonist, heading up to Martha’s Vineyard to learn what really happened to Rugoff even as he unearths, with lyrical movie-love nostalgia, the story of his influence on cinema’s glory days. Art film, of course, was already a big deal in the 1950s. But that was the classical age of foreign cinema, when it was austere and black-and-white, represented by the hallowed names of Bergman and (early) Fellini and Rossellini and Kurosawa. The movie, more than any other, that broke through and defined the new era — and it was Rugoff who helped to define it — was Costa-Gavras’ “Z.” It was historical and political, but it was also a heart-in-the-throat thriller, and Rugoff, in 1969, programmed it into a sensation, taking out full-page ads in The New York Times that reconfigured the film into an Oscar hopeful. (“Z” was the first movie to be nominated for both best picture and best foreign film.)

More than any other factor, what made Rugoff successful was his intuition that art films were undergoing a revolution of their own. Starting around 1970, movies that were a lot less old-school “classy,” that were wilder and weirder and more unhinged, could now be corralled under the holy banner of cinema. The floodgates were open. “Art film” still meant the works of Truffaut or a Bergman masterpiece like “Scenes From a Marriage” (all of which Rugoff distributed), but now it also meant a hip French farce like “The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe,” or the Andy Warhol-branded heroin-and-depravity scruff-fest “Trash,” or documentaries like “Gimme Shelter” and “Marjoe” and “Pumping Iron” or the four-hour-long “The Sorrow and the Pity” (which Rugoff programmed into a hit), or the risqué libidinous fables of Bertrand Blier, or the groundbreaking drag-queen tragi-comedy “Outrageous!,” or the controversial anti-PC earthquake of Lina Wertmüller’s “Swept Away,” or — yes! — “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

Cinema had become a smorgasbord, and Rugoff, designing newspaper ads that made every film look like an event, channeled and shaped that excitement. In 1969, his influential ad for “Putney Swope,” which pictured a giant fist giving “the finger” (in the form of a black woman with sexy attitude) with the phrase “Up Madison Avenue,” prefigured the famous peace-sign-with-legs studio ad for “M*A*S*H.” After screening “Putney Swope,” Rugoff told the film’s director, Robert Downey, “I don’t get it, but I like it.” That’s the kind of sentiment that inspired great loyalty toward him on the part of filmmakers. “There was an element of madness in him,” says Lina Wertmüller. “That made him a beloved person to me.” From 1965 to 1978, Cinema 5 films received 25 Oscar nominations and six wins.

Rugoff had a P.T. Barnum side. He hired John Willis to create window-box dioramas of the films he was programming, and he got his employees to dress up like characters from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (a film turned down by every other distributor) and wander through the streets of Manhattan. On opening weekend, he fraudulently advertised Terry Gilliam’s “Jabberwocky” as a Python film, suspecting that he would get a cease-and-desist order by Monday morning (he did), and he arranged a receiving line at Lincoln Center so that a thousand movie patrons could shake hands with Wertmüller, Giancarlo Giannini, and the cast and crew of “Seven Beauties.”

In the end, Rugoff proved to be a victim of his success — and his anti-social tendencies. Deutchman interviews his wife, Evangeline Peterson, who tells a crazy-inspiring story about their first date (the two drank 10 martinis, then Don came back from the restroom and announced, “I’ve decided we should get married”), but who describes the tyrant that he could be. He also had a way of falling asleep at screenings (due to the drug regimen he was on as a result of an inoperable tumor).

Rugoff spent a decade in the courts, starting in 1974, fending off a hostile takeover bid by William R. Forman, the owner of Cinerama. But he lost that war, and lost control of Cinema 5 in 1986. At that point, his touch as a marketer was foundering; the studios had caught up with the revolution he helped to pioneer. And once that happened, no one wanted to hire him. Deutchman follows his trail to Edgartown, the WASPiest enclave of Martha’s Vineyard, where Rugoff and his second wife moved (she was from there), and where he ran a film society called Cinema Café out of an abandoned church with a hundred wooden seats. Deutchman talks to locals, flips through microfilm, and finally locates Rugoff’s grave (it’s something different than anticipated). And the movie, at that moment, becomes unexpectedly touching. Don Rugoff was one of those film-business visionaries who turned passion into compulsion; he succeeded, and failed, as a result. Yet he had a dream, and “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” is an infectious salute to what that dream was: a place where cinema could live.

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