The Bingham Ray memorial in New York last Friday was an extraordinary event. Sure, the Paris Theatre was packed with a generation of people who care deeply about independent film, but it was more than that. (David D'Arcy covered for Indiewire; see UPDATED videos below.)
Bingham Ray represented something to them, perhaps more than they had recognized until he was gone.
He was one of their best and brightest, and most gifted, and most pure. As several speakers at the event stated, it was never about money for him. It was about sharing the best movies with the culture at large.
The marquee at the Paris on 58th and 5th, which had cancelled two showings of "The Artist," simply read: Bingham Ray. (Getting that done required high-level negotiations at the top of theatre management. Let's just say that Sony Pictures Classics was involved.)
The list of attendees was nothing short of everyone in the indie world, with the notable exception of Ray's arch-rival over the years, "Artist" distributor Harvey Weinstein. Another long-time Ray competitor, SPC's Michael Barker, took part in the tribute, with an accompanying clip reel comparing Ray with James Stewart in an Anthony Mann western and Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life." It worked.
Other speakers included several of Ray's childhood friends from Scarsdale, who recalled sharing a diet of Million Dollar Movies and Chiller Theater, one-time October Film execs John Schmidt and Randy Ostrow, Annabel Ray, John Pierson, Manohla Dargis, poker buddies Tom Prassis, Eamonn Bowles, Richard Abramowitz and Arnie Sawyer, actors John Turturro, Patricia Clarkson and Oliver Platt, and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who recalled being too broke to buy tickets to see films at the Bleecker Street Cinema, which Ray managed at the time--so Ray let him sneak in.
Platt and Clarkson recalled Ray's role in "Pieces of April," which he championed early on but didn't get to make. When the film ignited a bidding war at Sundance, Ray introduced himself to Platt and told him he would be releasing the film. Platt asked if the deal had been made? Ray told him in no uncertain terms that he would wind up releasing the film. And so he did. After the ceremony, writer-director Peter Hedges reminded me that Ray had also backed Clarkson as the lead, when no one else wanted her.
The guy had impeccable taste--I used those words in my eulogy, and so did absent "Secrets & Lies" filmmaker Mike Leigh, who was heading the jury in Berlin and thus sent in a speech. Who else was there? Ray's widow Nancy King and their three kids, Nick, Annabel and Becca, Alex Gibney and Anne Debevoise, Oren Moverman, Darren Aronofsky, Lodge Kerrigan, Christine Vachon, Ted Hope, James Schamus, David Linde, Sophie Gluck, Annette Insdorf, Ira Deutchman, Debra Winger and Arliss Howard, Janet and Georgia Pierson, Daniel Battsek, Mark Urman, Anne Templeton, Reid Rosefelt, Leon Falk, Mark Horowitz, Paul Kurta, Eugene Hernandez, Rose Kuo and Larry Gross, Charles Lyons, Marshall Persinger, Anthony Bregman, Bob and Jeanne Berney, Anne Hubbell, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, Rachael Horovitz, Donna Daniels, Ted Mundorff, Jonathan Sehring, Stephanie Sharis and an L.A. contingent including Cassian Elwes, Sara Rose, Jim Tauber, Nancy Willen, Ray Price and Meg Madison and Sam Kitt. And there were many more: the house was packed to the balcony rafters.
"Pieces of April" is just one example of a film that benefitted from the support of Bingham Ray. His loss means one less person pushing for movies that often don't get made without that extra boost from someone with passion. Which brings me to Sundance. Ray died in a Provo hospital on January 23 before he could get to the festival. Which presented, by many accounts, one of the weaker slates in recent years. One has to assume that the programmers plucked the best of what there was to offer, and in any case plenty of distribution deals and at least one bonafide Oscar contender ("The Surrogate") did ensue.
Which leads to another possibility. Sure, we live in a world where anyone--actor, director, writer--can take control of a digital camera and make a film happen. Doc filmmakers, especially, can take off into the unknown to see what they can find. But there are still rare films that need an advocate. That's where Bingham Ray comes in. What if Fox Searchlight, Focus, Weinstein Co., SPC, IFC and Magnolia--all on the side of the angels in the film culture wars--stepped up one more time than usual each year, to put through a Bingham Ray movie--perhaps risky, less than commercial, but aiming artistically high? We would all be the better for it.
That's why we have to channel the Bingham Ray warrior inside us to fight hard--with guile and wits and strength--for the better movie. Yes, it's hard. Harder than it's ever been. But that's what we must do.
UPDATE (2/17): Here's some more video from the memorial, from Indiewire.
Part I: Bingham's high school friends perform a musical introduction, and Patricia Clarkson and Oliver Platt talk about the man who was, in Clarkson's words, "the independent film world's Prospero."
Part II: Ray is remembered by his longtime friends Tim Jensen, John Celeste and Randy Ostrow
Part III: Bingham's daughter, Annabel Ray, remembers her father.
Part IV: Jim Jarmusch, John Turturro, Bill Pullman and David Lynch reflect on Ray's passing.
Part V: Richard Abramowitz talks about meeting Bingham at a job interview at United Artists. Ben Barenholtz addresses the camera.