Before I tell you this true story about Eartha Kitt and me I must ask you in advance to forgive my indulgence as I usually try to avoid shop talk here on OS, mostly because I don't consider it my identity as a person and more bluntly because I loath those who blow their own horn but under the circumstances I feel compelled to share it. Additionally it's 3 am and I hadn't thought about getting out of bed on Christmas to write but I couldn't sleep. My hope is that I won't wake up in the morning and discover I was writing in my sleep...though it may be an improvement to my alert writing. Here goes...
Warning...a bit long
Hudson Hotel New York City
New York City 2004
It was 4:30 on a blustery winter afternoon in the city, giant pillowy snowflakes floating to the madness below, the darkness falling behind it on cue as the perfect backdrop to my front row seat.
There I sat alone in a secluded corner staring out the window of the library room at the Hudson hotel... paralyzed...waiting for her...terrified. This was no ordinary woman, no ordinary entertainer, she was an icon revered throughout the world. So why would she come to meet me...in New York from her home in Connecticut?
Hudson Hotel Library Room
Let me step back for a moment. Like most people surviving in the film business I had always dreamed of directing a film. For 15 years they let me change the tires and fill it with gas but never tossed me the keys to actually drive the car. Then one day an attorney in New York approached me through a relative about financing a film. At the time I didn't have a script so we agreed to revisit the offer when we did.
I remember being excited, shocked and afraid all at the same time. Afraid mostly because this business is unkind to directors with a losing record, in fact the movie landscape is littered with filmmakers who directed one movie and never worked again. Obviously I didn't want to be one of those guys but the risk was worth it so I went to work searching for a script.
One would think after so many years in the business that I would know the business. I mean any movie buff off the street could pick a winner so this should be simple...not so much. There were two things that I absolutely had to have...story and performance, I was willing to compromise on everything else but I just couldn't start with a weak piece of material. For a year I read hundreds of scripts until I found a script entitled "Cherrys".
It is a semi-autobiographical tale of three generations of black women who are thrust together by the unexpected death of step-granddaddy and forced to confront the shared demons that bind them. The script was a hot potato to start...it was a drama, female driven and the characters were black..all hard sells. Piling on further the script dealt with strong issues the black community rarely if ever explore...homosexuality and sexual child abuse. If that wasn't a steep enough mountain to climb the script resembled more of a stage play than a screenplay. BUT it was the best story I had read and I could see the film in my head.
When I met with the writer she told me that she hadn't touched the script in a few years because no actors responded to it. We made a deal, I would bring the picture to my investors if she would spend the next six months rewriting it with me. When it was done I was so happy with it I felt like we had written Gone with the Wind.
Now all we needed was money and a cast. I flew to New York and pleaded my case...curiously the investors agreed to give me $3.5 mil, a modest budget but workable. Together we held our breath as the script hit the streets, how would agents react to a first time director for such a strong piece of material, how would black actors react to a white boy directing such sensitive subject matter and could we get great actors for no money.
The three main roles were mom, daughter and grandmother. We decided to cast the mom first, she needed to be beautiful, disconnected and bound tightly so we met with Lynn Whitfield who I loved in "Eves Bayou". She was a tough cookie, skeptical but curious enough to say "yes".
Jurnee Smolett in "Eve's Bayou"
As we discussed the grandmother I was conflicted by so few choices so we cast the daughter who had been abandoned by mom and struggling to eat as a dancer in the city. During a conversation with Lynn about Eves Bayou we talked about the powerful performance the young girl who played her daughter gave. A few days later I asked our casting director if we could see her and wondered what she looked like ten years later. As soon as Jurnee Smolett began to read we knew she was the one.
Jurnee all grown up
Now we needed to cast the grandmother who was the keeper of secrets imprisoned in her denial. All of the likely actresses were suggested...Cicely Tyson, Ruby Dee, Della Reese but I wasn't feeling it, this role was the centerpiece of the film and I wanted it to be somebody the audience wouldn't expect...Eartha Kitt!!!
As 5pm neared I moved deep into the Grill Room where we were meeting and I played musical chairs for a couple minutes, where should I sit, where should she sit... As I settled into my chair I reminded myself that this was the same woman who was blackballed in America for speaking out against the Vietnam war...AT THE WHITE HOUSE!
And then she was there, standing at the podium with her daughter Kitt. She was dressed in a full length fur coat, black dress and black boots, black gloves and a black hat. As she walked the aisle morphed into a catwalk, everything stopped even the cooking. It was slow motion, she was indeed the sex kitten, perfectly sculptured legs and eyes that could disarm a nuclear weapon.
I'm standing now, ready to greet her. "Hello Harry I'm Eartha and this is my daughter Kitt". Already I'm confused because her daughter is white...blonde hair blues eyes white. Eartha sits but doesn't remove her coat, gloves, hat, nothing....so this should be a quick meeting. She starts the conversation..."Tell me how you see this character", that I can do which is a huge relief. "Tell me why me"...I see her in you..."People will have a hard time sympathizing with her"...it's a messy film. Silence.
Eartha and Kitt
She reaches her hand out and kitty kat tickles my arm..."Harry please help me remove my coat"...something happened, I can't tell you what but we connected. " I want to do your film...it needs to be told...I know all those people, some are me some are my relatives but they are real"...Sober.
For the rest of the afternoon she shared stories about her life, struggles with being black and having a white child. One story in particular is sad, she was in South Africa doing a benefit concert to help build homes for the poor. Earlier in the day, before the show, she was in a park playing with Kitt...not aware blacks weren't allowed. A cop promptly kicked her out not realizing who she was...of course it was instantly all over the evening news. Later that night on stage as she closed the show people were expressing their outrage over the incident. Rather than bathe in the apologies she announced "I'm here to raise money to build houses so write the checks"
It was time to go, Kitt had to get home to her family and they had a long drive. I wanted to cry. She was kind and decent to a guy most actors would have discarded. She brought my film to life at that table and she agreed to call Sidney Poitier for me. It was too good to be true.
A few nights later I went to see her perform at BB Kings....it was the holidays and as you might expect she was singing Santa Baby. After the show we sat for a few minutes, she told me that she had spoken with Sidney but he had retired and I thanked her trying. We said our goodbyes and both looked forward to the rehearsals.
Eartha sings Santa Baby
About a month later after we had cast the balance of the cast with Lou Gossett Jr., Anna Devere Smith, Earl Hyman and many others I was ready to go. I flew to New York to set-up shop and begin prepping the film...when I got a call. "Harry this is Holly....I just received a call from our investors and they are backing out...seems there is no market for black films"...Silence. Anger. Tears.
Two years of my life spent on a story I believed in has now come down to me calling Eartha Kitt to tell her "nobody cares about films about black people". How ironic...I may never make another film based on a film I never made...but I didn't care, all I could think about was that phone call.
First I called Kitt to apologize, she was gracious, told me Mom would understand. I didn't understand so how the hell could she, I knew the answer to that question but it was so unfair I couldn't get past the shame of this business. So I called. She knew the sound of my words...they were all too familiar to her, she sensed that panic in my voice...she held my hand...and took the hit.
We never made the film but I had always hoped we would find a way just so I could make it right with her-now she's gone. Tears.
Eartha this story changed me. I will forever regret that phone call and never forget your graciousness. You were one of a kind.
Thanks for reading.