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Beatrice and Hubert

Film director Hubert Cornfield, who became famous in his 20s for making first-rate pictures in 16 days or less — Plunder Road (1957), The Third Voice (1959) and Pressure Point (1962), to name a few — remains, to this day, allergic to idle daydreaming. When he gets an idea, he acts on it. One night early in the 1990s, he watched a television documentary about sculptor Beatrice Wood (1893–1998), who was then very much alive and productive, and had turned 100. Although renowned for the energetic beauty of her ceramics, Wood sidelined in attracting men. Among her many love affairs, the most legendary involved a happy triangle she enjoyed with Marcel Duchamp and his friend Michele Dupuy, a situation whose notoriety inspired Henri-Pierre Roche to write the novel Jules and Jim, which later became the François Truffaut film starring Jeanne Moreau.

Across the airwaves, Wood’s droll, sexy spirit hooked Cornfield as well. Asked if there were any men she wished she could have seduced, she deadpanned, “Trader Joe.” Cornfield, tickled, hopped in his car the very next morning, drove to Ojai and presented himself at the door to Wood’s studio. She welcomed him as if he were not only expected, but overdue. When he presented her with a selection of videotaped copies of his films, she returned the compliment by giving one of her renowned ceramic sculptures, in this case of an abstract human face. They joked between themselves that this constituted the first “Beatrice Wood Award for Artistry in Film.” On later reflection, Cornfield realized there was a serious proposal in this: Why not use another of Wood’s stylized faces to create an actual award, to be passed on annually, hand to hand, in her name?

Since then, for 10 years, the award has been bestowed, as an alternative to the Best Picture Oscar, upon such self-starting movie artists as David Lynch, for The Straight Story; Henry Jaglom, for Last Summer in the Hamptons; Billy Bob Thornton, for Sling Blade; Sam Raimi, for A Simple Plan; and Kenneth Lonergan, for You Can Count on Me. This year, it was awarded to George Hickenlooper, for The Man From Elysian Fields. The film, which stars Andy Garcia as a writer prostituting himself both literally and metaphorically, was touted for months by Roger Ebert as the best of 2002, only to be ignored at awards time (even by Ebert!), an injustice Cornfield aims to rectify, asserting, “Hickenlooper made a great picture, with James Coburn giving the best performance of his life.”

Occasionally, a Beatrice Wood Award has gone to the year’s actual Oscar winner — to Ron Howard, for A Beautiful Mind, or to James Cameron, for Titanic. For Cornfield, though, even these choices (which are voted on — by phone, or over dinner — by the award’s previous winners, in December) are independent of Oscar glory. “I thought A Beautiful Mind was so good that it would be ignored by the Academy,” he laughs. “What did I know?” The same held true for Titanic, although, in that case, an odd bit of serendipity applied. James Cameron had made his own pilgrimage to Beatrice Wood’s Ojai studio — he was researching the character he was creating for Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart to play, and wanted to experience firsthand what an active 100-year-old is like. He was so bewitched that, you might notice, Stuart is up to her elbows in ceramic mud when the phone rings, calling her to adventure, and Winslet’s volcanic radiance is shaped to a destiny that may have even included an affair with Trader Joe.

“Beatrice will live on through her work, naturally,” says Cornfield. “But this way she not only lives on, she stays involved!”


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