The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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My hot date with Sheila Nevins

June 30, 2008 |  4:26 pm

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As you can see from my photo, when you have one of those "conversations with" at a film festival--as I did the other night with HBO documentary maven Sheila Nevins at the L.A. Film Festival--it's not a totally intimate affair, since you're sitting on stage in front of a few hundred people, all staring up your nose. Still, you couldn't ask for a better subject than Nevins, who is a fascinating character. First off, she's has been responsible for some of the best documentaries of the past 15 years, from "When the Levees Broke" to "Taxi to the Dark Side" to "Born Into Brothels" to the recent "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired."

Secondly, she puts her money where her mouth is. In the green room, before we did our thing, an indie film exec came over to greet her and handed her a $100 bill. He was paying off a bet: Sheila had predicted box-office failure for "Young@Heart," a feel-good doc that has barely made a dent in its theatrical run, grossing $3.5 million after 10 or so weeks in release. Nevins wasn't bashing the movie--she simply thought no one would go to a theater to see a film about old people and she was right. (She refused the money, by the way, telling her pal to give it to charity.)

But she's also fascinating, as I learned from our "conversation," because she's a woman of a certain age--i.e., a woman who came of age in the pre-feminist movement era of show business, when it was apparently OK for a big-shot network anchor to feel her up right in the office, as she recounted (in a considerably more ribald fashion) during our onstage conversation. I often ask people who work in entertainment who their mentors were. Nevins says she didn't have one, since there were almost no female TV executives on board when she started her career.

It's hard to take notes when you're up in front of a big audience, but here are a few highlights from our conversation:

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As a woman, what does she think about Roman Polanski, a great filmmaker who also drugged and then raped a 13-year-old girl: "His art was greater than his sin. Let him get on with his life. I mean, what are you going to do to him--shoot him?"

On being an ambitious young woman executive in the '60s, trying to make her way up the showbiz ladder: "I went to the opera with a lot of bald guys. And let me tell you--I didn't like opera."

On her first meeting with feminist icon Gloria Steinem: "I was terrified by her. She was way out of my league. Even though she'd been a Playboy bunny, I knew she hadn't done it with the enthusiasm that I would have."

On trying to persuade Michael Moore that he should make a documentary that would air first on HBO instead of in movie theaters: "I sent him a TV set. You know, something nice, a 24-inch HDTV. It came with a note, that was from the TV set to him. It said, 'Dear Michael, don't hate me. Be my friend.' He still won't do a doc for us, but at least now he has a nice new TV."

On finally being given admittance to the motion picture academy: "I'm happy, but it's 15 years late. I had everyone recommend me--Gordon Parks, Jack Valenti--and they still turned me down. Gordon told them he was dying, so why couldn't I just have his membership. They wouldn't even have to add an extra person. They just have one problem with me. I stand for television and they don't like it. Tough."

Photos by Patrick Goldstein / Los Angeles Times

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