'Poltergeist' will haunt the Castro Theatre
by David Alex Nahmod
Halloween comes a day early to the beautiful Castro Theatre this year. On Sat., Oct. 30, the Steven Spielberg-produced horror classic Poltergeist will terrify viewers anew when event producer Marc Huestis unleashes the film from the burial ground of the DVD bin. Poltergeist will screen in a pristine, 35mm print on the theatre's larger-than-life screen. Since this is a Huestis offering, the audience can expect a lot more than just the movie. The evening's highlight will be an onstage appearance by JoBeth Williams, the fearless Mom who helped save Carol Ann from "the other side."
The film's 1982 release came at quite an exciting time in the actress' career. Before this "monstrous" hit, she had enjoyed high-profile roles in the Oscar-winning Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and the Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor comedy Stir Crazy (1980), and she was soon to appear in the highly regarded ensemble drama The Big Chill.
Prior to her big-screen stardom, the actress paid her dues at the Trinity Rep in Providence, Rhode Island, and on daytime TV. She admits that her memories of her role on the 1970s soap opera Somerset are a bit hazy. "I remember that someone was out to get me," Williams recalled. "Someone put a dead bird in my desk!"
But she recalls the filming of Kramer vs. Kramer clearly, and speaks highly of star Dustin Hoffman. "He has a reputation for being difficult," she said, "but he was so nice to me. He knew it was my first film, and he worked off-camera for me. He went out of his way to improvise for me. We got along very well."
She learned an important lesson from Hoffman: no matter how big you get, there's always uncertainty. "'Do you think this movie's going to be a hit?' he asked me."
Williams' most memorable scene in Kramer was when, as Hoffman's girlfriend, she was caught walking around the apartment nude by his young son (Justin Henry).
"The nude scene was the first scene we shot. I was terrified, I had not done nudity before. And I thought I would warp him, and end up paying his shrink bills! But he turned to his Mom and said, 'I don't know, Mom, she's so skinny!'"
Kramer opened doors for the up-and-coming film star. She began getting calls to fly out to "the Coast" for readings – but she says that she never read for Poltergeist.
A number of her co-stars from the classic chiller are no longer with us, and Williams spoke of all of them with great fondness. Beloved Zelda Rubinstein, who played Tangina, the little spirit medium, was, according to Williams, "mighty, intense, and an outspoken voice. At first she was not taken seriously because of her size. She was strong because she had to be. She didn't take crap!
"She always had tall boyfriends. As in 6'3". They were drawn to her because she was a lot of fun."
There was a tinge of sadness in Williams' voice when she spoke of Dominique Dunne and Heather O'Rourke, the actresses who played her daughters in Poltergeist. Dunne was murdered by an abusive boyfriend at 22. O'Rourke die
"Dominique was a lovely young actress with a strong background in the arts. She had an amazing family, and we had a lovely relationship. We used to laugh during filming, because she was 21 and I was around 31, but I was her Mom! She gave me a present when we finished filming."
Williams remembered O'Rourke as a trouper who never complained during the difficult shoot. "When we first met, she said, 'You're gonna be my mommy in the movie.'" Williams also spoke very highly of O'Rourke's mom. "Kathy was an incredibly loving mom. All I ever saw between them was love."
She reported that 1983's The Big Chill was the most fun she ever had on a film shoot. "We were in a small town, and knew no one but each other. We all lived near each other, and when we weren't working, we played Trivial Pursuit and Charades. We became a family."
When asked which of her films was her favorite, she replied without hesitation. "American Dreamer. A little underground cult movie that we shot in Paris. In one scene, I fell into a fountain in December, when it was freezing! Why couldn't we have shot that scene in September?" The 1984 film was seen by few people due to a disagreement between co-financiers CBS Films and 20th Century Fox. "CBS pulled its ad money," she said. "You couldn't find an ad for it. But the people who saw it liked it." American Dreamer is now available on DVD, and Williams hopes that Poltergeist attendees will seek it out. She also urges us to keep an eye out for The Big Year, her new film with Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black. She says that the often-outrageous Black is surprisingly low-key as himself.
The actress is looking forward to her Castro appearance. She and Huestis are old friends, and Poltergeist should be quite a night. Patrons can attend the gala at 7:30 p.m., which includes an onstage interview with the star, a Carol Ann look-alike contest hosted by Connie Champagne, a horrific fashion show by the Sick & Twisted Players, and a warm-up performance with Jonathan Reisfeld. Williams will be available to sign autographs after the show. The film screens around 9 p.m.
There will also be a Noon screening of the film that same day, at which Williams will appear for a brief Q&A and signing. The matinee will not include the stage show attractions.
Poltergeist with JoBeth Williams, Sat., Oct. 30, Castro Theatre. Gala and film: $30 (VIP, orchestra); $25 general (side orchestra, balcony). Tickets at www.TicketFly.com or (415) 863-0611. Partial proceeds to benefit the AIDS Housing Alliance.