It was a warm night in NYC about 10 days ago when the new World of Wonder produced and directed documentary, Liberty: Mother of Exiles was premiering in a private screening room on Broadway.
There was the ubiquitous red carpet line of celebs that included directors Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato, the “godmother” of the Statue of Liberty, (more on that title later) the iconic, charming fashion designer, Diane von Furtstenberg, her husband, billionaire, mogul Barry Diller, Rupert Murdoch‘s ex, Wendy Deng, the unofficial godmother of HBO documentaries, the legendary Sheila Nevins and executive producer, Jason Blum among others.
My date was Maxim‘s Susan Kilkenny and on the way in we ran into author, Simon Doonan fresh off promoting his new book Drag, photographer David Croland, eBay‘s Bradford Shellhammer & husband Georgi Balinov, art critic Carlo McCormick, psychologist and former Basquiat muse, Suzanne Mallouk, WOW’s Tom Campbell and many others I saw in the distance.
We were treated to big boxes of Swedish Fish and M&M’s before entering the theater and while waiting for the show to start, I was craning my neck to see who else made it in that I hadn’t noticed. I spotted Carson Kressley, Jay Manuel, Emmy-winning RuPaul’s Drag Race designer, Zaldy and just a few rows in front of me on the aisle, I spied David Copperfield, who famously made Lady Liberty disappear in the 80s. He was leaning across the aisle to chat with Fran Lebowitz. THAT’S a New York moment you’ll only get at a World of Wonder screening.
Then the film was set to begin. First, some intros. HBO’s Nancy Abraham introduced DVF, who she said was approached by Stephen Briganti, Pres.,CEO Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island and who implored her multiple times to get involved with Liberty. She declined. He then reminded her of a passage in her memoir,
“My mother was a Holocaust survivor. She was actually in Auschwitz for 13 months before I was born. And she wrote me a little note that said,
‘God saved me so that I can give you life. By giving you life, you gave me my life back. You are my torch of freedom.’”
After that she was hooked and was given the official title of “Godmother of the Statue of Liberty.”
I won’t cover more here, because most of it is in the doc, but she was charming, engaging and got lots of laughs. She’s the unlikely thread that runs through the whole film.
It was then Bailey and Barbato’s turn to thank their many collaborators and then SHOWTIME. Rather, HBO!
I know these guys for decades as I’ve often said, and I do work for the company (although on the opposite coast) but as I told them, they’ve really made a classic film. It is both epic and expansive as well as intimate and personal. Not to mention, inspiring in the these dark days where freedom, even in this country, is under threat.
The film never mentions Trump by name, but his immigration policies are subtext at every turn and even the most cynical will find themselves tearing up at the special place this worldwide symbol of freedom seems to hold.
Every person interviewed has a city stamp indicating their country of origin which continually reminds you that we are ALL from somewhere else. (Unless you are Native American, but that’s another doc.)
From it’s inception, Liberty’s sculptor/ father Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi‘s story is told in-depth like you’ve never heard it before.
Emma Lazarus‘s poem The New Colossus is quoted and the origins are retold. The poem was written as a donation to raise money for the pedestal’s construction. It was published in Joseph Pulitzer‘s New York World and in 1901, Lazarus’s friend Georgina Schuyler began an effort to memorialize the poem. This succeeded in 1903 when a plaque was put on the inner wall of the pedestal of the statue with the poem’s text.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”[
Check out celebs like RuPaul, Lizzo, Whoopi Goldberg, Jessica Chastain, Wayne Brady, Cyndi Lauper, Regina Spektor, Charo, Big Freedia, Courtney Love, Andy Cohen, and Monica Lewinsky reading the poem…
The film details little-known aspects of the Statue and Ellis Island where families working for the Parks Dept. actually lived until just after 9/11. The new museum recently dedicated stands on the spot where the houses once were.
The ways in which the statue’s existence affects Americans is really palpable through encounters with dozens of people. From street artists like Denis Ouch to a French metal artisan who came to America to work on the restoration of the statue in the 1980s and never left and workers in China who make the souvenir statues. Lady Liberty “belongs to everyone,” as well as Bartholdi’s own goal that she should represent the unity of mankind.
As DVF says in the film,
“The Statue of Liberty has always been a story of the people.”
Afterward, we all filed up the street to Lincoln, the swanky restaurant at Lincoln Center for a private dinner party and champagne toast for all those assembled.
I congratulated Fenton, Randy, WOW producer Mona Card, her husband David Benjamin Steinberg who created a masterful score for the film.
As we meandered through before, during and after dinner, I chatted with more pals like Esteé Lauder‘s Sandy Markman, music impresario Bill Coleman, Rachel Maddow producer Ron Dodd, photographers Henny Garfunkel and duo Idris & Tony, performers David Ilku & Nora Burns, who are 2/3 of the comedy troupe Unitard, along with the legendary Lypsinka who was disguised as the mild-mannered, John Epperson.
Liberty: Mother of Exiles is produced and directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato; executive producers, Diane Von Furstenberg, Sheila Nevins and Jason Blum. For HBO: executive producers, Nancy Abraham and Lisa Heller.
A great night for a great film, that you really have no excuse not to catch. It premieres October 17 on HBO at 9PM.