- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2000

''I'm on cloud nine," Aviva Kempner says, summarizing how good it feels to have completed her second feature, the entertaining and endearing sports documentary "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg."

Opening Friday at the Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax, Va., and the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle in Northwest Washington, D.C. "Life and Times" concludes a 13-year labor of love and persistence on a sublime note. It may not emerge as the biggest hit of the summer movie season, but it's unlikely that any other film will prove as durably stirring or satisfying.

Miss Kempner, conducting press interviews at her home, not all that far from the Outer Circle if she's tempted to check out the occasional screening, shrugs off the expense of time. "It took its toll, certainly. But it was all a question of funding," she says. "I had to stop and start a hundred times. It took me 10 years longer to finish than I had imagined, but now the timing is better than it would have been in 1990. I have Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to thank for that. They got people excited about baseball again."

Born and raised in Detroit, Miss Kempner resolved to do a biographical feature about Mr. Greenberg, the great Detroit Tigers slugger of the 1930s, when his death in 1986, at age 75, coincided with the release of her first movie, "Partisans of Vilna." She is returning to the same time frame with a different, specifically American emphasis. "Vilna" is a powerful elegiac tribute to Polish Jews who formed a doomed but resolute armed resistance to the occupying German army during World War II.

"I have this Jewish roots thing," she says. "The first film was a way of re-creating part of my mother's past that she had never talked about.

"The second one has more to do with my father, who died in 1976. He eventually settled in Detroit after coming to America from Lithuania. He was in New York and Philadelphia and mostly Pittsburgh before World War II. He was in the U.S. Army and met my mother in Berlin, when he was working as a translator. She had survived in the belly of the beast, so to speak. She was blond and green-eyed and managed to pass as a Polish Catholic after obtaining false papers. My father had an uncle in Detroit. He and my mother moved there and started a family in 1946."

Miss Kempner, "fixated on the 1930s and 1940s," wanted to do a film about American Jews in those decades that also would reflect her father's aspirations and struggles. Her mother now resides in Bethesda. A brother and sister-in-law also live in the Washington area. Miss Kempner's three nieces, ages 9, 10 and 12, make an appearance at the close of the lengthy end credits of "Life and Times."

The filmmaker recalls that her father "faced some adversities that were typical of the period."

"He couldn't get into medical school because he was Jewish. There was a lot of anti-Semitism in the military when he was serving… . My mother was a Holocaust survivor. My dad had a lot of losses on his side of the family. There was a lot of angst, but also a lot of humor that helped us get through things," she says.

"While my brother and I were growing up, I began to realize there was a lot of over-the-top hero-worshipping of Hank Greenberg among American Jews. I wanted to capture the poignancy and allure of that once I fully understood it. As a girl, I had heard these marvelous but sort of muddled stories about Hank Greenberg, who had proudly starred for the Tigers in troubled years especially a story about how he had declined to play on Yom Kippur. In fact, I heard it so often, I thought Hank was a part of the Kol Nidre liturgy."

Miss Kempner, born in 1946, the final year Mr. Greenberg played in Detroit, clarifies this particular episode during her movie. Her chronicle is augmented by the testimony of fans, teammates and members of the Greenberg family, who also kept the faith during the prolonged gestation of "Life and Times."

While becoming a confirmed baseball fan in her youth, the filmmaker was devoted to Tigers outfielder Rocky Colavito. She acknowledges a couple of baseball crushes but declines to identify the objects of her adoration.

"I can't say, beyond telling you that it's two guys. One I've met, and I thought I was going to faint. Which was fun, you know," she says.

"I believe that's one of the reasons that my sports [documentary] is real different. First of all, it's more romantic than the typical story about a sports hero. Not so much that I like to dig the dirt, because there are people who've criticized me for not going into detail about the divorce of Hank and his first wife, Caral Gimbel. I preferred the romance of the game and their courtship, plus the not-insignificant fact that three very attractive and articulate children grew out of that marriage. I've always had these incredible crushes on baseball. I think a lot of women do. The groupie is me."

Miss Kempner alludes to one of her subjects, a woman named Harriet, who indulged a blithe, harmless infatuation with Mr. Greenberg. The movie's human-interest documentation includes a snapshot of Harriet and Hank during a spring-training excursion of the late 1930s. It just so happens that Harriet maneuvered herself into camera range without her hero's being aware of the proximity.

"I think documentaries can be as funny and poignant as features," Miss Kempner says. "The real finds in the movie are the everyday fans. People go bananas over Harriet. It's the single most-asked question, 'Where did you find her?' Well, through someone I knew at synagogue.

"I actually had two Hank Greenberg groupies, but one dropped out when I needed to shorten the film. Their stories did sort of duplicate each other, and they even looked a little alike. You know, older Jewish women dyeing their hair blond. It seems to knock people out to be reminded that these grandmothers once had a giddy youth."

Having resolved to compile a Greenberg documentary, Miss Kempner began by asking herself, "Who are the best people to interview?" The logical answers were teammates, family members and fans. The third group is divided between celebrities and unknown admirers. The latter emerge as a terrific secret weapon during the course of the movie.

"I had heard that Walter Matthau spoke at Hank's funeral," Miss Kempner says, "so obviously I had to get him. My mother alerted me to Michael Moriarty. She had heard him on a late-night talk show reminiscing about his grandfather, who was chief of the umpiring crew during the last series of the 1938 season, when Hank was trying to break Babe Ruth's home-run record. So that was a nice find.

"I had also heard that Carl and Sander Levin were big fans. I knew them slightly from social occasions here in Washington. How often do you get a senator and congressman to sit in front of a camera and talk about their favorite ballplayer? Alan Dershowitz had written a lot about growing up Jewish in America, so I figured he was a good bet to be my sociologist."

Miss Kempner got just as lucky with her testimonials from fans whose names don't ring a bell. "I knew about Bert Gordon," she says, "who to me is the funniest man in the film next to Walter. He's the one who says that Hank stood out at 6 feet 4 inches because all the other Jews never seemed taller than 5-4. He had been written up by Roger Angell as one of three quintessential Tiger fans. I got Bert and the other two, and they were all great on camera."

A few potential interview subjects eluded her. She wanted Philip Roth, but he declined. The Canadian writer Mordecai Richler, who did a diverting, presumptuous article in the late 1950s about Mr. Greenberg's 58-homer season of 1938, proved to be out of reach when Miss Kempner could not afford an interview trip to Montreal. She approached the late Joe DiMaggio, whose fabulous career with the New York Yankees began in 1935, a year after Mr. Greenberg's first full season with the Tigers. Coincidentally, both men wore No. 5.

"DiMaggio refused to be interviewed," Miss Kempner says. "I don't know why. Maybe because the film wasn't about him?"

Declining health prevented Ted Williams from becoming a camera subject, but he did participate in a taped telephone conversation. "He couldn't have been friendlier," the filmmaker recalls, "but the material just didn't work when I tried to insert it in a few scenes. I'm sorry about that, but we finally met in person. He came to a showing when the Yogi Berra Museum opened in New Jersey. That was pretty awesome, having Ted and Yogi at your movie."

Miss Kempner got a comparable kick out of a Los Angeles screening attended by Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Anne Bancroft. "How can it get any better?" she asks rhetorically. Well, perhaps if Woody Allen and Barry Levinson could also be isolated at the same screening. She regards "Broadway Danny Rose" and "Diner" as significant influences on her new movie.

"The ride has been great since we've started opening all over the country," Miss Kempner says. The next eagerly anticipated event: two showings of "Life and Times" at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., during Father's Day weekend. "I jumped at the invitation," she says. "This film was for my father."

She speculates that a really popular response to "Life and Times" might give her some leverage as a baseball propagandist specifically, for restoring a team to Washington. Her loyalties shifted to the Baltimore Orioles after she moved to the Washington area in 1973, but she's willing to consider alternatives.

"I also look at what the Tigers are doing," Miss Kempner says. "And there are several players I follow regularly. Three of them happen to be Jewish: Shawn Green, whose grandfather was a Greenberg, and Gabe Kapler and Michael Lieberthal. McGwire and Sosa, naturally. For years I thought I could never root for a National League team, but I'm ready for one right now. Who wants to miss the action with McGwire and Sosa and Ken Griffey all in the National League? Do you think I could organize a Million Fan March to the Capitol?"

The game certainly owes Miss Kempner some consideration in a summer enhanced by "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg."

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