Ira Wohl wishes people would stop calling his movie names. "'Documentary' is a harrendous word," says the 36-year-old director and producer of "Best Boy," a study of his retarded cousin that won the Academy Award last Monday night for Best Feature -- Documentary. "It sends people streaming away from the theaters -- any other film with reviews like we've had would have lines eight times around the block."
Instead, "Best Boy" and Wohl have had to settle for lining up awards from coast to coast. The National Board of Review presented it in February with a D.W. Griffith prize as "The Most Humane and Moving Film of the Year." Since September, best film prizes have come from international festivals in Toronto, Miami and Houston.
A week before the Oscars, the Guggeheim Foundation bestowed one of its prestigious filmmaking fellowships on Wohl. Despite all that, before the Oscars on Monday night Wohl had managed to induce only one major movie house in New York City to commercially present the source of all the hoopla.
Results? Constant hustling by Wohl. A few years ago, that meant rushing from his Manhattan loft to a film lab before the lab's credit department came to work. By doing so, he would get shootings for "Best Boy" developed but not printed -- a cost-cutter that kept the project going for a year when money tightened.
On the Oscar telecase, it meant impromptu public relations. Wohl, you may remember, was the darkhaired young man with a mustache as sprawling as his acceptance speech. In no position to sniff at an audience of millions, he gamely helped himself to network time and made a pitch for the film.
It came off with only minor damage -- an awkward reproof from William Shatner, who apparently didn't realize that the family members Wohl thanked at length were key characters in "Best Boy." Even as Wohl jokes about such things as the Oscars "rule book" which advisers winners how to care for their treasure, he makes plain his dislike for the Academy's inclination to tolerate rather than indulge winners in the less celebrated categories.
"If I had heard what he said, I wouldn't have been such a gentlemen," remarked Wohl about Shatner from his Beverly Hills hotel. He happily defended his decision to tell the crowd about his film: "Most of the films had been seen by a good number of people, whereas 'Best Boy' hadn't opened in many places yet."
That of course, will change. If nothing else, the Oscar greases even a documentary's entry into theaters and "Best Boy" has now been booked to play in major cities in the U.S. and Canada. Wohl, predictably, is pleased.
"I haven't made a cent," he says good naturedly. "Forget about the film. I just haven't earned any money because I had to stop working in September to devote myself to getting it ready. But I'm hopeful."
Optimism would have to be deeply rooted in Wohl. Shortly after graduation from New York' City college in 1965, he started his film career in the basement of Orson Welles' home in Spain, helping to edit Welles' never released "Don Quixote." Returning to the U.S., Wohl worked as a free-lance producer and director eventually joining the company of the acclaimed children's television series, "The Big Blue Marble."
About three years ago, Wohl realized that his 50-year-old cousin, Philly, needed to become more independent as Philly's parents, Max and Pearl, approached their 80s. At first planning only to help Philly, Wohl began to film him.
From three years of shooting, Wohl created "Best Boy." The camera follows Philly as he breaks away. Prior to Wohl's intervention, Max and Pearl had closely supervised Philly for all but two years of his life. They had experienced, according to Wohl, the extraordinary position of having "a 10-year-old child" for decades. Under Wohl's prodding, Philly enters a group residence in Manhattan, learns to shave and shop for himself, and in time acquires the strength to bear his father's death.