In a town usually obsessed with politics, it's not just any artist who can draw a weighty Washington audience to the Kennedy Center for the premiere of a movie about his life.
"De Kooning on de Kooning," an hour-long documentary about painter Willem de Kooning, debuted here last night before 300 Washingtonians, congressmen and arts patrons. It was the culmination of a red-carpet day that included White House and Capitol Hill visits for the 77-year-old pioneer of Abstract Expressionism.
"Wasn't it wonderful?" said de Kooning, See PREMIERE, D3, Col. 2 PREMIERE, From D1 who appeared to be a bit overwhelmed by the crowd surrounding him in the Kennedy Center Atrium for the post-premiere party. "At first I didn't want to do it because, you know, it upsets your work and everything. But after a while, I got to know the fellows who made it pretty well."
Not since de Kooning was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 has he gotten so much attention in the nation's capital. That medal was stolen, however. And yesterday, he became the first American to receive a second Medal of Freedom.
"He cried when he got it today," said his daughter Lisa, who stayed close to her father's side all night.
"It was a wonderful day," said the artist. "The first time I got the Medal of Freedom I cried a couple of tears by myself, but today I cried in front of all those people."
The documentary, which took three years to make, traces de Kooning's 50-year career and paints a portrait of a warm and self-effacing artist. It got rave reviews from the crowd who attended the show and party.
Even de Kooning's wife, painter Elaine de Kooning, loved it.
"It was a little strange at first," she said, about the filmmakers' presence in their home, "but we got used to them after a while. That one hour was taken from more than 20 years of movie time so we just got used to having them there days at a time."
Both the movie's production and the party were underwritten by Atlantic Richfield Co. and Masco Corp. The Congressional Arts Caucus hosted the evening.
Actor Charlton Heston introduced the film. Heston has had more politics than art on his mind lately. As former president of the Screen Actors Guild, he recently became involved in a battle with the current SAG president, Ed Asner, over Asner's public support of the guerrillas fighting in El Salvador. "He Asner was elected president by a majority on the board who are activists with that intention--to politicize SAG," said Heston, rushing out the door to catch a plane. "The bylaws of SAG historically say that they should not be getting into politics. I think they're beginning to pull back. There's been a storm of protest. They have to back down."
Among the other guests were Kennedy Center chairman Roger Stevens, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), Rep. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and Steve Ross, chairman of Warner Communications.
Ross' favorite part of the movie was the end. After de Kooning finishes a painting in the documentary, he lays down his brush, turns to the cameras and says, "Well, as Walter Cronkite would say, 'That's the way it is.'