Aliens, gorillas, ghosts, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson and Kevin Kline: who has had close encounters with them all? Acclaimed movie and stage actress Sigourney Weaver, that’s who. You’ve seen her as Ripley in the “Alien” series, opposite Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, as the first lady in Dave, as Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist, and so much more. This past Saturday, Sept. 29, Williamstown itself had a close encounter with Sigourney Weaver, who began her acting career in Williamstown in 1972. Reminiscing about her time at Williams, Weaver recalls responding to criticism by thinking “maybe I wouldn’t be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but I knew I would find a niche.” After more than 30 films, for three of which she gave Oscar-nominated performances, it is safe to say that her niche has been found.
Three events on Saturday featured the major motion picture star, all part of Williamstown’s third annual two-weekend Film Festival. Weaver led a lunch seminar entitled “The Part’s the Thing” at the Main Street Cafe in which she discussed the roles she plays and how she chooses them.
Immediately following the luncheon, Weaver and most of the attendees made their way over to Images Theater, where at 2:30 she introduced a screening of one of her favorite films, A Map of the World, open to the general public. This group included Williamstown community members, avid Sigourney Weaver fans from the area who had reserved tickets far in advance and even a few Williams students who just wandered in.
In the evening, the Clark Art Institute hosted a champagne/dessert gala and tribute to Weaver. It was not too difficult for a students to wander into this event, either, although at a higher price: a ticket to the gala was $40, reduced to $20 with a student ID.
The afternoon film was a moving selection. A Map of the World was a 1999 film adaptation of Jane Hamilton’s novel starring Weaver and co-starring Julianne Moore, Chloe Sevigny, and David Strathairn. Although working with a script that she said felt at times more like a good read than a scene in a movie, Weaver’s interpretation of her startlingly human character Alice Goodwin hurtles through a series of intense emotions. She brings us to laughter from the start as we follow her and her young children around their realistically messy farmhouse, and then to shocked tears as the baby daughter of her best friend, left in her care for the day, drowns on her property. Although the story, in Weaver’s own words, feels like something we’ve already seen again and again in a few bad TV movies, Weaver and her co-stars captivatingly animate what really is beyond a parent’s worst nightmare.
After the film, Weaver added a new dimension to the experience with an informal question-and-answer session. She described the experience of researching Alice Goodwin’s character, including visiting the actual prison in which she is housed, and discussed how the movie had been filmed in only thirty days. And then she took questions. I asked what she had done to create the emotion of the scene where she finds the child’s body, and she answered that all she had to do to summon the emotion necessary for the scene was to imagine it was her own daughter floating in the pond.
In fact, one of the reasons she cited for her enjoyment of this particular part was that it offered her the occasion to just be a mom, as opposed to an alien-fighter or friend of gorillas. Weaver described motherhood as one of the most important aspects of her life, and mentioned with a smile that working with the gorillas in Gorillas in the Mist, including having them jump up and down and urinate on her, helped her realize how much she wanted to be a mother.
The question-and-answer session of the afternoon served to whet my appetite for the rest of the evening’s festivities, and so I was all the more thrilled about what the evening held: a champagne/dessert gala and salute to Sigourney Weaver. My friend Kelly and I left at 7:30 for the Clark Art Institute, where the gala was to be held in the courtyard. From the moment of our arrival at the door, the evening fell into three stages of star-struck excitement, hereby documented for those not in attendance.
Stage 1: Anticipation. Kelly and I walked into the Clark at 8:00 and purchased tickets for just $20 apiece. As mingling commenced, we toured decadent displays of delightful indulgence: chocolate in the form of film reels, movie tickets, theater masks, even a miniature Sigourney Weaver. . .or was that just the champagne talking? The room filled to overflowing with buzzing conversation and suits and sleek black dresses, and we were soon filled to overflowing with chocolate. A man in a black suit walked up, introduced himself, produced a coin and proceeded to mesmerize us with interactive magic tricks.
Stage 2: First Contact. As we stared open-mouthed at the film star’s subtle entrance, our champagne was whisked efficiently away. Progressing suavely to the dessert table where the actress had appeared, we hovered excitedly for a few moments before being taken under her wing for a few photos and autographs.
Stage 3: Being There. We mingled our way to the auditorium, where we grabbed center seats. The stage was set with comfortable chairs and pitchers of water. We waited in gleeful anticipation. . .and then were fascinated, frightened, and all-around awed by a sequence of scenes from each of Weaver’s films.
Responding to this tribute to her work, Weaver reflected warmly on her younger days in the business with a remark that resonated with the younger members of the audience: “Young people who have no confidence shouldn’t worry because. . .you’ll get away with it.” The participants in the discussion were the actress, Williamstown Film Festival’s executive director Steve Lawson, and Williams professor Jim Shepard. Weaver laughed and joked about directors Roman Polanski and Ang Lee and actor Kevin Kline. According to Weaver, director Polanski used to say during filming, “Oh, that’s a really movie thing to do.” The audience laughed with her and provided more questions. Weaver’s responses revealed much about her perception of herself as an actress and as a person. In reference to her character in the series of “Alien” films, she said, “I’m silly and stupid and cowardly. Ripley does not have a lot of imaginationâ€”she’s just functioning. I wish more had rubbed off on me.” A ripple of laughter ran through the small crowd. Weaver ended her remarks by saying, “I’ve been to a few film festivals around the world, and this one is so intimate. It’s clear that you all really love film.”
It was a fitting end to an intense and thought-provoking day. Sigourney Weaver has become a nationally acclaimed screen actress, but still speaks with fond memories of her times putting on “wacky shows in weird places” with the traveling Williamstown theater company in 1972. Although it is easy to forget as we walk down quiet Spring Street, Williamstown is an amazing place to be and has offered many people many great opportunities in a larger world. This weekend with Sigourney Weaver brought this fact home, making for a unique combination of art and awe.