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AN APPRECIATION : Renee Furst, Friend of the Foreign Film

January 16, 1991|SHEILA BENSON | TIMES FILM CRITIC

It's not often that a memorial service is held in a movie theater, and it is even less often that filmmakers, exhibitors, actors, festival directors and critics gather to offer testimonials to the impact of a publicist.

But Renee Furst, who died recently of cancer at the age of 62 and prompted Friday's intimate memorial at Manhattan's Cinema I in New York, was no ordinary publicist. She was no ordinary person.

Furst affected the lives of many people, maybe even you. For sure, lovers of foreign and specialty films have been the beneficiaries of her passion and energy.

If the public didn't know her name, that was fine with her; she preferred that they'd heard about "Z" or "The Gods Must Be Crazy," "La Dolce Vita" or "Napoleon," "Breaker Morant" or "Fanny and Alexander"--all films that would have been seen by far fewer Americans without her efforts.

"Renee liked our films as if they were people, with their good sides and their not-so-good sides," read a note from Costa-Gavras, whose "Z" and "Missing" Furst had guided to Academy Awards. "We knew she was not going to try and 'sell' the film to journalists, which is always somewhat embarrassing, but she would make them understand it and maybe love it."

The messages came from all over the world--Paris and Montreal, Belize and Hollywood, Rome and Berlin, Prague and X'ian--and echoed the same sentiments: How much further will the status of foreign and art films in the United States erode without her there to buttress them?

For some in an audience that included Mary Beth Hurt, John Shea, Sylvia Miles and Toronto Festival Director Helga Stephenson, there was still disbelief. Furst kept her battle with cancer to herself for more than 5 1/2 years. When she dropped from a size 16 to an 8 and then a 6, she reported that "her diet doctor" was thrilled with her.

What was the Furst touch? Acute intelligence, the planning strategy of Napoleon, frank advice to filmmakers, an enveloping warmth and humor and an almost divining-rod sensitivity for what might work with the public: 10 of Variety's top 60 foreign-language films were represented by her.

Renee Furst was a force in the life of everyone she touched, in my own since 1975, when the paper I worked for would have fitted into Cinema I's lobby. It didn't matter. She took me under her wing and, with her limitless confidence and her way of making sure you met absolutely everyone, she broadened my experience--in film and in life.

The staff of the Lincoln Center Film Society, who had good reason to know every side of Furst, described her as "one of filmdom's great matchmakers, bringing together filmmakers, actors and press in a unique, homey environment . . . a true earth mother figure, by nature nurturing and protective. We who have experienced her generosity will not forget it."

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