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Calendar's Big Oscars Issue : 'CHICKS IN WHITE SATIN' : Ultimate Wedding Present: A Statuette

March 20, 1994|ROBERT LEVINE

When Heidi Ellis and Debra Stern were planning their unconventional wedding ceremony, it never occurred to them that their celebration would gain the attention of the motion picture academy.

Ellis and Stern, both now 30-year-old social workers living in San Diego, were approached two years ago by Elaine Holliman, then a graduate student at USC Film School. Holliman asked if she could make a short documentary about the two lesbians' commitment ceremony, which they had planned for Nov. 15, 1992, and their families' reactions to it.

"We agreed with what Elaine was trying to do" for her school project, says Heidi Stern-Ellis (the two changed their last names to Stern-Ellis after the ceremony). "We never imagined it would get to this."

Holliman had hoped to honestly portray the story of a lesbian wedding on film, without either sensationalizing or preaching. Her resulting 25-minute film, "Chicks in White Satin," which has been nominated for best short documentary this year, captures the drama, humor and tenderness of the San Diego ceremony and the events that lead up to it--from a waltz lesson to one mother-of-the-bride's initial misgivings about the ceremony.

"I'm shocked--we thought we were involved in this little student project," says Debra Stern-Ellis. "I'm just a social worker going through my life, and all of a sudden I'm up for an Academy Award."

Though only Holliman is nominated for the Oscar, both Stern-Ellises say they are no less excited about the film's recognition. No longer newlyweds--they have been "married" more than a year--they are planning to drive from San Diego to Los Angeles and watch the Oscars in a hotel with their families, friends and the rabbi who married them--all of whom appear in the film.

"If we win," Debra says, "I'll probably lose my voice from screaming so loud."

Neither woman professes to have a serious interest in acting, and it's highly doubtful that an Academy Award for "Chicks in White Satin" would add anything more to their careers than a truly great yarn to tell at the office. Still, they're understandably excited that the film has garnered so much attention.

"It would be great if it won, but it's great that it even got nominated," Heidi says. "It (the movie) means so much to me."

Heidi Stern-Ellis credits the filming of the movie with strengthening her relationship with her mother, who is shown in the movie as initially apprehensive about the wedding. She said that the movie forced issues about their relationship into the open and ultimately allowed her mother to attend the ceremony.

The film follows Debra and Heidi through four months of preparations, showers, clothes planning and gift registration.

On the big day, the two say, they hardly noticed the presence of a film crew at their traditional Jewish wedding, which was held in a rented hall in San Diego. As the rabbi performs the ceremony, the camera captures such telling details as the tears during the vows and the breaking of a glass that ends the ceremony.

"We were so absorbed in each other and our family and friends we didn't even realize it was there," Heidi says.

The film has received kudos at several film festivals, including this year's Sundance Festival, and has played in theaters with other Oscar shorts. Holliman is also working with Hollywood Pictures on a feature film inspired by the women's story.

"I feel a little shy," says Heidi, adding that she sometimes is recognized by people who have seen the film. "But another part of me feels really proud."

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