December 25, 2009 | by David J. Hoffman
Gay short film has Oscar potential

Film buffs drawn to the Jewish Community Center’s annual film festival earlier this month stumbled onto a surprise gem of a major motion picture in the making, in the guise of being just one of five “Queer Shorts” offered by the JCC’s program for Gay & Lesbian Outreach & Engagement (GLOE).

Starring the Tony and Emmy Award-winning actor Sir Derek Jacobi, the 19-minute film “Sidney Turtlebaum” is now shaping up as a likely Academy Award nominee in the live action short film category, according to the film’s producer Daniel Jewel, who spoke to the audience after the recent D.C. screening.

Jewel, a young Oxford University educated head of a small London-based production house Third Man Films Ltd, has wanted to make films since he was 13. In a script by his friend, the South Africa-born screenwriter Raphael Smith, Jewel found what he calls “the portrait of a cold, calculating con man” — the film’s title character, played by Jacobi as an older Jewish gay man who makes a criminal living in London fleecing unsuspecting mourners at “shiva houses,” where the newly departed are being mourned by friends and family.

Jewel and Smith then took the 15-page script — a bittersweet look at a man so angry at life that he has no friends and lives only to hurt others — to the U.K. Jewish Film Festival for advance funding. After succeeding there, they snagged Jacobi, who agreed after just two days of convincing to play the character of Sidney.

Jacobi, known for his TV role in “I, Claudius” as well as roles on the stage in many Shakespeare plays, brought in as the second principal cast member the young English actor Rupert Evans to play Gabriel, the happy-go-lucky hooker ultimately rejected by Sidney as their lives intersect over the narrative arc of a single day.

When Jacobi read the script he simply loved it and he knew it was scheduled to be shot in just four days so he decided to go for it, fascinated by the complexity of the bitterness and vengeance central to the role of Sidney, according to Jewel.

The director, meanwhile, first-time dramatic filmmaker Tristram Shapeero, was brought in by Jewel only after casting the main roles was complete.

“After one read of the script I couldn’t get the character of Sidney out of my mind, someone so armored and so vulnerable at the same time,” said Jewel.

The film’s tagline is “he steals more than just the show,” which has a double-meaning as Jacobi dominates the film and his character is a thief, robbing trusting souls as he also romances them with a nostalgic song and dance — something that so shocks Gabriel that he tells Sidney that he steals in order to get attention, causing the old man to explode with anger and end their relationship, just as he ends any that threatens to get close to him.

Jewel says that the story is now being scripted to be produced as a feature-length film, also to star Jacobi and Evans, a step almost certain to get funding if the film is indeed named an Oscar winner.

Not until early February, however, will Jewel learn whether the film, currently short-listed as one of 10 preliminary nominees, enters the charmed circle of the final five official nominees.

For more information on “Sidney Turtlebaum” see sidneyturtlebaum.co.uk.

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