“It was much better than I thought it would be.”
I know that’s not exactly high praise, but for me, that’s the most memorable and pleasing review I received for “A Choice of Witnesses.” That’s because it came from someone who actually helped fund the post-production of the film, my grandmother, Joanna Roos. (See her name in the end credits.) Also my grandmother offered a unique perspective because of her long career as an actress, first on Broadway and then in movies and television. (See her on the Internet Broadway Database; see her on the Internet Movie Database.)
When I finally had this 16 mm student film edited, scored, mixed, printed and transferred to video, I made the trip from Connecticut down to New Jersey to the Meadow Lakes retirement home where she lived (in Hightstown, NJ). I had been there many times but this time I came equipped to screen my film for my grandmother on the TV set in her apartment. I not only had to bring the tape, but a VHS player as well. After hooking up the VCR to her modest TV, I ran the film for her. She watched intently, never taking her eyes off the screen. At the end I made an effort to show her that I included her name in the credits in big letters but I don’t think she caught it.
My grandmother, Joanna Roos. This is my favorite photo of her. Handwritten on the verso of this photo it reads: “As Candida, University of Virgina, 1948.”
Afterward she commended me on making certain that the actors could be seen and heard (something she always complained about with modern movies and TV shows). Then she asked me a few questions about the production, like where I found the actors. I explained how it was mix of sources that included the local community theaters and actors who had performed in other student films.
I guess this is where I should explain that my grandmother didn’t have the stereotypical “actress personality.” Perhaps it was her age (she was about 84 at the time), but she was never the type to crave attention or take things personally. She once told me that she might have had a bigger acting career if she had been willing to schmooze at parties and such. She said that was never for her; she just wanted to do the work and go home.
So her reaction to my student film, although reserved, didn’t seem out of character for her. Plus, I assumed she would never do anything to discourage me, so I figured even if she thought it was awful, she would conceal that opinion.
Soon it was time for me to drive back to Bridgeport, Connecticut, so I packed up my video gear and said my farewell. As I walked out the door, and rolled my little cart of equipment down the corridor, her neighbor across the hall just happened to step out to get the newspaper or something. As I turned the corner out of sight, I heard my grandmother say to her neighbor, “That was my grandson.”
I know what you’re thinking, and yes, eavesdropping is entirely inappropriate in almost every instance, but since these two women were about to talk about me I couldn’t resist. So I stopped just around the corner and listened.
“He’s in film school and came to show me the movie he made,” my Grandmother explained.
“How nice,” said the neighbor.
My grandmother went on: “It was much better than I thought it would be. I was expecting it to be like other student films I’ve seen where you can’t see or hear or anything – or even follow what’s going on, but I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. It was a story about blackmail and murder, Film Noir in a way.”
I realize my grandma may have been talking it up, bragging about her grandson to her neighbor, and I know she was a woman with six decades of acting experience, so it could have been a put-on, but to hear that praise when she thought I wasn’t listening still resonates with me 30 years later.
So, since my grandmother, Joanna Roos, passed away before the Internet became ubiquitous, I offer this little digital anecdote as a snapshot of what she was like since her long resumes of stage and screen work reveal almost nothing about her character and personality.
That was one of the last times I saw my grandmother. Shortly thereafter I was finished with film school and moved to Los Angeles in 1986. She died in 1989. I know my student film is less than remarkable, and doesn’t stand the test of time, but I’m glad my best and most indelible memory of my grandmother comes when I recall standing in that corridor at Meadow Lakes.