Jack Garner: Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne will be the toast of the renovated Dryden Theatre's reopening

10:48 AM, Feb 07, 2013

Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne comes to town March 2 for a screening of his acclaimed 2004 picture, Sideways, the first movie being shown at the Dryden Theatre, post-renovations. (Timothy Hiatt//Getty Images)/

Written By Jack Garner

Yes, the Dryden Theatre, the indispensable source of classic cinema at the George Eastman House, has been closed since the first of the year. The interior and the seating are undergoing major renovations. And we’ve got a month to go.

But, here’s the good news (and mark your calendar now): The Dryden Theatre will reopen at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 2, after being dark for two months. And the Eastman House will celebrate with a cinematic glass of California pinot noir.

Filmmaker Alexander Payne will be guest artist on opening night and will present his highly acclaimed 2004 feature Sideways, the hilarious and much-loved saga of two guys and their sometimes-wacky and sometimes-romantic trip through the wine country of central California.

Both Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen earned Oscar nominations (and lead actor Paul Giamatti should have gotten one). Payne won the Oscar for his script, adapted from Rex Pickett’s novel.

And talk about the impact of the movies: Beyond offering enjoyment to filmgoers, Sideways strongly affected the wine industry. Thanks to the affection Giamatti’s character feels for pinot noir, that part of the industry soared. And because of Giamatti’s R-rated put-down of merlot in the film, that side of the wine business took a significant dip, for a time.

The film’s title, by the way, refers to the state of folks who have too much to drink. They end up … sideways.

Also appearing at the screening will be the event’s honorary co-chairman, Robert Forster, the Oscar-nominated actor (and Rochester native) who also had a two-fisted role as the grieving grandfather in Payne’s later film, The Descendants. Payne’s other worthy films include About Schmidt and the cult favorite, Election.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m the other honorary co-chair of the event, but I gain nothing, beyond the satisfaction of celebrating a great Rochester cinema institution and a chance for you to see an excellent film and hear from an important director.

Beyond Sideways and Payne, folks at the March 2 event will be the first to enjoy the theater’s new, larger seats, new carpeting and lighting, and color scheme. To increase legroom (hurray!), the theater’s capacity will be lowered from 535 to 500. Longtime fans, though, will be glad to hear that the theater’s trademark screen curtain, that goes up and down, remains in place.

New projection equipment also has been installed, including a digital projector for the new age of cinema. Fortunately, the theater also will remain one of only five cinemas in the country equipped to project rare and original nitrate film, a format that goes back more than 60 years.

The new Dryden also will employ a hearing-induction loop system for the hearing impaired, thanks to the Rochester Chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America.

The renovations are a source of pride for Dr. Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator of motion pictures: “It is the exhibition gallery for the art of cinema as seen, interpreted, and explained by George Eastman House. We want the Dryden Theatre to be a state-of-the-art exhibition venue for the museum.”

Reserved seat advance tickets for the film with Payne are $30 each ($25 for members) and are on sale at the museum or at eastmanhouse.org/dryden2013. A top-shelf alternative (at $200) includes a “Grand Reopening” dinner at 5:30 p.m. on March 2, with first look at the renovations, a dinner in the museum featuring wines inspired by Sideways and reserved seats for the film.

A second major event follows a month later at the Dryden, with the appearance of Oscar-nominated director James Ivory (of such Merchant Ivory productions as Room with a View, Remains of the Day, and Howard’s End). He will visit the Dryden at 8 p.m. April 6, and present his 1995 film Jefferson in Paris, with Nick Nolte as Thomas Jefferson. Other Merchant Ivory films will be shown at the Dryden on Wednesdays in April. (The Merchant Ivory film archive is stored at the Eastman House.)

MEANWHILE, AT THE LITTLE. While the Dryden continues it renovations, The Little is presenting a Dryden-like program for fans of classic cinema. Two silent gems, The Lost World and The Phantom of the Opera will be showcased with live music accompaniment from The Andrew Alden Ensemble. The Lost World (a special effects trendsetter) shows at 7 p.m. Feb. 7, while The Phantom appears at 3 p.m. Feb. 9.

And for the many who regret the absence this year of the annual Oscar party at the Eastman House, the Little is hosting The Little RochOscar Party on Feb. 24, with appetizers, desserts, a champagne toast and the Oscar telecast on the big screen. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $40 ($35 for members), and available at thelittle.org or at (585) 258-0400.

The folks at the Little are proud to note that all nine films nominated as best picture will have had runs at the theater by the time the awards are handed out on Feb. 24.