Diane Keaton for dessert

Written by | October 16, 2012

Simon Benson Awards Dinner provides meat and potatoes, enlivened by bizarrerie

I don’t make it to too many “A list” awards dinners, and I now have a modicum of sympathy for those wealthy and powerful people whose schedules are crammed with them. Were I Gov. Ted Kulongoski or Jordan Schnitzer, I’d hope my tastes would be a little more refined than Jim Beam white label.

Miles Sanguinetti/VANGUARD STAFF

Diners at the Simon Benson awards dinner await their food.

As disappointed as I was to sit down to a preset appetizer of tepid, overcooked ratatouille garnished with wilted micro-greens (note to caterers: micro-greens went out of style 15 years ago), I imagine that people who can afford to eat at Noisette on a regular basis were truly dispirited. The speeches were weighty and important, but—like the airline-quality chicken breast with velouté and champignons—often lacked levity or spice.

Miles Sanguinetti/VANGUARD STAFF

2012 honoree Jordan Schnitzer shakes PSU Wim Wiewel’s hand.

Attendees included most of the popular politicians whose names dominate our discourse: Hales, Wyden, Blumenauer, Kulongoski and a host of those less common.

Miles Sanguinetti/VANGUARD STAFF

Keynote speaker Diane Keaton cracks a smile.

The Harold Schnitzer family, and Irving Levin and Stephanie Fowler, founders of the Renaissance Foundation, were the honored philanthropists of the event. Their achievements and charitable work, including their generous donations to this university, are impressive, and their speeches constituted the meat and potatoes of the evening. Diane Keaton’s irrepressible effervescence was the promised dessert.

The intermezzo, though, was the real star of the evening (metaphorically speaking, as the literal meal had no such palate-cleansing course). Portland State alum Travis Knight, president and CEO of Portland’s own Laika Inc. (and son of the sneaker magnate), told rollicking tales about his time at PSU in the ’90s.

Knight was awarded the first Alumni Achievement Award bestowed at the event.

Clearly gauged for laughs, his speech nonetheless swelled hearts with school spirit as he led listeners through the history of the “college that wouldn’t die,” from its inauspicious beginnings as the ill-fated Vanport site, which was destroyed by a flood along with the rest of Vanport in 1948.

Confident but self-deprecating, Knight joked that, since his parents met at PSU in the ’60s when his father was an assistant professor of accounting, “the spark of [his] life began there.”

The couches in Smith Memorial Student Union “hadn’t been cleaned since the Carter administration,” Knight said. “Women have gotten pregnant just sitting on them.”

Knight similarly decried the “umber patina of patchouli and hair grease” besmirching the desks of the Millar Library.

Some things, it appears, never change.

Knight graduated from PSU in 1998 and went on to work at Will Vinton Studios, creators of the popular California Raisins commercials of the ’90s. Phil Knight bought the struggling company in 2003 and promoted Travis to chief executive in 2009 following the studio’s release of the Oscar-nominated Coraline, a Tim Burton-esque stop-motion adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel of the same name.

More recently, the studio released ParaNorman, the story of a tween social misfit who communicates with the dead.

In what was perhaps an appropriate amuse-bouche for an event honoring the creator of naif bazaar cinema, Hannah Consenz, a sophomore in PSU’s department of music, began the evening with a performance of “Les Oiseaux dans la Charmille” from Les Contes d’Hoffmann—one of the best-known works of 19th century German-French opera composer Jacques Offenbach. The singer performs the part of a wind-up doll who sings a song of love, needing periodic rewinding as her gears run down.

Consenz’s performance was haunting. Her slack expression and jittery movements were an uncanny imitation of an old-fashioned automaton, and her voice stuttered to the end as her character’s spring eked the gears through their final motions. In the full production, the doll makes a fool out of Hoffman, the main character, who at first doesn’t realize he loves a machine. Which perhaps provides a tangent to Keaton’s rambling performance.

Keaton was a darling of Woody Allen’s cerebral dramas of the ’70s and early ’80s—the intellectual’s Farrah Fawcett. She’s still sprightly and loquacious and full of the girlish charm that endeared her to audiences of that era. Her speech was putatively about “love,” a subject barely broad enough to contain her verbal meanderings.

Wearing a black bowler cap, the shadow of which concealed her eyes, Keaton showed home movies of her teenaged children and her now-deceased mother, the latter in the throes of Alzheimer’s disease. She began with a nod to PSU’s motto, “Let knowledge serve the city,” mentioned the college’s dedication to community service and then used that as a tenuous bridge to her topic. From there she ranged far and wide because, really, what doesn’t love infect?

Of romantic love, Keaton said, “It’s true that some men did love me, for a while. Or so they said. Most of my really great romances were fictions played out on film.”

To demonstrate, she played a montage of scenes of her roles as the titular character in Annie Hall (1977), as Mary in Manhattan (1979), as Erica Barry in Something’s Gotta Give (2003) and as Kay Corleone in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974). In all but the scene of her getting slapped by Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, Keaton’s main cinematic draw is her ability to appear lovable, irresistibly endearing.

Keaton fixated on the slap, however, saying, “I know that a slap is not a kiss. But that slap, at least to me, was a reminder of the violence that love’s betrayal can produce. That moment was one of the most intense I’ve ever shared with a man on film.”

It’s unclear if she meant to sound shocking or controversial, but perhaps the point that she failed to make plain was the vulnerability that love entails: her mother’s vulnerability as she forgot her own home; her adopted children’s vulnerability to the whole world; and her own vulnerability played out on screen as a series of failed romances. Several diners left in the middle of Keaton’s talk.

Keaton’s still a peach, but calling her a dessert is a bit of a stretch.

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