Last month, the projectors at Film Forum flickered back on for the first time in over a year, for a screening of Fellini’s carnivalesque tragedy La Strada.
“I wanted a really famous art-house classic to open with,” said Bruce Goldstein, the 68-year-old repertory programmer who has been creating robust retrospective showcases and classic film revivals for Film Forum since 1986.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading through New York City last year and Film Forum announced it would close on March 14, the non-profit theater had only screened half of Goldstein’s last big showcase. Titled “The Women Behind Hitchcock,” the series of over 30 films highlighted the underappreciated cinematic contributions of two female Hitchcock collaborators, his producer Joan Harrison and his wife and screenwriter Alma Reville. The last film screened of Goldstein’s series before it was abruptly canceled was Hitchock’s 1963 thriller, The Birds. The film stayed on the marquee during the year Film Forum was supposed to host a festival celebrating its 50th anniversary.
“I thought it was funny because it was an apocalyptic movie,” said Goldstein.
During Film Forum’s hiatus, Goldstein kept busy preparing future series, working on documentary projects and taking care of the film distribution company he founded in 1997, Rialto Pictures, which specializes in rereleasing classic works in movie theaters.
“Bruce is an old-fashioned showman and a quintessential New Yorker,” said Andrienne Halpern, a former entertainment lawyer and co-president of Rialto Pictures. Halpern joined the company a year after it was founded and continues to secure the rights for Rialto’s vast catalogue of over a hundred films, many of them classics of European art cinema.
Since movie theaters were closed during the pandemic, the company instead booked drive-in screenings of films that were more lowbrow than its usual fare, such as Evil Dead 2, Terminator 2, and Escape from New York. Rialto’s latest release, the steamy French drama La Piscine, started running at Film Forum on May 14.
The seeds of cinephilia were planted in Goldstein during his childhood, as he watched old movies starring the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Mae West, and Humphrey Bogart—to name just a few—on channels 5 and 11. Born in Amityville, New York, and raised in Hicksville, Goldstein made journeys to New York City as a child and teenager, and fell in love with its repertory movie halls, particularly the New Yorker and the Thalia. Reminiscing on what hooked him about these now defunct cinemas, Goldstein said, “Feeling the atmosphere of the theater itself, combined with the 35mm print, it was kind of like a time capsule for me.”
In 1970, at 18, Goldstein opened his own repertory theater in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It did not do well, and after just one season, he passed it on for others to run. Looking back, he said opening a venue for vintage movies probably wasn’t the best idea in a town where everyone was trying to get laid. A few years later, he moved to New York City to work and program at the Bleecker Street Cinema and Carnegie Hall Cinema, followed by two years of work in the fashion industry in London as a publicity manager before returning to the city again in 1981. He founded a successful film publicity company and began co-directing the Thalia, a post he held until 1984.
The “pre-Bruce history of Film Forum,” as director Karen Cooper described it, began in 1970 when the newly opened theater consisted of a room full of folding chairs and a single projector on the Upper West Side. Cooper took charge in 1972, moved Film Forum to Soho in 1975 and then to Watts Street in 1980. By this point, Cooper had a second screening room and was trying to find a use for it. She rented it out over several years until she decided Film Forum should do all of its programming in-house.
According to Goldstein, longtime film critic J. Hoberman recommended him to Cooper to select films for her other screen. Neither Cooper nor Hoberman could recall if he advocated for Goldstein to get the job. However, Hoberman reviewed films that Goldstein screened at the Thalia for the Village Voice during the early eighties and knew him to be incredibly knowledgeable and energetic. “Anyway, I’m glad to take credit,” wrote Hoberman in an email.
Other than one time when Cooper objected to Goldstein placing a picture of Bye Bye Birdie actress Ann-Margret on a calendar (she hates Ann-Margret), she can’t recall any major friction with her repertory programmer. For the over 30 years Goldstein has spent at Film Forum, Cooper has given him free reign over classic screenings and admires his deep, encyclopedic knowledge of film history. “It’s kind of foolish to interfere with someone who knows what they’re doing,” said Cooper. “Bruce knows what he’s doing, you know, better than I can begin to say.”
With time to spare during the pandemic, Goldstein explored the city on foot and took pictures of whatever caught his eye. He never used to take photos on his iPhone, but now there are thousands. He showed me manhole covers he found that date back over a hundred years, an easy-to-miss engraving of the Ten Commandments in Hebrew on the facade of a former synagogue on East 10th Street that’s now a Baptist church, and a woman sitting in a subway car with a bomber jacket whose back reads “LES STRONG.” After sharing some snapshots of faces carved onto the entranceways of apartment buildings, Goldstein said, “There are vestiges all over the city of things that don’t exist anymore, but you just have to look.”
Photographing obscure sightings in the city is an appropriate pastime for Goldstein. A NYC buff and proselytizer for his neighborhood of the Lower East Side, he also makes short documentaries on how movies succeed (or fail) to depict his cherished city. In 2010, Goldstein’s made-in-a-day tour of director Martin Scorsese’s childhood neighborhood, Les Rues de Mean Streets, appeared as a special feature in a French DVD. In the Footsteps of “Speedy” (2015) distinguishes the moments from Harold Lloyd’s 1928 silent comedy that were shot in NYC from those made in Los Angeles. In Uncovering “The Naked City” (2020), Goldstein educates viewers on the staggering amount of authentic filming locations in Jules Dassin’s groundbreaking 1948 police film.
His most recent short, Pelham One Two Three: NYC Underground, which premiered on HBO Max on May 6 as a part of the TCM Classic Film Festival, introduces the 1974 crime film as an authentic subway thriller. After detailing how the film’s crew had to wear surgical masks while shooting in underground tunnels, Goldstein looks to the camera in faux surprise and asks, “Could you imagine?”
Goldstein has often been referred to as a showman, a descriptor he hopes he lives up to. It’s a reputation earned over decades of going the extra mile in delighting his audiences, whether presenting 3-D films from the ’50s with the projection techniques of the time, sending skeletons flying over heads as buzzers ring under seats for screenings of William Castle’s gimmicky horror movies, or making sure a pianist is present to accompany a silent film. “I’m kind of inspired by showmanship,” said Goldstein. “I don’t think you can just show movies. It’s not enough anymore—never was.”
While a lover of the past, Goldstein has never been a stranger for embracing the new. His 2012 “This is DCP” series marked a celebration of the vivid quality that digital restorations and projection can bring to classic movies at a venue long known for screening rare 35mm prints on celluloid. In 2015, Goldstein hired Elspeth Carroll out of college. As she went from assistant to programmer, he gave her the wiggle room to create series that fell outside of his own expertise, such as a sweeping international slate of films entitled “THE HOUR OF LIBERATION: Decolonizing Cinema, 1966-1981.”
“He’s always been very good at recognizing and boosting good ideas, even when they’re out of his wheelhouse,” said Carroll. “He understands the audience better than anyone and has great instincts for how things will play and how to promote them.”
Film Forum reopened April 2, adhering to the 25% seating limit in New York City movie theaters (it has since been uncapped with the caveat being that moviegoers must be seated six feet apart). Goldstein doesn’t envision a full return to programming the large, exhaustive series that have characterized his tenure as Film Forum’s resident showman anytime soon. However, he is making plans for series that would accommodate more films as the number of people that can enter the theater continues to grow.
A Goldstein-crafted retrospective on 15 classic Humphrey Bogart films will screen at Film Forum from July 16 to August 5. The theater also has the unscreened film prints of the canceled half of “The Women Behind Hitchcock,” and Goldstein intends to finish what he started.