PORT TOWNSEND — Cheryl Strayed, rock star of the publishing realm, broke a few Hollywood rules at the Port Townsend Film Festival on Saturday night.
In her appearance as festival special guest, Strayed talked not about her huge bestseller of a memoir, “Wild.” Instead she turned the attention of her audience — a capacity crowd at the American Legion Hall — to another writer.
Sarah Franklin, who published under the name Miles Franklin at the beginning of the 20th century, was the inspiration for “My Brilliant Career,” the movie Strayed chose for screening in the festival’s “Formative Films” program.
The movie, which Strayed first saw as a 19-year-old in rural Minnesota, is about Sybilla, a young woman determined to be a writer. In her era, she must make a choice between marriage and the pursuit of her art. Sybilla chooses art, despite the fiery romance she has with hunky Harry Beecham. He’s played by a young Sam Neill.
“A lot of you moaned when he came out,” Strayed said of Neill after the movie had finished. A ripple of laughter crossed the theater; the Australian actor was — still is — a “little hottie,” she added.
The “Special Evening with Cheryl Strayed” was about how a movie can resonate first when you’re young and again when you’re not. And Strayed, moments after taking the microphone, flouted another show-business dictate: the one about how a woman doesn’t give her age.
“I turned 51 last week,” she said, adding that she knows about hot flashes, and so empathized with those who felt warm inside the American Legion.
“My Brilliant Career” was directed by Gillian Armstrong, a rare female filmmaker in her time. Released in 1979, it was star Judy Davis’ second movie, for which she won the British Film Academy award for both best actress and most promising newcomer. As Sybilla, she plays music and writes with passion, spurns the advances of more than one man and refuses to let her grandmother and aunts mold her into a prissy damsel.
Strayed held the film up as a kind of mirror. Just as Franklin published her novel, also titled “My Brilliant Career,” in 1901, Strayed’s debut, “Torch,” got her a publishing contract in 2007. Then it was “Wild” that made her famous. The book, Strayed’s account of her 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, became a movie starring Reese Witherspoon in 2014 — and that was what some audience members wanted to learn more about Saturday night.
One man wondered aloud whether Franklin would have been happy with the movie version of her story — and was Strayed satisfied with “Wild” the movie?
She started her answer by noting that “My Brilliant Career” honors the spirit of the book — and of its heroine who never settled down. Then Strayed said that not only was she on the set of “Wild,” but also saw cut after director’s cut of the movie as Jean-Marc Vallée was creating it. That’s a brave director, she believes, who sends all of those versions to the originator of the work.
“My job was to honor his artistic process,” Strayed added. And she was thrilled with Vallée’s interpretation.
“Wild” became a movie project even before the book arrived in readers’ hands. After her publishing contract was finalized, she was able to shop the book around to film producers. Right away she was told there were only three women younger than 40 in Hollywood who could get a film made. At the same time, “nobody wants to make a movie about a woman, especially a woman walking alone in the woods,” Strayed said.
“I’m not going to name the other two,” she added. Witherspoon was the one who wanted to see that manuscript. She got it on a Friday night, as Strayed recalled. The writer lit a long-burning candle and chanted “Reese” much of the weekend.
“Monday morning I get this phone call from my agent. ‘Reese loves your book,’ ” and wants to option it.
Strayed and Witherspoon got on the phone and talked for an excited long while.
The actress “wanted to take her career to a different place, and also into her own hands,” Strayed remembered. Fox Searchlight bought the movie rights, Witherspoon became co-producer and British novelist Nick Hornby signed on as the screenwriter.
The book came out several months later and became a sensation, topping best-seller lists and inspiring Oprah Winfrey to revive her international book club.
For her portrayal of Strayed, Witherspoon was nominated for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and six other industry honors. The movie won rave reviews from critics and took in $52.5 million at cinemas around the world.
Seeing her life on the big screen was “the most surreal experience in the world,” Strayed said. It was also stirring to see her daughter Bobbi Lindstrom playing Strayed as a young girl.
Strayed has since become a filmmaker herself. She and her husband, Portland, Ore., documentarian Brian Lindstrom, co-directed “We Are Forbidden,” a short about girls and women in Nepal. It screened along with nearly 100 other short, full-length, documentary and narrative feature films at the Port Townsend Film Festival, which wrapped its 20th anniversary weekend Sunday.
Before stepping off the stage to sign copies of her books — for which adoring fans quickly formed a long line — Strayed answered another question: What are other formative works in your life?
“My favorite book in the whole world is Alice Munro’s ‘The Lives of Girls and Women,’ ” she immediately replied, adding that Munro, now 88, has been a longtime resident of nearby Victoria. She also admires Port Angeles’ adopted son, Raymond Carver, and named her son Carver after him.
Finally, Strayed said, she read Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” at 19, when the novel “taught me things I didn’t even know I needed to know.”