Laughing, Crying, the Sundance Elite Drinks to Bingham Ray

The gathering was “Bingham’s last gift to us," as one mourner put it

It was a wake that indie veteran Bingham Ray could not have better organized himself.

Except that he did organize it.

In one of the strangely beautiful ironies of his sudden death on Monday, Ray’s planned celebration of the San Francisco Film Society turned into a collective mourning of his death and celebration of his life.

It was a necessary moment for a film community shell-shocked by the sudden loss of a friend, colleague and pillar of their world.

Also read: Bingham Ray Remembered: Film World Mourns Loss of a Pioneer

Ray was young, 57, and in a room filled with the leading lights of independent film, people realized that together with Ray over three decades they had built an enduring piece of American movie culture.

“This is not the party we planned,” said Pat McBaine, who hired Ray to be executive director of the San Francisco society. “The only good thing about this is he left us in the place he loved, doing what he loved, with people who loved him.”

That was evident. The room was filled with the people who collectively produce, distribute, write, sign, judge, market and legalize the most interesting, riskiest movies in America.

Also read: Spike Lee's Sundance Tirade: 'Hollywood Execs Know Nothing About Black People'

It was producers like Christine Vachon and Cassian Elwes; executives like Tom Bernard and Ray’s long-time partner Jeff Lipsky; lawyers Linda Lichter and Andrew Hurwitz; critics Manohla Dargis and Kenneth Turan; festival stalwarts John Cooper and Geoff Gilmore, Bob and Jeanne Berney – pretty much everyone who matters.

Ray worked on many of the most important films of their time, they remembered. “The Apostle.” “Breaking the Waves.” “Lost Highway.” “Hotel Rwanda.” “Bowling for Columbine.” “Happiness.” (Wait, no, Vachon corrected everyone that ultimately Ray did not distribute “Happiness.” It’s a long story.)

Nobody said he was a saint. Ray smoked and drank. He loved the limelight. He argued and gave compliments so that they somehow seemed like insults. Dart games and baseball were big deals.

And movies mattered more than anything. 

Chris McGurk, who bought October Films when he was at Universal and later made him chief of United Artists, remembered Ray weeping when McGurk declined to buy “Bowling for Columbine.”

McGurk had offered $1 million. Ray said it wasn’t enough. When McGurk landed in Cannes he had seven phone messages from Ray telling him to see the movie immediately. “He was at La Pizza crying with Danny Rosett,” a then-MGM executive.

McGurk gave in, paid $3 million, and the movie became the most successful documentary up to that time.

Ray wept again to get McGurk to buy “Hotel Rwanda.” He won that one, too.

Dargis, the New York Times critic, remembered a scatologically negative review she gave an early movie that Ray was distributing (she was then at The Village Voice). He sent her an enema kit in the mail. That was the beginning of a long-lasting friendship.

Executives that Ray mentored stepped forward to praise him and remember his foibles. Susan Glasser said, “He was really easy to love from afar. “ Said critic David Darcy, “He was a f—-ing pain in the ass. And he was not allergic to attention.”

Elwes, formerly a sales agent at William Morris, remembered wrestling Ray on the floor while selling him “The Apostle.”

“He made this business,” Elwes told the crowd, insisting he wouldn’t cry – but many others were. “He distributed some of the greatest independent films ever made.”

Many had spoken to Ray in recent days. They all expected to see him at Sundance. And instead they gathered to celebrate a great one of their own, a moment that was “Bingham’s last gift to us,” as Glasser put it.