#546) Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman (1974)

#546) Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman (1974)

Directed by Judy Collins & Jill Godmilow

Class of 2003 

The Plot: As the title suggests, “Antonia” is a portrait of Antonia Brico, a trailblazer for women in the classical symphony scene. In the 1930s, Brico became the first woman to conduct both the Berlin and Los Angeles Philharmonic, and later founded the first all female symphony orchestra in New York. Despite her rising star, Brico found the constant sexism within the community tiring, and by the late 1940s settled in Denver, teaching piano and conducting semi-professional local orchestras. Now in her ’70s, Antonia Brico recounts her life and accomplishments, as well as the occasional reignition of her dreams for worldwide acclaim.

Why It Matters: The NFR write-up is mostly a run-down of Brico and the film, though they do highlight Brico’s “ebullient, forthright warmth” in the face of her many obstacles.

But Does It Really?: Every so often with this blog, the routine of cranking out these posts leads to fatigue. Thankfully, there’s always a movie that comes along to energize me and remind me why I’m doing this blog in the first place, and “Antonia” is one such movie. In less than an hour, I was introduced to Antonia Brico and felt like I had learned her life story on an intimate level. Obviously, Ms. Brico’s accomplishments speak for themselves, but the film shows us the person behind these achievements, and the lasting effect these (sometimes missed) opportunities had on her. “Antonia” is a tribute to an unsung artist who finally got her moment in the sun, and the film is worthy of NFR preservation.

Everybody Gets One: Upon seeing the name Judy Collins in the credits, my first thought was, “Like the folk singer?”. Turns out, it IS the folk singer. Before becoming the singer who brought us “Both Sides Now“, Judy Collins grew up in Denver, and as a child was taught piano by Antonia Brico. Collins eventually gave up the piano at age 16, much to Brico’s dismay (even after Collins became famous, Brico bemoaned “you really could have gone places”). In the early ’70s, Collins was invited by Ms. magazine to interview a female role model, and Collins chose Antonia Brico. Collins decided to film the interview, and hired Jill Godmilow after seeing her documentary “Tales”. After four days of interviewing and filming, both Collins and Godmilow were pleased with the results and agreed to expand this interview into a documentary short, and eventually a feature.

Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly the long-gone era when Americans actually cared about the symphony.

Seriously, Oscars?: After premiering at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, “Antonia” played the festival circuit, as well as a successful run in select cities (including Denver). “Antonia” received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, losing to fellow NFR entry “Hearts and Minds“.

Other notes 

  • A few other notes about Antonia Brico. Born in the Netherlands, Brico was adopted and at age six relocated to Oakland, California. Her foster mother made Antonia take piano to prevent her from biting her nails, and the child found solace in music. After studying at the Berlin State Academy of Music, Brico made her conducting debut in 1930 with the Berlin Philharmonic, which led to her work with orchestras throughout Europe and the United States. Work became more sporadic as the 1930s gave way to the ’40s, primarily from the aforementioned sexism (her time with the New York Metropolitan Opera ended when lead baritone John Charles Thomas refused to be conducted by a woman).
  • A reminder that Denver, Colorado is a lovely city. I’ve only been there once, but it was a wonderful experience, and one of this native Californian’s rare encounters with accumulated snow.
  • If there’s one thing that will endear me to your movie, it’s rehearsal footage. I love watching creative people putting in the work to make their art, and watching Antonio Brico collaborating with her orchestra is fascinating.
  • Shoutout to Coulter Watt, the film’s cinematographer and Jill Godmilow’s then-boyfriend.
  • Among Brico’s words that really resonated with me was her belief that “my instrument is the orchestra”. It’s declarations like this that make Brico’s passion for music really shine through. To paraphrase Madeline Kahn, she wants to “be the music”.
  • My other favorite Antonia line is when she refers to Judy Collins as “disgustingly young”.
  • I will admit that I wouldn’t necessarily recognize Judy Collins on sight, so it makes a lot more sense why she is featured more prominently in the interviews than Jill Godmilow is.
  • Among Brico’s controversies was her public feud with pianist José Iturbi, who believed women were inherently less talented than men. There was even talk of a “Battle of the Sexes” style showdown between the two using kettle drums. It never happened, but the film uses animation to fantasize how that would have gone down.
  • I’m calling it right now: Frances McDormand will one day play Antonia Brico in a movie. They look just enough alike that it could work.
  • One of the film’s final moments is Antonia lightening the mood in her house by playing some jazz and ragtime on the piano. Turns out Brico played more modern music in her early days to make ends meet.

Legacy 

  • Following the success of this film, Antonia Brico saw renewed interest in her career, leading to invitations to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Brooklyn Philharmonia. Brico died in 1989 at the age of 87.
  • There’s been slow progress in female conductors, but there are now about 50 or so women actively conducting around the world. In 2020 we finally got our first female conductor at the Oscars (Eímear Noone), but she only got to conduct the Best Score nominees. You brought her all the way out from Ireland, just let her run the whole damn show!
  • Although “Antonia” was the extent of her filmmaking career, Judy Collins is still active in the music industry, with a career that has garnered her a Grammy, four Gold records, and two Platinum records. Plus, she’s the reason “Send in the Clowns” went from “unhummable” Sondheim to oft-covered standard.
  • Jill Godmilow is still making films, her most recent is 2017’s “SCUM Manifesto”. Godmilow is also an Emeritus Professor of film and theater at the University of Notre Dame.

Listen to This: It’s not too often someone has a movie they directed on the NFR and a song they recorded on the National Recording Registry. Judy Collins’ 1970 rendition of “Amazing Grace” made the NRR in 2017. The official write-up includes an essay by Cary O’Dell, and an interview with Collins.

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