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Recently Departed Actresses Have a Place in Montana Film History

Thursday, June 7, 2018/Categories: Market MT, Film

By Allison Whitmer, Montana Film Commissioner

This May, I said goodbye to two women who were both talented actresses and good friends of mine. I had the privilege of working with Margot Kidder and DeeDee VanZyl and have been reflecting on their careers and their roles in two Montana-made films: “The Hi-Line” and “Big Eden.”

“The Hi-Line”
Livingston, 1998

It’s a biting cold late winter day in Livingston, 1998. I’m on an early morning light study with Wally Pfister, the cinematographer on a small independent film, “The Hi-Line.” With snow cracking and swirling under our boots, we check angles and shadows on the Owl Bar and surrounding buildings.

Eight years later, Wally will receive his first Oscar nomination for his work on “Batman Begins,” and 13 years later, he will win one for his work on “Inception.” Ron Judkins, the director and writer of “The Hi-Line,” was an old hand at the Oscar game. He was nominated for “Schindler’s List” and won for “Jurassic Park” in 1994. He crossed the stage again in 1999 for “Saving Private Ryan.”

Back in Livingston, the film stock had come from the short ends of Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic, and now we were in our own battle with the weather. The wind blew down the exposed dirt roads, and the crew unloaded only gear necessary for each shot, huddling out of the wind in between.

The plot of the film revolves around Vera, who begins a search for her biological mother after learning she is adopted. Her adoptive mother is played by Margot Kidder and is devastated by the upheaval in their quiet world.

Margot’s scenes, luckily for her, were out of the weather inside a local Livingston home. She had been a resident of the community for many years by then, with marriages and children, and was an outspoken political activist.

The crew is smashed together on stairs and behind doors while holding rattling windows quiet against the constant wind. Throughout the day, the crew, including myself, expresses glee at being on the same set as Lois Lane. This funny, award-winning, professional, talented actress jumped on board for a small independent film, and we were all the better for it.

“The Hi-Line” debuted at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and received the audience award at the 1999 Austin Film Festival.

"I'm a grandmother with dogs and nice friends here in the Rocky Mountains. Ever see the movie ‘A River Runs Through It?’ That's where I live. It's beautiful, no two ways about it." - Margot Kidder, Oct. 17, 1948–May 13, 2018

“Big Eden”
Glacier National Park, 1999

Receiving 15 audience awards for best picture at LGBT film festivals across the country, this film has become a classic of LGBT film.

Imagine Glacier with a picture-perfect glassy lake and sharp, snow-covered mountains in the background of a log cabin in the woods. That’s the scene the conflicted main character Henry (Arye Gross) returns to from New York City in a panic about his ailing grandfather.

In the small community of Big Eden, having a romance bloom under the sharp eyes of the busybody widows and retirees is hard enough, but it’s even harder when you are gay and falling in love with a quiet Native American (Eric Schweig).

Successfully directing the first PG-13 gay romance needed strong actors, and director Tom Bezucha dug into the Montana acting community to round out his cast that included Oscar winner Louise Fletcher and veteran actor George Coe. DeeDee VanZyl, Justin Fonda, Doug Seaburn, Steve Conard and Mark Twogood all came on board. DeeDee was cast as Didi Soames.

DeeDee had been acting and directing all over the Pacific Northwest, including Shakespeare tours, plays and voiceovers. She also worked in college-level teaching before she moved to Montana. She then established herself as a cornerstone of the Blue Slipper, Verge and Black Box Theaters and founded the Bozeman Actor’s Theatre in 2008.

Describing the quality of DeeDee’s work and her commitment to excellent film and theater is best left to her fellow actress and colleague, Margot Kidder, in her Aug. 2013 review of “August: Osage County”:

“Rarely in life, anywhere, do you get to see two stellar pieces of theater in a row, whether you're in London or New York City or Chicago, anywhere. But boy, I just got that amazing experience here in little old Livingston and then in Bozeman. DeeDee VanZyl and Cara Wilder got better and better and better with every word they uttered, and all the performers negotiated the turns and transitions and revelations of their characters with a precision that betrayed an insane amount of what we actors call homework. By the last half they were just flying." – Margot Kidder

DeeDee VanZyl
1950–May 3, 2018


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