MORAGA -- One of the marvelous, hoped-for pleasures in attending a film festival is the chance to rub shoulders with stars of the industry.
The 15th Annual California Independent Film Festival, under way through Nov. 11, at the New Rheem Theatre in Moraga and at the Orinda Theatre, offers a glittering trifecta of opportunity with Lifetime Achievement Award winner Connie Stevens.
A sold-out Nov. 10 luncheon, an afternoon lecture and an evening awards celebration will unpack highlights of Stevens' career in the film, musical recording, television, Broadway and cosmetic industries.
Recognized for her dazzling smile and vivacious stage presence, she initially marked her star territory as "Cricket Blake" in the popular television 1959-63 detective series "Hawaiian Eye." Stevens added heft during her early career by joining Bob Hope on overseas tours to entertain U.S. troops during the Vietnam War.
"Performing in front of 40,000 soldiers in Da Nang was remarkable," she says, "but that wasn't the end of it. Last night, I walked four miles in honor of the Women's Memorial in Washington (D.C.). Realize there were 102 women killed in the last five years in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Her longtime passion for honoring people serving in the Armed Forces is one reason the festival's timing resonates with her. The Veteran's Day weekend provides a bully pulpit for the clamor she hopes to create. On her wrist, Stevens wears a bracelet in honor of Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier who has been in captivity in Afghanistan since January 2009.
"We give up 40 people from Guantanamo, but we can't get one man back? You need to put that in your article," she insists. "We need to write our congressmen and our senators. Every mother should ask for Bowe back, because he's everyone's son."
Windfeather, an organization she founded because she is part Native American and was curious about water problems on reservations, awards revenue from windmill construction to young Native Americans.
"We've given scholarships for 30 years. The first scholarship I ever gave? That girl became the engineer who built the building where I used to live in New York!" she exclaims proudly.
Her memories of headlining in Las Vegas are a more mixed bag.
"It was a physical time for me, a time when I had the most prowess as a dancer, and I loved that medium," she recalls. "I had a company of 20, but I lost those dancers to AIDS: my whole company was wiped out and it was very difficult to go back there after that."
Hope springs eternal, she jokes, answering a question about a favorite song and who she might sing it with.
"I'd pick 'Oh, Shenandoah' and sing with Michael McDonald. I just adore him. Really, I'd want to sing anything he's written."
As a filmmaker, Stevens' first foray was a Vietnam documentary.
"I took 100 women and their stories and got my feet wet with that," she begins, before jumping to discuss "Saving Grace B. Jones," her 2011 award-winning feature film.
"After 9/11, I was driving in Missouri, where the story takes place. I started writing immediately and when I finished the script, I showed it to a friend of mine. He wrote a check and said, 'You have to make this movie.' "
The film stars Oscar winner Tatum O'Neal as Grace, a woman released after two decades from an insane asylum who comes to live with her brother and his wife. A flood exacerbates the family's tension.
This latter aspect helps tag the film as autobiographical. At age 12, Stevens witnessed a murder on the streets of Brooklyn, NY, then fled to a Missouri town, which was devastated by a flood.
"The day I shot the scene that's most like the shooting I witnessed, I was more concerned about the actress. But as it unfolded and I finished the film, I changed. I now don't think of the (actual) murder as much as the I do the film," she says.
O'Neal won the Best Leading Actress award (for her portrayal of Grace) at the 2012 New York City Independent Film Festival.
"I knew Tatum could deliver because she had been in those deep places. She knew turmoil. I told her I wouldn't let her have even three seconds of false film. She fell in love with the character and that makes a performance," Stevens says.
What makes a career is nearly the same as that -- strong direction and love of craft.
Today, Stevens -- now in her 70s -- stands at the helm of "Forever Spring," her cosmetic skin care company. Hard at work on "Prairie Bones," a new film about the aftermath of the Civil War and how a ravaged nation struggled to accept a population of slaves transitioning to freedom, she's not resting on her laurels.
"I rejuvenate by watching TV, writing, and reading. I'm reading a book about the last strong tribe, the Comanches, and Michelle Malkin's "Culture of Corruptions" ... and Socrates, because someone asked me about it and I couldn't remember everything I'd learned."