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Directing Award at the San Francisco Fest for Mike Leigh

The San Francisco Film Society announces that Mike Leigh will be presented with the inaugural Founder's Directing Award at the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival (April 24-May 8). The Founder's Award will be presented to Leigh at Film Society Awards Night, the annual benefit gala, on Thursday, May 1 at the Westin St. Francis Hotel.

The Founder's Directing Award is presented each year to one of the masters of world cinema and is given in memory of Irving M. Levin, who founded the San Francisco International Film Festival, the longest-running film festival in the Americas, in 1957. The award is made possible by Fred Levin and Nancy Livingston.

The Film Society's acclaimed Education Program will be the beneficiary of the black-tie fundraiser honoring Leigh and the soon-to-be-announced recipients of the Peter J. Owens Award for acting and the Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting. Celeste and Anthony Meier are the chairs of the Film Society Awards Night committee. Honorary chairs are Nancy Livingston and Fred Levin.

Public presentation of the Directing Award, scheduled for 7:30 pm, Wednesday, April 30 at the Castro Theatre will include a clip reel of career highlights, an onstage interview with Leigh and a showing of Topsy-Turvy (1999), a kaleidoscopic and visually entrancing backstage comedy/drama portraying the tumultuous world of 19th-century theatrical impresarios Gilbert and Sullivan.

"Mike Leigh is an extraordinary director who has forged a singular path in world cinema over a long and brilliant career," said Graham Leggat, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society. "We are delighted to welcome him back to the International on the heels of his well-deserved success at this year's Berlinale."

Leigh's history with SFFS stretches back to 1986 when SFIFF held this country's first retrospective of his gritty and unsparing, often bitingly funny work. Standing-room-only crowds turned out for the program, which featured several shorts from 1971 and five films produced for the BBC; Meantime (1983), Four Days in July (1984) and the U.S. premieres of Nuts in May (1975), Grown Ups (1980) and Home Sweet Home (1981). Leigh triumphantly returned to SFIFF in 1989 with High Hopes, the alternately hilarious and moving story of a working-class couple living in a tiny London flat.

Today, many films and accolades later-including the Cannes Film Festival's director award for Naked (1993) and Palme d'Or for Secrets & Lies (1996), as well as five Oscar nominations, most recently as director and screenwriter of Vera Drake (2004)-Mike Leigh is a universally venerated exponent of a unique brand of social realism, potently blending supple class-conscious drama, a coolly penetrating cinematic eye and deeply grounded acting-all given over to radiantly singular characters and stories. The exceptional performances the director elicits from his actors (arising from a now famous process of intensive improvisation before any script has been written) are a Leigh hallmark that has helped make household names of such discoveries as Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, while further propelling the careers of Jim Broadbent, Jane Horrocks, David Thewlis, Alison Steadman and others.

Born in 1943 in Salford, Lancashire, Mike Leigh trained at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and went on to study at the London Film School. He started his artistic career in the 1960s as a playwright of mordant satire aimed squarely at the inanity of middle-class life. Leigh's filmmaking began with a series of television plays in the '70s, among them Abigail's Party (1977). His interests soon broadened to include working-class and lower-middle-class subjects, varyingly sympathetic and sometimes comically amplified. His is a trenchant and unabashedly humanist approach to disregarded, unrewarded lives, one that fills the screen with a surprising variety of palpable sensations-from the poignant contradiction of suburban adulthood in Grown Ups, to the difficult needs and unexpected beatitudes of Secrets & Lies.

Leigh has never stood still as a filmmaker. His work over the last decade and half, especially, has taken surprising turns. The backstreet apocalyptic rumblings in Naked, for instance, announced a new level of poetry in his work while brilliantly venting an increasing rage at a crumbling social system; and 1999's Topsy-Turvy, a look behind the storied partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan, took on the historical biopic by weaving it into a remarkable and enthralling tapestry of working-class theater life in Victorian London. His latest film Happy-Go-Lucky, a straight-up comedy, just captured the Best Actress award for newcomer Sally Hawkins at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival. The film will be released later this year by Miramax.

For 22 years the San Francisco International Film Festival has honored a master of world cinema with its Directing Award. Originally the Kurosawa Award, the award in recent years has been known as the Film Society Directing Award, and is now the Founder's Directing Award. Previous recipients are Spike Lee, USA; Werner Herzog, Germany; Taylor Hackford, USA; Milos Forman, Czechoslovakia/USA; Robert Altman, USA; Warren Beatty, USA; Clint Eastwood, USA; Abbas Kiarostami, Iran; Arturo Ripstein, Mexico; Im Kwon-Taek, Korea; Francesco Rosi, Italy; Arthur Penn, USA; Stanley Donen, USA; Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal; Ousmane Sembène, Senegal; Satyajit Ray, India; Marcel Carné, France; Jirí Menzel, Czechoslovakia; Joseph L. Mankiewicz, USA; Robert Bresson, France; Michael Powell, England; and Akira Kurosawa, Japan.

For tickets and information for Film Society Awards Night call 415.551.5190.
For tickets and information for the tribute to Mike Leigh at the Castro Theatre go to www.sffs.org or call 925.866.9559.

The San Francisco Chronicle|SFGate.com is the sponsor of the onstage tribute to Mike Leigh at the Castro Theatre on Wednesday, April 30.

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