'Koch' in limelight in new film

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch says

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch says goodbye to reporters as he gets in his car after being released from the hospital in New York. Koch died Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 from congestive heart failure. He was 88. (Dec. 10, 2012) (Credit: AP)

The release of Neil Barsky's first film, "Koch," couldn't have been more poignantly timed. It came out Feb. 1, the day the former New York City mayor died at age 88.

"He'd been in and out of the hospital four times in six months, so I should have been braced for it," Barsky says. "Every filmmaker wants attention for his film. But then this very sad event took place, and it was a strange thing. I got maybe 30 phone calls, 40 phone calls, from the press."

Barsky's film now stands as our last glimpse of a man who ruled New York for three terms, from 1978 to 1989, but kept himself in the city's limelight quite literally to his dying day. "Koch" is a portrait of Hizzoner at his scrappy, belligerent best -- and sometimes worst -- as he battles transit workers, protesters, mayoral contenders and other foes. Barsky, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal raised partly in Merrick, will appear in person for a screening Wednesday night at Huntington's Cinema Arts Centre.

Barsky says Koch gave him free rein to ask any questions and speak to whomever he pleased, a rarity in this era of tightly controlled celebrities. "Koch asked for nothing," Barsky said. "He understood that a warts-and-all documentary would have to show everything. But I think he was confident that if it was fair and evenhanded, it would come out OK."

Initially, the filmmaker found himself frustrated by a well-practiced politician who stuck to familiar stories and old jokes. "I couldn't really get him to move beyond the same things he'd been saying for years," Barsky says.

But small truths occasionally emerge. At one point, Koch admitted that Bess Meyerson, a former Miss America who helped quash rumors about his sexuality by frequently showing up on his arm, was never anything more than a friend.

"I learned that through all of our interviews, things get revealed -- even by Ed Koch -- that he doesn't want revealed," Barsky said. "It was only when we were done with all the interviews that I said, 'Wow, we've got a movie here.' "

Before the movie's release, Koch and his former chief of staff, Diane Coffey (who appears in the film), watched the completed version. "It was his only request, which we granted," Barsky says. "And at the end, he praised the film. He said, 'I'll take the reel with me into my grave.' Not knowing we don't have reels anymore, but that's OK."

WHEN | WHERE Wednesday night at 7:30 at Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington.

TICKETS $15

INFO 800-838-3006; cinemaartscentre.org

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