River Oaks Runs Through It

Here's a pop quiz for all you young Houston debutantes and gentlemen: If your father gave you a million-dollar trust fund, what would you do with it?

Houston native Tessa Blake took her patrimony and used it to make a documentary about her father, 87-year-old Houston lawyer and businessman Thomas Walter Blake, Jr., a roguish, tough yet lovable good ol' boy who married five times, made millions, hobnobbed with Howard Hughes and Bing Crosby and throws Houston's best annual Fourth of July society bash (which also celebrates his birthday). Cheekily titled Five Wives, Three Secretaries and Me, the film's as much about the 28-year-old director's search for her own identity and sense of place as it is a look at her father, even though "Blakey," as her dad is known, provides a fascinating cinematic and character presence from which his daughter can explore part of the world she came from.

The film is Ms. Blake's directorial debut; it's also a contestant in Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival documentary competition, where it made its theatrical premiere last week.

"It was this weird thing where I came into this money from my father, and I used that money to go back and find out who he was," says Blake, who lives in New York and works in film and theater. "It was like I recycled [the trust fund], in a way. And I don't regret a moment of it.

"I am in a really different financial circumstance than I was," she says, chuckling. "But I didn't really care about getting a better apartment or a better car. It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime, lottery-winning type of experience where you can actually go and realize this thing you've always dreamed of all your life. So I'm ultimately really pleased with this choice, and now I hope that someone will actually buy this film so I can crawl out of this hole and keep going."

Five Wives is a charming if slightly shaky piece of filmmaking that's ultimately heartwarming, a feeling reinforced by a soundtrack including original songs by her father. They were adapted and recorded by New York musicians Chris Cioe and George Gilmore (a friend who helped prompt Tessa to explore this subject so close to her heart). The film's a pungent exploration of what it's like to cross a familial Rubicon, and even though it captures a gratifying father/daughter rapprochement (after a falling out over her African-American boyfriend), the final note will come when "Blakey" sees the finished movie for the first time.

"It will be very interesting to see what his response to it is," notes Tessa. "But I feel a very clean slate about that. I don't feel like there's anything hidden; it's all out there -- he's hip to it and everyone's hip to it."

When she broached the idea with her father, she says, "He was charmed and flattered. You can see how camera-friendly he is. And with all his Hollywood friendships in the '40s and '50s, I think there's a way in which my father always regretted not pursuing the showman side of himself. So it was quite natural, in a way, for him to do this, and I think in a way he was surprised no one had thought of it sooner. There's clearly a sense of humor in the family about my father's marriages. So the title was charming to him. But you can see in the film that he had a hard time going some places with me."

The movie also provides a fascinating glimpse over the tall hedges of those River Oaks mansions and into the rarefied world of Houston high society, a milieu that Tessa Blake feels both a part of and apart from. "It's a great position as a documentarian, because you have simultaneous access and distance. I am very much an insider and an outsider. It's interesting, because those are the things that make you so uncomfortable as a child, and it's exactly the kind of thing that has made me the kind of filmmaker I am," she says.

"When I was younger, I went through periods of really wanting to fit in, and I've gone through periods of really wanting to rebel -- decimate that society. The film really did change my place in that world. I feel like I kind of made peace with it."

-- Rob Patterson

Five Wives, Three Secretaries and Me screens at 11 a.m. Friday, March 20. The Dobie Theater, 2021 Guadalupe, Austin, (512) 472-3240.


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