[BURT'S BUZZ opens in Cleveland on Friday June 6th exclusively at Tower City Cinemas.]
Review by Pamela Zoslov
A gaunt, gray-bearded man arrives in Taiwan and is
met at the airport by throngs of cheering fans carrying posters
bearing his image. Seventy-six-year-old Burt Shavitz, the Burt of
Burt's Bees natural cosmetics, is the unlikely focus of this
rock-star adulation, which seems more suitable for Justin Bieber.
Shavitz is as flummoxed by the attention as we are.
As he explains to filmmaker Jody Shapiro in the documentary BURT'S
BUZZ, he'd much rather be at his farmhouse in Maine, where's he's
lived alone for the last 30 years, gathering next winter's firewood
and feeding the birds. “All they know is the image,” says
Shavitz, who is indeed quite a bit different from his sketched
likeness on the yellow Burt's Bees logo on lip balm and other
products, an avuncular backwoods Santa Claus both friendlier and
fleshier than the dour, taciturn Shavitz. He can't understand why
people continually want to take his picture. “I'm contractually
obligated not to say 'buzz off,' he explains resignedly. He'd just as
soon point a shotgun at them.
He never wanted to be a businessman, but he
reluctantly found himself the face of a multimillion-dollar
Shapiro paints a revealing portrait of this
paradoxical character, who came to his life of backwoods simplicity
(no electricity or hot water) by an unexpected path. Born Ingram Berg
Shavitz in New York City, he grew up in Great Neck. He refused to
enter the family business, changed his name and became a street
photographer of considerable talent, vividly capturing the antiwar
protest rallies, street people and African-American life of the
1960s. “New York was a series of scenes,” he recalls. “It was a
good place to be a photographer.” He worked for Time-Life, which
gave him access to loftier subjects – Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy.
Then he decided to give it all up to move to upstate
New York, live in an abandoned house and become a “high-class
hobo.” He got some monks to teach him about beekeeping. He bought
37 acres in Maine and started selling honey from the side of the
road. He would be asleep in his car, he recalls, and customers would
have to rap on the window to wake him.
Shavitz would have been content to continue his
quiet, simple life had he not met Roxanne Quimby, a divorced mom
whose strength and resourcefulness impressed him. They became
romantically involved, and Quimby set about minding Burt's beeswax,
launching a business selling candles and other bee-based products.
Quimby was clever, artistic and very ambitious, and before long,
Burt's Bees grew from a craft-fair novelty to a $900 million
Eventually, the business relocated to North Carolina,
where Shavitz found himself unhappily installed behind a desk, the
fate he had specifically refused back in New York. It was perhaps
inevitable that Quimby would leverage him out of the business,
persuading him to sign away his rights and with them hundreds of
millions of dollars. Shavitz is rueful, perhaps not so much about the
money as the way he was treated. “Roxanne wanted money and power and I
was just a pillar on the way to that success,” he says. “She
wanted to own me.” Shavitz lives like a Zen master, but there was
still enough of the shrewd New Yorker in him to hire a lawyer. He got a
contract with the company to continue to represent the brand in
personal appearances like the one in Taiwan.
Shavitz's brother and his very patient assistant lend
insight into this reclusive, paradoxical character, who merely
tolerates people but is uncommonly devoted to his Golden Retriever.
(The only emotion we see him express is when he's in Taiwan, wiping
away tears while talking to his dog, incredibly, via Skype.) His
assistant says Shavitz, who can be exasperating to be with, cares
only for “his dog, the land, his fields, his oatmeal in the
morning.” Yet the company representative in Taiwan thinks he really
does, in his own way, enjoy the celebrity attention.
Shavitz's lifestyle is a model of Buddhist
simplicity, but it's the kind of comfortable simplicity achievable only by the independent wealthy. His brother notes that money doesn't mean much to Burt, but it means enough to him to continue to fly around the world to be the face of Burt's Bees. At a Q&A session in Taiwan, Shavitz is asked why he
chose to live without modern conveniences. “It's important to be
able to separate one's wants from one's needs,” he says wisely. Though
most people could not live the way he does, many of us can
relate to his statement, "A good day is when no one shows up and
you don't have to go anywhere." 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.