The 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival kicks off tonight, April 12th, in the heart of Hollywood with a star-studded flourish, as Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey drop by Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Bob Fosse’s CABARET (newly restored and presented via DCP*). Not a big fan of musicals? No problem. You can skip over to the nearby Chinese 6 multiplex for Preston Sturges’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (presented by Ron Perlman) or check out Joan Crawford and Anita Page in the rarely-screened OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS from 1928. And then there’s the original 1941 THE WOLF MAN with makeup-effects maestro Rick Baker in attendance. Or perhaps you’d rather hang out by the Roosevelt Hotel pool and visit with Frank, Bing, Grace, Celeste and Satchmo in HIGH SOCIETY.
As usual, the TCM Fest is a mixture of joy and agony. Over the next four days, I’m going to wish I could be in four or five theaters at once, checking out old favorites on the big screen or seeing lesser-known gems from underrated filmmakers. Unfortunately, I am but one man, so I will, for example, have to miss John Carpenter discussing Frank Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN in order to see 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA for the first time on the big screen (with Kirk Douglas in attendance). There are heartbreaking Sophie’s Choices like this all over the schedule.
To gear up for the festival, I sat down with TCM’s Robert Osborne, an eloquent encyclopedia of film who’s been educating me on the medium since he began hosting on The Movie Channel back in 1986. Osborne’s TCM introductions are exemplary: in just a few minutes, he manages to convey to viewers why the film they’re about to watch is significant, while also working in a piece of trivia or two for the more knowledgeable cinephiles. No one does this better than Osborne.
In the below interview, we discuss what’s different about this year’s TCM Fest, which films Osborne is most looking forward to seeing himself, and whether he’s a Clift or a Brando guy.
Mr. Beaks: You began hosting for The Movie Channel back in 1986, and moved to Turner Classic Movies in the early ‘90s. How do you feel the way people approach viewing films at home has changed? Do you think people engage with films differently now than they did, say, thirty years ago?
Robert Osborne: I think it’s really interesting the way it’s become a part of everybody’s life now. I mean there was a time that it was only people like you and I that would be really passionate about it, and now everybody seems to be into film. What I love about TCM is the fact that it’s helped bring younger people - not just people seeking nostalgia because they grew up when these films were made - but younger people coming in and getting into film and getting into older films and seeing how well they were made and how entertaining they are and the fact they are out there again. For so long, as you well know, it was very hard to see an old film. You didn’t have access to it. Now it’s everywhere, and so you can see almost everything. I love TCM for bringing movies to people that haven’t been around for a long time. I think it’s had a big impact We hear from people, a lot of people, that TCM is the first channel they go to; they just have it on and they check it out. There may not be something they want to see, so then they will go check other channels, but they always go there first. I think that’s a really great compliment, that they are getting something out of it that they really enjoy.
Beaks: Sometimes it’s fun to just fall midstream into a movie that I’ve never seen.
Osborne: Well, that’s great fun.
Beaks: And then I begin identifying the actors, and I play that game where I try figure out who the director is by finding a signature move or motif.
Osborne: That’s how I got into film in the first place. The more I would learn about it, the more interesting it became. And if you saw a film and somebody in it that was good, you wanted to find out more about their career and you went to see something else they were in - and that would lead you to somebody else. The more you learn about all of that stuff, the more fascinating it all becomes.
Beaks: Can you think of a film from your youth that was a defining movie for you?
Osborne: I was in my teens, but A PLACE IN THE SUN had a big effect on me. I identified with Montgomery Clift in that movie. I think in every stage in your life, there’s a hero in the movies that you have; it might be Gary Cooper if you’re a certain age, or it might be Alan Ladd. But Montgomery Clift was always kind of a hero to me. I was just getting out of college at the time I saw A PLACE IN THE SUN, or I guess I was just in college, and he just had a profound affect on me with what he was going through in that movie. He was a big influence on me. Brando never was for some reason. He was just a little too early and a little too from-the-mean-streets for me. Montgomery Clift, there was just something about his whole behavior - and of course the fact that Elizabeth Taylor was so crazy about him. He was just a great hero. And then FROM HERE TO ETERNITY came along, and that just reinforced it.
Beaks: Back then it was sort of like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, where you were either a Brando or a Clift guy.
Osborne: Exactly. I came to appreciate Brando, though, certainly as an actor. Now he really bothers me. I was just watching the other day, we had SAYONARA on, and he is so handsome in it and so good. But I keep seeing this man, this mammoth mountain of a man he became, and it really kind of bothers me when I see when he was young and healthy, and then what he allowed himself to become.
Beaks: Is there anything this year at the TCM Fest that you are particularly excited to see?
Osborne: Well, I’m really excited about seeing HOW THE WEST WAS WON in Cinerama. I know that was a big deal and the showmanship with that as I remember seeing it was spectacular. So having that, and having Debbie Reynolds there to talk about it, I think is going to be fun. I’m particularly excited about seeing COVER GIRL on a big screen, to see Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly in all their glory on a big screen with a beautiful print. Also THE THIEF OF BAGDAD on a big screen with a live orchestra is, I think, going to be great fun. CABARET and having Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey and Michael York there, and just the power of that movie on a big screen as compared to seeing it on a television-sized screen. So I’m looking forward to those. My only complaint about the festival is that there are so many things that if I had time to go see any movies, I’d be really frustrated because I would have such a hard time picking whether I want to see this movie or that movie. I mean, at one time we’ve got COVER GIRL, WINGS, and THE MACOMBER AFFAIR on at the same time.
Beaks: And I’ve never seen THE MACOMBER AFFAIR.
Osborne: Oh, it’s fabulous. But how do you pick? That’s the problem.
Beaks: “Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth.” That’s how I pick. (Laughs) But it’s still a tough one. There are a lot of those. There’s one where I think FRANKENSTEIN is up against 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, and I’ve never seen 20,000 LEAGUES on the big screen.
Osborne: Have you seen COVER GIRL on a big screen?
Beaks: No, never.
Osborne: Yeah, that’s spectacular.
Beaks: And that’s the exciting thing and seeing some of these in 35mm, and some that are not on DVD, or, if they are, they are available only in terribly compromised versions. Anthony Mann’s RAW DEAL is one of those, and the same goes for CALL HER SAVAGE, FALL GUY and LONESOME. I’ve seen RAW DEAL, but the others I’ve never seen, and I’ll be experiencing them for the first time in 35mm.
Osborne: With an audience, and that makes a big difference, too. But you know what’s been great is the fact that… the first year we had the festival they really booked a lot of marquee titles because we were trying to get people to come. So you get in CASABLANCA, and you are getting a lot of big-name titles like NORTH BY NORTHWEST, etc. This year, the day we announced that tickets were on sale, within two hours we sold out all of our premium passes, and we hadn’t even announced a single star or a single movie. So that gave Charlie Tabesh the freedom to put some real gems in there that wouldn’t necessarily pull people to buy a ticket, because they were trusting us that whatever we showed was going to be something interesting and worth seeing. That gave him the chance to really go wild looking at some of these things, which is great.
Beaks: Do you have to basically say “We are going to program these four films at the same time, and try to hit different genres with each?”
Osborne: Yeah, absolutely. So you maybe have an adventure tale or maybe you’ve got film noir and maybe a western, so whatever you’re in the mood for. [Tabesh] has also been very careful about getting films from different eras and making sure you’ve got some silent films and some films from the ‘30s and some films from the ‘40s and the ‘50s, etc/ And it’s interesting, one of the ones that didn’t do very well was our first year, on a Saturday night, we put in Grauman’s Chinese SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. John Badham, the director, was there, and I thought that was just going to be a smash hit, but we had very few people come. That just really surprised me. And yet in one of the smaller theaters, we had THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD from 1938, and it was packed with people. So I’m thinking maybe it’s because people have had a chance to, or enough of the people remember seeing [SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER] on a big screen, so they pass it up in favor of seeing something they’ve never seen on the big screen. Whatever the reason, some of the newer titles aren’t as popular as some of those Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers classics from the ‘30s.
Beaks: Your interview with Peter O’Toole is this evening. [Last evening, actually.]
Beaks: That’s one of those dream interviews.
Osborne: And he was great. I was kind of nervous about that, only because I know he’s such a bright guy and also a very intellectual - and also he hates doing interviews. But he turned out to be such a delightful guy. He wanted to meet me first, and after he agreed to do it he said, “Okay, what’s your first question going to be?” Thank god, I had one ready! And so I told him, and he said, “Okay.” And then I said, “After that I’m going to…” And he said, “No, no, after that question you can go anywhere you want. I just want to be prepared for an answer for your fist question. Then you go wherever you want.” Then he said, “Did you know that I was in the Navy at one point?” I said, “No, I didn’t, and I’ve read a lot about you.” He said, “I’ve never talked about that. So ask me a question about that, and that will give you a chance to get some fresh information nobody else has.” I thought, “That’s really nice of him to do that.” So he was a dream to work with, yeah.
Beaks: That’s great. Do you have a favorite Peter O’Toole film?
Osborne: Well LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, it has to be.
Beaks: I should have said “aside from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.” (Laughs)
Osborne: Well, I love THE RULING CLASS. I think he’s terrific in that. He’s wonderful in THE STUNT MAN, and I think he’s really great in MY FAVORITE YEAR. He is so funny in that. It’s just amazing to look at him, because it’s hard to see the fellow from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA in him, and it hasn’t been that long ago. He’s really had a life, but he was very nice. He couldn’t have been nicer, and a great raconteur, and the fact that he doesn’t like doing that sort of thing and chose to do it was really nice.
Beaks: That’s great. You’ve had the privilege of talking to so many legends.
Osborne: I have. I’ve really been lucky about that.
Beaks: Are there any that you often go back to, where you remember the conversation as being really special to you?
Osborne: Well, I have to say that there have only been a couple that I really have not been very happy with, and one was Robert Mitchum. He really stonewalled me. He was so witty and fun talking to him over lunch, and then he’d get on camera and he would give “Yes” and “No” answers. He wouldn’t talk at all. He was just being a rascal, you know, by leaving me with egg on my face. I would say “If you’re going to leave one Robert Mitchum film for people to judge you by, what would it be?” He said, “You decide.” “Okay…” Jane Russell, who was sitting on the couch with him, I said to Mitchum, “You two obviously became great friends. What is it about Jane that made you become a great friend of hers, and you didn’t become that friendly with some of your other leading ladies?” He said, “I don’t remember.” (Laughs) And so I’m just treading water through the whole thing. But most of the people are really forthcoming if they are going to do it at all and really nice. Angela Lansbury was heaven to work with. Lauren Bacall who is kind of known for being difficult, couldn’t have been nicer. I’ve had some good luck with them.
Beaks: Well, I think maybe in a way they see this as an opportunity to serve their legacy, that these interviews will be enshrined at TCM.
Osborne: Yeah, and it’s their audience, too. An audience that really appreciates them.
The TCM Classic Film Festival kicks off tonight, April 12th, and runs until Sunday, April 15th. Visit the fest’s official site for pass and individual ticket information. And if you can’t make it out for CABARET tonight, cue up TCM and watch three very different Liza Minnelli performances in ARTHUR, THE STERILE CUCKOO and Martin Scorsese’s NEW YORK, NEW YORK.