Starting today, and continuing for the next month, Turner Classic Movies will be presenting 31 Days of Oscar, their annual salute to cinema’s highest honor, the Academy Award. This year’s line-up, presented each day by category, is a veritable crash course on the 90-year history of the Academy Awards — with films ranging from the very first Best Picture winner, Wings, to more contemporary classics such as There Will Be Blood (winner for Best Actor). It’s a memorable month of programming that I’ll be glued to day and night. I had the pleasure of chatting with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz today about the month-long tribute as well as the upcoming TCM Classic Film Festival that will be held from April 26 to April 29 in Hollywood, my favorite movie event of the year.
Danny Miller: Hi, Ben! Before talking about 31 Days of Oscar, I wanted to say how thrilled I was yesterday with the announcement of several more films that will be part of this year’s festival, from Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe (1964) to the world premiere restoration of None Shall Escape (1944) with 100-year-old star Marsha Hunt present to the great Marion Davies’ Show People (1928) to the screening of Cecil B. DeMille’s fabulous and insane The Ten Commandments (1956). I can’t wait to see that one on the big screen with visual effects mavens Craig Barron and Ben Burtt talking about the amazing special effects in that film.
Ben Mankiewicz: Me, too. Crag and Ben’s presentations are always so unbelievably interesting.
Do you have any idea yet about which films you’ll be introducing at the festival this year?
To be honest, Danny, my hunch is that you know more about the festival right now than I do. It’s William Holden’s hundredth birthday this April and Stefanie Powers is coming into the studio next week to talk with me about 15 William Holden films so I’m really busy getting ready for that. It’s weird — I don’t know the last time I saw Sunset Boulevard (1950), for example, from start to finish, it may have been 15 years ago. So I watched it the other night and even though I’ve seen it so many times, I was completely overwhelmed by it. It’s amazing that films like that still have so much power. I found myself thinking, “Gee, do people know about this movie? It’s really very good!” (Laughs.) All these new moments come to me watching it fresh so I realized that no matter how many times I’ve seen these movies in the past, I absolutely have to watch all 15 of those William Holden movies if I’m going to talk about them with Stefanie. I can’t even think beyond that right now.
Ooh, watching 15 William Holden movies — that’s a burden I’d love to have!
Oh, I hear you, I’m not complaining, trust me! It’s a pretty good gig!
Sunset Boulevard slays me every time, too. I remember freaking out the year I realized I was the age that Gloria Swanson was when she played Norma Desmond.
(Laughs.) Hey, I just got there!
I can’t wait to start watching TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar, I’m sure I’ll be tuning in day and night. There’s such a mystique about the Academy Awards. I think you have three Oscars in your family, right? Did you ever get to play with them as a kid?
Yeah, I remember holding my grandfather’s (Herman J. Mankiewicz) Oscar for Citizen Kane (1941). And you know, this seems like an obnoxious thing to correct, but there were actually five Oscars in my family, not three!
Oh, I thought your grandfather won one and your uncle (Joseph L.Mankiewicz) won two.
Joe has four, actually, for both writing and directing A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and writing and directing All About Eve (1950).
Wow, sorry, I stand corrected!
And this year we’re showing I Want to Live (1958) that my Uncle Don was nominated for, he co-wrote the screenplay. He didn’t win but, of course, Susan Hayward won a Best Actress Oscar for that film.
When I think of the history of the Academy Awards, I think about all the wins that I agree with, and then the various travesties of justice. For me, that includes films like The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) winning Best Picture over much worthier films or Around the World in 80 Days (1956) winning over Giant. I mean, come on! Do you have any examples like that that make you cringe?
Oh God, so many. We’ve just been touting my family and I certainly think All About Eve was a brilliant film, totally deserving of the Best Screenplay and it’s a brilliantly directed movie, but I don’t think you can watch Carol Reed’s The Third Man now and say that All About Eve is a better directed film, with all due respect to my uncle. That’s not knocking All About Eve but you look at something like The Third Man and it’s why they invented directing!
Any of the more recent decisions that make you nuts?
Oh, yeah. I can go back to 2008 when they only nominated three songs and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wrestler” wasn’t even nominated. Now that’s insane. And the one that always sticks out and will continue to stick out forever is Saving Private Ryan losing Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love in 1998. I mean, Saving Private Ryan was a generationally important World War II film that people still talk about 20 years later. The notion that it lost to a period romantic comedy is just crazy. And we know that was the beginning of those Harvey Weinstein/Miramax PR blitzes in a way that had not been done before. I know Spielberg was told, “We gotta fight this” and he said, “No, I’m not campaigning like that for my movies.” And now, given the loathsomeness that we know about Harvey, it makes it even worse, not to knock Shakespeare in Love which is a perfectly fine movie.
Yeah, that one was certainly perplexing. Of course, in the end it’s just a bunch of people’s opinions, there’s no science to it.
Right. People get things wrong. I get it, it’s not like some great sin. It’s always funny when the nominations come out and people get outraged over what was left out, including me. The reality is, you’re allowed to see movies that weren’t nominated, you’re allowed to love movies that weren’t nominated and feel like they are very important to you.
Sure. Of course there are also decisions that make me nuts even when I love the person who won, such as Ginger Rogers winning for Kitty Foyle (1940) instead of Katharine Hepburn for The Philadelphia Story. Um…no.
Yeah, and look at Cary Grant never winning, Jimmy Stewart winning for the wrong movie, Barbara Stanwyck never winning a competitive Oscar.
I know. We were going off on our TCM Festival Facebook page about Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940) the other day because we’re so excited that it’s part of the festival this year. The fact that it got ZERO Oscar nominations when both Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell should have been included that year is mind-boggling.
THIS JUST IN: Voters sometimes get it wrong! (Laughs.) You can interpret that however you like! In some ways, it’s almost a better story when you think that Fonda didn’t win one until the end of his life and that people like Grant and Hitchcock and Stanwyck never won competitive Oscars — it almost enhances their legends!
Are you happy with this year’s nominations?
I think it was a very strong year for movies. I’m hosting the American Society of Cinematographers award show this year on February 17th and I’m very excited that Rachel Morrison is the first female cinematographer ever nominated for an Oscar for Mudbound.
That’s great. Needless to say, the loss of Robert Osborne last year is still felt very deeply by all of us TCM fans. I just watched the In Memoriam segment again that the network did for all the people who died in 2017 and those last moments when he suddenly appears on screen and says, “Hi, I’m Robert Osborne” make me burst into tears every time.
We miss him so much. I try to mention him in my lead-ins whenever I can. I know some of the extras that we’re going to be offering on TCM Backlot are going to include old introductions with Robert and certainly many of the great conversations he had with the stars. We have a treasure trove of material that Robert left us that we will showcase whenever we can, and, of course, he’ll be honored every year at the festival.
Do you know of any plans to bring on more permanent hosts, especially now with Tiffany Vasquez leaving?
Well, certainly nothing that they’d want me talking about! Look, they have a very keen vision for how the channel should look and they take these decisions very seriously, as they should.
As you know, classic movie fans are a great bunch of folks but we can be a little opinionated—
What? Classic movie fans have strong opinions? I wasn’t aware of that! (Laughs.)
Do you enter into those conversations online that can get a little heated such as the ever-popular “What is a classic movie?” debate that makes some people see red?
Oh, sure, I enter into those all the time! I know it’s a hotly debated topic but I’m always defending the network by telling people that when you look at the percentage of movies that we show from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s today, it really hasn’t changed much from the beginning of the network. As always, it’s the context that matters. Obviously you’re seeing moves like There Will be Blood (2007) during the 31 Days of Oscar tribute and this year we even have the 2013 version of The Great Gatsby that was nominated for costume design. And Braveheart (1995) is there in our night of epics and I think that’s great. I remember having a conversation once about Warren Beatty’s 1994 version of Love Affair with our programmer Charlie Tabesh. I love Warren Beatty, but we all agree that his remake is certainly not the best version of that film.
Even with Katharine Hepburn in it!
Right. So we would never just randomly show that on a Saturday night. But, for example, during a 24-hour salute to Katharine Hepburn as part of our Summer Under the Stars series, wouldn’t it be great to follow up Alice Adams (1935) with that version of Love Affair? So when we can curate and put films like that in the proper context, I think it enhances the experience all around.
Why do you think people get so panicked about the idea of showing newer films on TCM?
I remember when I joined the network — I read the message boards and was very aware of how some people felt about me. I think most of those arguments come from a place of fear that the channel is not going to provide the same level of comfort that it always has, I think that’s what the objection is. People worry that TCM is changing in some substantial way. But the answer to that is we are NOT changing. TCM is growing and will be available in more and different ways, we didn’t have an app when we started, for example, but we are never going to show commercials, we’re never going to colorize movies, and we’re not going to start showing the Police Academy movies so you can rest easy! Although you could make an argument for showing those films in a night of comedy. (Laughs.)
I really appreciate the political work you do, too, and I assume you keep that very separate from your TCM work. But if you had to pick a classic film to help us understand what this country is going through right now, what would it be?
Oh, without a doubt, Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), that seems to hit it right on the nose. Look, this is not a time for political silence, and the people who are interested in getting involved should be very engaged. That said, one of the great things about TCM in a world of such intense divisiveness, is that it’s one of the few places where conservatives and liberals can come together and realize something that we forget all the time lately — that we DO have a lot in common, and that our love for Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn can be part of what brings us together. And it’s really nice to be in a place that is a respite from all that.