Jetting in from locations around the world, throngs of besotted movie fans congregated in the bustling heart of Hollywood to celebrate this Spring’s sixth annual TCM Classic Film Festival – a unique cinematic love fest that is surely one of the happiest film gatherings to be had these days. This year’s roster of stellar participants included such bona fide screen legends as Ann-Margret, Sophia Loren, Dustin Hoffman, Julie Andrews, and Shirley MacLaine (among others), and yet there seemed to be a tangible hole at the center of the 2015 festival due to the unexpected absence of Mr. TCM himself … the irreplaceable and beloved Robert Osborne.
Having presided over the initial five memorable TCM fests (as well as the popular annual TCM Caribbean Cruise weekend), it came as a great surprise and disappointment that just eight days before this year’s festival, Osborne announced he was under doctor’s orders to stay home in New York to undergo a “minor” medical procedure. Robert Osborne has always been the kind, knowledgeable soul of this marvelous festival and his presence was sorely missed.
Despite his absence, the fest ran smoother than ever, with Osborne’s festival duties ably handled by his go-to group of TCM lieutenants, Ben Mankiewicz, Alec Baldwin, and Illeana Douglas primary among them. Despite their enthusiasm, professionalism, and droll wit, the experience felt different this year without its master of ceremonies, so here’s wishing Mr. Osborne a complete and speedy recovery as the TCM family needs him at its helm and cannot wait to welcome Robert back with open arms.
Every TCM Fest attendee’s experiences are unique each year – the many offerings almost invariably become too much of a good thing, the painful scheduling overlaps a cinephile’s Sophie’s Choice of sorts. (No classic Meryl Streep films this year … though Jennifer Lopez’s best made the cut!) Sadly, my heart was not completely there for the fest this outing, as I was simultaneously dealing with an ongoing personal family tragedy during the long festival weekend. Still, the escapism (particularly of classic Hollywood fare) that movies can provide when the theater lights go down, helped ease (or at least divert) some of the pain of the moment. It helps explain why going to the movies was rarely more popular than during the Great Depression (as Busby Berkeley well knew), so I was particularly excited to see that his 42nd Street was scheduled to be screened over the long weekend. Due to my personal situation this year, when settling on my preferred roster of films I gravitated toward escapist works (comedies when possible), so while the Opening Night gala screening of The Sound of Music charmed the packed Grauman’s Chinese audience, I bolted upstairs instead for one of the loopiest (and best) screwball comedies of the ’30s … the deliciously shimmering My Man Godfrey.
Gregory LaCava’s 1936 My Man Godfrey set the bar high for the decade (mid ’30s to early ’40s) of classic screwball comedies to follow. The travails of a pampered wealthy family as seen through the eyes of their “forgotten man” butler highlight perhaps the best career work of its unforgettable cast, scoring Oscar nominations in each acting category (Carole Lombard and William Powell in lead, Alice Brady and Mischa Auer in the newly created supporting categories). Gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette, droll Jeanne Dixon, and icy Gail Patrick all add indelible support to the madcap festivities, and one would be hard pressed to find a better ensemble cast working with such carefree abandon in any other screwball comedy of the time.
The chemistry between Lombard and Powell (former husband and wife) is exquisite, and if comedy wasn’t thought of as inferior by the Academy, these two could rightly have won Oscars for their playful, complementary work here. Sadly, neither ever would win the golden trophy, but supporting player Alice Brady did score the following year (the Academy’s first ‘make-up’ award?) for the vastly inferior In Old Chicago. Brady’s turn as Lombard’s ditzy, scatterbrained mother is a shrill comic delight, particularly the scene where she nurses a bad hangover in bed as imaginary pixies cavort all about her. After one of the roughest afternoons of my life, it was a diversionary balm to spend a few hours in the company of such rare comedic talent, feeling something akin to what Mia Farrow’s character had in The Purple Rose of Cairo.
The first full day of TCM Fest 2015 turned into a marathon, starting early (and dignified) with fresh cement in front of Grauman’s Chinese theatre and finally ending eighteen hours later with a rare midnight movie screening of one of the trashiest, funniest ‘prestige’ projects in Hollywood history. After joining Julie Andrews the previous evening to introduce the gala Opening Night fiftieth anniversary screening of The Sound of Music, honoree Christopher Plummer took to the fabled Chinese courtyard to immortalize his hand and footprints for the ages. Plummer, who holds the distinction of being the oldest acting Oscar winner, was dapper and dignified (as much as one can be) as he imprinted his digits, feet, and signature onto the slab of moist cement that warm Southern California morning.
Singing his praises before the ceremony were an odd medley of compadres, including recent co-star Shirley MacLaine, Jeopardy game show host Alex Trebek, and Capt. Kirk himself, William Shatner. It took many years for Plummer to finally embrace his role as Baron von Trapp in one of Hollywood’s greatest hits, but now that he has, he appears to be enjoying the attention The Sound of Music has afforded him.
Lady Gaga’s tribute at the last Oscar ceremony has accorded the film a newfound sheen of ‘coolness’ (or alternately, Gaga’s jump-the-shark moment), and Plummer seems as bemused by that idea as anyone. While not of the same iconic caliber as previous TCM Fest handprint honorees (Jerry Lewis, Jane Fonda, Peter O’Toole, Kim Novak), the ceremony was still a well-deserved and moving tribute to the distinguished, talented thespian.
Throughout the Turner Classic Film Festival, guests will sit down in the lobby of the storied Roosevelt Hotel to tape brief interviews for use as buffers when their films are shown on the network at a later date. Following Christopher Plummer’s handprint ceremony at the Chinese, I crossed Hollywood Blvd. and entered the 1927 landmark (two years older than Plummer himself) to find none other than beautiful Ann-Margret holding court before a small gathering of attendees.
Looking absolutely stunning, Ann-Margret reminisced with Ben Mankiewicz on her many career highlights – from her film debut with Bette Davis in Pocketful of Miracles, to her jaw-dropping, go-for-broke Best Actress nominated turn in Ken Russell’s Tommy (surely the most unlikely of all nominations ever in this category). With pride, she spoke of going back to work on that gonzo film the day after deeply slicing her hand (27 stitches!) on a broken champagne bottle in Tommy’s must-be-seen-to-be-believed beans/chocolate/bubbles set piece.
Upon wrapping up at the Roosevelt, the interview migrated a few blocks east to Grauman’s Egyptian theatre, where Mankiewicz would continue his conversation with Ann-Margret, this time more specifically about the film about to be screened, The Cincinnati Kid. Released fifty years ago, the drama was a personal breakthrough for Ann-Margret, who got to sink her teeth into her first ‘bad girl’ role, a sultry and seductive foil to Steve McQueen’s down-on-his-luck card shark.
Ann-Margret spoke admiringly of McQueen’s animal magnetism (likening him to a cobra), and reminisced on their shared love for fast motorcycles (admitting to hitting over 100 mph while biking one crazy night on Mulholland Dr.). She traces her longtime love of fast bikes back to her childhood in Sweden where an adventurous biker uncle first inspired her. At both interviews that afternoon, Ann-Margret happily broke into flawless Swedish to chat up visiting country folk in the audience, with proud eyes twinkling almost as much as the giant rock on her finger.
Looking ever the glamorous legend, the presence of Ann-Margret electrified the packed Egyptian theatre crowd. As she’s proven in films such as Tommy, Carnal Knowledge, and even here in The Cincinnati Kid … she’s far more than just a sensual sex kitten, but an accomplished, utterly fearless actress of power and depth. Streep may own the Oscars, but could she ever pull off that outrageous scene that Ann-Margret did in Tommy forty years ago? I somehow doubt it.
Perhaps my favorite tradition of each year’s TCM Fest is the screening of a silent film classic accompanied by a live orchestra, and this year’s presentation was no exception. Exiting the Egyptian after watching The Cincinnati Kid, I noticed that the queue for that evening’s presentation of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr. had already started forming hours early. While Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin films are always popular TCM Fest standbys, it seems to me that those by Buster Keaton are always the most beloved, and certainly elicit the most sustained audience laughter.
As he’s done for previous TCM festivals, silent film composer extraordinaire Carl Davis created a brand new musical score for Keaton’s amazing 1928 film (his last as an independent). To accompany the film’s world premiere 4k restoration, maestro Davis conducted his new score with a 20-piece orchestra under the giant Egyptian screen, and the packed-house audience was thrilled.
Known primarily for its astounding extended storm sequence climax, Steamboat Bill Jr. took on new life with its incredibly crisp restoration and jaunty live score, transforming it into a one-of-a-kind cinematic event, perhaps the happiest of the entire festival. It was added bliss as well to see Buster’s impassive stone face staring forlornly from under a dysfunctional umbrella on all the official festival programs and posters.
That fullest of film Fridays culminated later that night with a boom and a Bond. James Bond. When Sean Connery finally tired of the iconic 007 role after filming You Only Live Twice, the most massive talent hunt since the casting for Scarlett O’Hara soon began. Over 3,000 actors were considered (and 300 screen tested) with the coveted role in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service finally falling to Australian George Lazenby.
The now 75-year-old silver fox was on hand to banter with Ben Mankiewicz before that film’s screening, and his politically incorrect, slightly misogynistic reminiscences had the audience both recoiling and rolling with laughter. With a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Lazenby regaled the audience with tales of the Swingin’ Sixties, and all that taking on the role of James Bond at that time implied.
Lazenby’s tale of how he landed the iconic part in the first place had the audience howling. A highly paid European model with no previous acting experience, Lazenby on a lark finagled his way into the casting director’s office, lied his ass off in regards to prior film work, and through a combination of arrogance and naivety, somehow ended up with the plum role. Alas, it was to be the start and basically end to his acting career, but Lazenby seems to be blissfully unconcerned, enjoying the ride for what it was. Meanwhile, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s reputation continues to grow within the James Bond franchise (Mankiewicz called the film his personal favorite), and it remains one of the best in the series with Lazenby giving a solid, charismatic performance.
Outclassed and outacted by the sublime Diana Rigg (as Mrs. Bond to be), Lazenby had a feral, dangerous aura about him as 007, and it’s a shame he was put out to pasture in hopes of luring back a long-in-the-tooth Mr. Connery. Still, Lazenby seems to have no regrets, and it was a pleasure to see him having so much fun interacting with the audience before the screening.
Having seen On Her Majesty’s Secret Service countless times prior to this evening, I skipped out of the final few moments to make sure I didn’t miss the midnight screening of one of my absolute favorite bad movies, Boom! Starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Noel Coward, with a screenplay by Tennessee Williams and direction by Joseph Losey, the film had all the earmarks of a prestigious international affair.
Instead … boom! … it became likely the biggest black eye in each participant’s storied career. And yet for me (and John Waters as well) it’s also one of the most absurdly entertaining, a fascinating comic car wreck eliciting laughs where none should rightly exist … truly a bad movie for the ages, ranking right up (down?) there with The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield. Props to the TCM scheduler who first thought of bringing this indescribable film to the classic film festival, particularly since it’s almost unavailable on DVD or even VHS.
Best (worst?) in show here of course is Dame Elizabeth Taylor, personifying both the good and (especially) bad aspects of her thespian talent. In a way, it’s the ultimate self-parody and Taylor gives it her all, braying out her lines through a haze of pills and alcohol (the production was lubricated with oceans of liquor apparently). What raises Boom! even more in my estimation is that playwright Williams famously stated it was the best film version of any of his plays that had ever been produced. Touché Tennessee.
In general with the annual TCM Fest, the screenings I opt for are classics I’ve already experienced and loved, known quantities which are invariably enhanced by the state-of-the-art presentation and/or special guest introducing the film. Aside from The Cincinnati Kid this year, my other virgin screening was Ernst Lubitsch’s delightful 1931 comedy-of-errors The Smiling Lieutenant.
Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in the Academy’s fifth year, this happy lark stars the ever-randy Maurice Chevalier, whose lovable single-minded lechery is a joy to behold as he juggles the amorous advances of co-stars Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins. Academy scholar (and ’30s screwball comedy devotee) Cari Beauchamp was her usual catty delight introducing the film, filling in the gossipy backstage details of this early Lubitsch, and the lurid travails of its production. According to Beauchamp, Hopkins and Colbert didn’t care at all for each other, and used their feminine wiles to jockey for Chevalier and Lubitsch’s affections throughout the filming. Hopkins appears to have won this battle of the divas, not only scoring her preferred profile angles in The Smiling Lieutenant, but future starring roles in two more films under Lubitsch as well.
Late in the film, the antagonistic actresses have a scene where they slap each other repeatedly, and their enthusiasm for this moment has little to do with their inherent acting talent. Naturally, Lubitsch filmed this particularly risible scene multiple times to great cathartic effect. On a lighter note, Colbert performs a wonderful double entendre-filled musical number entitled “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” wherein she saucily advises Hopkins on how to spice up her marriage to Chevalier. Ah, the joys of pre-Code Hollywood!
For the remainder of my long classic Hollywood weekend, I opted for screenings inside that stunning movie palace, Grauman’s Chinese theatre. Having undergone a total technological revamp the previous year, the Chinese is simply one of the best venues to experience Hollywood filmmaking at its greatest. 1971’s gritty Best Picture winner The French Connection unspooled for the rapt Saturday night crowd, with volume cranked high to enhance the film’s kinetic breakneck forward momentum. A gritty police procedural filmed (often surreptitiously) on location in New York City, William Friedkin’s white-knuckle thriller grabs hold of its audience early and never lets go.
Most noted for its tightly edited car-chase sequence (though I prefer Bullitt’s from a few years earlier), the documentary-styled film was a welcome choice for the Best Picture prize, especially after the traditional musicals that seemed to reign throughout the ’60s. Over four decades on, for me the film doesn’t add up to much, but I can see how its tight edginess and raw kinetic energy must have seemed an ideal kickoff to the brilliant decade of ’70s filmmaking to come. Director Friedkin joined Alec Baldwin immediately after the screening, striding back and forth on the vast stage (as is his style) answering questions regarding the unexpectedly successful shoestring production. Friedkin, ever the raconteur, entertained well past the cut-off hour of midnight, sharing reminiscences not only of The French Connection, but of his entire lengthy career including his most notorious hit, The Exorcist.
The festival’s final Sunday arrived with unexpected haste – just as one’s getting a handle on mastering the schedules and festivities, suddenly one is down to their final film or two. I opted for two of my favorites, screened in outstanding crisp digital presentation inside the cavernous Chinese theatre. Filmed twenty years apart, two films which couldn’t be more dissimilar (The Philadelphia Story and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho) took on new life for me under these enhanced viewing circumstances.
George Cukor’s 1940 The Philadelphia Story is an enchanted delight from Hollywood’s classic era, an unmatched star vehicle for three of Hollywood’s greatest actors in their prime. Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart were all at the top of their formidable game in this charming Broadway adaptation of a family’s pre-wedding lovelorn maneuverings. I slightly prefer Grant and Hepburn’s inspired 1938 work in Holiday and Bringing Up Baby, but their chemistry here is still perfection.
Even more sublime is Hepburn’s chemistry with Stewart, their late-night drunken canoodling under the silvery moon the very definition of cinematic magic. Once Stewart’s lovestruck reporter gets properly champagned up, the film reaches a higher plane – I doubt I’ve ever seen a more convincing, charming drunk performance – and his acting here (not just with Hepburn in the moonlight, but just previously with a comically awestruck Grant) is most likely the reason he won his only Best Actor Oscar for this performance.
Hepburn deserved to win for this career comeback role as well (it’s arguably a better performance than any of her four Best Actress wins), but the Academy in their infinite wisdom(?) chose to bestow it upon Ginger Rogers (never nominated before or since) instead. Go figure.
The films of Alfred Hitchcock have been a staple of the many TCM film festivals thus far and this year was no exception. Director Edgar Wright was tapped to introduce Hitch’s most influential film, and succinctly explained to the gathered audience why he chose the indelible 1960 classic … he simply wanted to see it on the giant screen inside Grauman’s Chinese, the “loveliest theatre in Los Angeles.” As familiar as Psycho is to most cinephiles, seeing it in such exalted surroundings truly was a unique experience. Hitchcock was such a master of mood and tension in this film, and its ultra-sharp digital presentation, with top-notch audio highlighting Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score, made even the oft-seen shower sequence freshly shocking.
To be honest, this was the first time that famous sequence truly frightened the bejesus out of me, and I finally understood just how shocking it must have seemed to unaware 1960 audiences. Wright, in his brief introduction, made it even creepier when he instructed the audience to pay close attention to the shot of ‘Mrs. Bates’ with upraised knife outside the shower.
The shadowy face under the wig (whoever it may be) is done up in full black makeup (undoubtedly to obscure identification), and this unsettling incidental makes the awful moment even odder and more mysteriously disturbing. Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh never again reached the heights of their indelible work here (nor, some would argue, would Hitchcock), so to see this tight, disturbing masterpiece as if freshly minted was again just the kind of experience the TCM Fest excels at.
The saddest, most personal experience for me at the 2015 TCM Fest was the fiftieth anniversary screening of David Lean’s 1965 epic, Doctor Zhivago, long one of the favorite films of my father. I was fortunate enough to share my excitement over its upcoming screening with my dad, who happily encouraged my enthusiasm. Had circumstances been different I would have loved to have him accompany me to the Grauman’s Chinese presentation, which I know would have been an overwhelming experience for both of us. Sadly that was not to be, as his magnificent life on this earth was near its end, but my father’s spirit was there next to me in that hallowed theatre, and I saw this beautiful film through his eyes in a way, as if anew.
Having originally intended to skip out of the 197-minute screening at intermission to lose myself in Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street, I instead was swept up (yet again) in Lean’s doomed romance of the Russian Revolution, and more specifically in the eyes of its two beautiful ill-fated lovers, Julie Christie and Omar Sharif. Despite the grandeur of its locations, its amazing sets, its historical sweep … the film excels as a thwarted love story between Zhivago and his muse Lara. The inevitability of their affair, the deep heartfelt longing that blossoms despite the impossibility of their situation, is all perfectly captured by the two leads in their most romantic roles. Aided immeasurably by Maurice Jarre’s seminal score, the film, while a classic of traditional epic filmmaking, is at heart a thwarted love story of impossibilities, perfectly captured by the longing in Christie and Sharif’s welling eyes.
In Terence Malick’s masterpiece The New World (featuring fest honoree Christopher Plummer), there is an incredible sequence midway through in which the camera rises uninterrupted from the bed where Pocahontas gives birth, up her cabin’s wooden stairs, and on up into the branches of a mammoth tree (of life), all in one continuous jaw-dropping shot. As that single sequence somehow encapsulated the film’s themes in one beautiful moment for me, so too did a montage midway through Doctor Zhivago. Finding it difficult to suppress his thoughts and longing for Lara, the long-lost love of his life, Zhivago endures a harsh winter on the Russian steppes, as his memories inevitably circle back to the woman who lives in his heart. Director Lean fills the huge screen with a close-up of ice crystals that have formed on the window of Zhivago’s frigid cabin. As the balalaikas of Jarre’s iconic Lara’s Theme swell on the soundtrack, sunlight sweeps over the ice crystals, and Lean dissolves this shot into a close-up of a bright yellow spring daffodil. That single daffodil dissolves into many, and those into fields of daffodils surrounding Zhivago’s country dacha. Without skipping a beat, the fields of daffodils then dissolve into an amazingly lit close-up of Julie Christie’s sky-blue eyes, as she sits quietly in a nearly empty library in a neighboring village.
She hears a voice, and then footsteps approaching …Fate somehow has returned her one great love to her (just as it will later wrench them apart). While some may find Lean’s overt symbolism here a bit heavy-handed, I found it (like The New World’s aforementioned sequence) thrillingly, movingly cinematic. Aided immeasurably by the deep emotion in his two lead actors’ eyes (the windows of the soul indeed), Lean has crafted one of the beautiful love stories of cinema, and to be privileged to experience it in this ideal presentation was indeed ‘a gift’. The added personal emotional angle for me, made this particular viewing a truly unforgettable experience.
The extended TCM family is a big-hearted and unique one, and makes attending the fest seem almost like a family reunion. Without Robert Osborne at its helm this year, the festival’s heart beat a little less brightly, but still it was a rousing success for all who attended. Before each screening, a festival promo unspooled featuring (along with Buster Keaton, Zhivago and Lara, etc.) the great screen legend Doris Day in full Calamity Jane garb.
Forever beloved by the TCM family, Miss Day is long overdue a proper Hollywood tribute (take note, Academy). Though she professes no interest in such plaudits, one can only imagine how special a moment it would be should Day acquiesce and join a newly healthy Robert Osborne next year in a triumphant return to Hollywood for both. Until that glorious Doris day arrives (punster apologies), we make do with the extraordinary films themselves, and the shared joy of experiencing them with like-minded cinephiles in such magical, historical surroundings.
All festival photos by Steve Striegel, exclusively for ICS