Peter O’Toole Leaves Lasting Impression on 2011 TCM Classic Film Festival

  

You know you’re at a truly special film festival when you end up choosing not to see some of your all-time favorite films up on the big screen (three-story Grauman’s Chinese big) … films such as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (with live orchestral accompaniment), The Godfather, Citizen Kane, All About Eve, or even Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933 with Ginger Rogers singing her Pig Latin “We’re in the Money.” But when the alternative is actual quality in-person time, listening to stories from some of cinema’s great film artists, it seems a small price to pay. The second annual TCM Classic Film Festival wrapped up earlier this month in the heart of old Hollywood, and by all accounts it was an even greater success than last year’s premiere effort. So much so, that on the festival’s last day it was announced that the fest will be returning yet again for a third charmed installment next year.

At this year’s festival, more than seventy rare films and world premiere restorations were screened, quite often introduced by the talent that helped create them decades earlier. Ubiquitous TCM master-of-ceremonies Robert Osborne, with his smooth wit and voluminous knowledge of Hollywood history, was again the perfect intermediary between crowds of appreciative film fans who had traveled from across the world to attend this one-of-a-kind cinematic love fest, and the justifiably proud talent responsible for some of Hollywood’s best films.

The compact four-day festival kicked off in grand Hollywood tradition on a warm, sunny Southern California evening with bleachers of fans and press crowding the red carpet outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where the 60th anniversary world premiere restoration of Vincent Minnelli’s An American in Paris was soon to unreel. One of the few remaining cast members of 1939’s Gone with the Wind, Ann Rutherford began the procession holding tight to companion Anne Jeffrey’s arm, both decked out as brightly red as the carpet itself. Who knows, this year Rutherford … next year perhaps the film’s Melanie, Olivia de Havilland?

  

   

Juvenile Oscar winners Margaret O’Brien and Hayley Mills (subject of a festival tribute, and accompanied by sister Juliet) traipsed the carpet along with two more indefatigable child stars of the 1930s: feisty nonagenarian Mickey Rooney, as well as a returnee from last year’s fest, always bubbly “Baby” Jane Withers. West Side Story’s George Chakiris and fellow Supporting Oscar winner Eva Marie Saint (fresh from her North by Northwest TCM Road Show appearance) both looked fantastic, especially considering it’s now a full half century on since their biggest films hit Hollywood. Particularly stylish (in a short black leather skirt and leopard print pumps) was yet another one of Alfred Hitchcock’s ageless blonde muses, Tippi Hedren.

  

    

And it wasn’t only Hollywood’s glamorous past that was well represented … Jennifer Love Hewitt, Rose McGowan, and even Hugh Hefner’s blonde entourage all worked the red carpet to the delight of the photographers. The Elvis contingent was on hand as well, led by ultra chic Priscilla Presley, Chris Isaac, and co-star Mary Ann Mobley, who appeared later that evening at the Roosevelt Hotel’s poolside (site of last year’s Esther Williams tribute), for a fun beachballed showing of Elvis’ Girl Happy. No highbrow cinematic giant that, but still a rockin’ good way to kick off the first night of the festival, especially in that most magical of historic settings.

  

Out on the red carpet, the largest ovations were heard for a pair of stars who’d jetted in from Europe just to attend the fest. The first was for the star at the center of that Opening Night’s film selection, a dancer and actress of singular continental charm. Confounding the fact that she had filmed An American in Paris over sixty years ago, Leslie Caron remains as beautiful and elegant as ever.

   

Even Illeana Douglas seemed wowed, shyly asking Miss Caron if she could snap a quick photo. Caron graciously consented, in contrast to her humorously concise “No” when a demanding press photographer asked her to recreate her dance pose from the large An American in Paris poster just over her shoulder. The ever-stylish Miss Caron will not be dictated to, and will dance on her own terms, merci beaucoup. Also there to lend support to one of her late husband’s greatest cinematic works was the charming and striking Patricia Ward Kelly.

  

Yet another ovation broke out for one of cinema’s true giants … the great Peter O’Toole. A relative stranger to these type of affairs, O‘Toole would make up for lost time by attending four different events at this year’s festival. Entering the red carpet with daughter Kate on his arm, Mr. O’Toole looked as debonair as one would expect, if a bit overwhelmed by the noise and flashbulbs exploding all around him. Still, he handled the affair’s raucous atmosphere with dashing aplomb, and would return a mere forty hours hence to the same Grauman’s courtyard to be feted in an even more singular ceremony, that one accompanied by the majestic Lawrence of Arabia score.

  

After the select attendees, in all their finery, settled into the plush Chinese Theatre seats, lady of the hour Leslie Caron bounded energetically to the stage when introduced by host Robert Osborne. Destined to be one of MGM’s last contract players, Caron charmed the gala crowd with her tale of being plucked from relative obscurity as a Parisian ballet dancer to star in 1951’s eventual Best Picture Oscar winner, An American in Paris.

“I was a very reluctant star. I did it to be polite!” laughed Miss Caron. “Gene Kelly came to Paris and tested me, and I promptly forgot about the test and was doing something else, when suddenly there was a phone call saying you’ve been chosen and you’re going to Hollywood in three days! And my God, I was so shocked! I didn’t try, I didn’t even hope I would get the part. I did it to be polite to Gene Kelly! He insisted on doing this test, and to be polite I said yes, okay. He said I know you can dance, but let’s see if you can act, and if you can photograph, and if you can speak some English. Thank God, I had very few lines in that film, because my English was very poor, schoolgirl English.”

The lovely Miss Caron charmed the opening night crowd, and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying this nostalgic gala with all the trappings of an old Hollywood premiere. When Robert Osborne asked her what she was feeling at the moment, she replied, “It’s awesome! That’s a modern word and it describes exactly how I feel … awesome. And I feel like the real opening night – sixty years ago was it? – was just a dress rehearsal, and tonight is the night. I feel like all of you, absolutely amazed about this, Hollywood Blvd. and all the memorabilia, and the pictures of all those great stars that have come before us. I’m a fan! I would say I see about two films a day. I absolutely adore films, I love films. I think it’s the greatest invention!” To which Robert Osborne gleefully replied, “You’re one of us!”

One of us … one of us, indeed. The appreciation, the fandom, was evident throughout this long weekend, not only from movie lovers who had traveled so far to attend the sold-out festival, but from much of the talent who themselves could be seen projected up on the giant theatre screens. This shared love of the movies, and of the TCM Channel in particular, created a feeling of cinematic solidarity with the multitude of hardcore film fans in attendance. From Drew Barrymore to Mickey Rooney, Juliet Mills to Eva Marie Saint, I lost track of the times an actor being interviewed would tell Mr. Osborne how grateful they were to have TCM available to watch in their homes. How it was quite often the only channel they would regularly watch. I suppose in a way it is a modern-day equivalent of Norma Desmond screening her old films in her Sunset Blvd. mansion, just without the hassle, the impossibility, of having Erich von Stroheim man the projector. The more things change …

Speaking of von Stroheim, his biggest hit, 1925’s The Merry Widow, was screened on the first full day of the festival at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Accompanied by a new musical score (conducted in person by Dutch composer Maud Nelissen), the film was introduced by 2010 honorary Oscar winner and silent film champion Kevin Brownlow. Some of the greatest moments of the TCM Film Fest (and the primary reason for missing so many screenings of my favorite films) are the intimate conversations with filmmakers and film scholars held throughout the long weekend. Many of these talks take place in the Roosevelt Hotel’s Blossom Room – site of the first Academy Awards ceremony over eighty years ago – which is beautifully transformed into Club TCM for the duration of the fest. This year it appropriately housed Frank Borzage’s well-deserved Seventh Heaven directing Oscar, awarded to him in this very room back in 1929.

   

Kevin Brownlow, who has likely done more than any other person in the resurrection and scholarly appreciation of the art of silent film, sat down before an SRO crowd of silent film aficionados at Club TCM for an enlightening hour-long conversation. He spoke of coming to Hollywood from England in the sixties, ostensibly to research a book on silent films, and how this opened many doors to meet some of the giants of that era. He recalled fondly his meeting with Buster Keaton at his home in the Valley, and when asked what exactly Keaton was like he answered, “Everything you’d hope for him to be. So enthusiastic about filmmaking. Simply wonderful.” Particularly memorable for him was Buster’s humorous imitation of one of his chickens waiting to be fed, which Brownlow summed up with one word, simply… “Magic!”

Mr. Brownlow continued with a delightful story concerning Louise “Lulu” Brooks, whom he playfully described as, “Very funny, very naughty, very disrespectful.” Illustrating the point, he reminisced about the time he happened to spend the night on Brooks’ sofa. The following morning, to his shock and delight, she woke him up with a demand that he, “Get in my bed!” Although it turned out she only wanted him out of the way so she could fix breakfast, at the time, he said, “I felt like William Holden!”

Brownlow’s passion for the Silents is infectious and inspiring, and he marvels that his honorary Academy Award is the only Oscar ever given for watching films. When asked which silent films he’d recommend to inspire budding cinephiles, off the top of his head he suggested Murnau’s Sunrise (also awarded multiple Oscars in that very room 82 years earlier), or perhaps Harold Lloyd’s For Heaven’s Sake. After the festival, I followed Brownlow’s advice and watched this utterly captivating Lloyd film. While Keaton remains my personal Silent touchstone, For Heaven’s Sake was a delight, and would be a particularly apt film to view before the upcoming release of the popular Cannes award-winning The Artist (see my colleague Marc van de Klashorst’s review here).

Brownlow went on to say that the underrated Clarence Brown (Garbo’s favorite director) is in need of a critical re-evaluation, especially for his silent films. Of these he found The Goose Woman particularly noteworthy, and also would hope to see UCLA restore his Smoldering Fires. Brown’s 1933 Night Flight had a rare screening at the festival, introduced to the sold-out crowd by star John Barrymore’s granddaughter Drew. Brownlow added that he would love to create a documentary on Clarence Brown, but has an even greater desire to make one on Douglas Fairbanks, a family favorite from back when he was just a young boy. “I came in on Fairbanks, and want to go out on Fairbanks,” he concluded wistfully.

Brownlow spoke at length on the subject of film preservation and the staggering number of lost films from Hollywood’s early days. When asked if there was a particular lost silent film that he wishes would be discovered, Brownlow cited James Cruze’s 1923 Hollywood. He feels that rather than spending time writing papers on film theory, cinema students could be much better utilized by searching world databases for these lost silents, many of which may not actually be lost at all but simply renamed with different obscure titles in other languages worldwide.

Sitting there in the room where the first Academy Awards banquet was held, it seemed appropriate that the subject of Kevin Brownlow’s own recent award was brought up. When asked if he was disappointed that his honorary Academy Award presentation was not televised on the big Oscar show, the unprepossessing Brownlow feigned horror … “Oh God, no!!” A modest and shy cinema historian, tirelessly working to keep the art of the silent film alive … what an honor to share time with him listening to his indelible stories, particularly in this special setting.

The second day of the festival featured two actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age (neither of whom, ironically, has won a competitive Oscar), two of the most iconic stars of their time … Kirk Douglas and Peter O’Toole. Mr. O’Toole was given the singular honor of an intimate hours-long interview with Robert Osborne (similar to last year’s Luise Rainer affair), which was filmed for a future TCM broadcast at the jewel-like Music Box Theatre. O’Toole is a storyteller for the ages, whose wit and mastery of the English language have not been dulled by the many years of living a grand life to the fullest. He waxed eloquent on palling around (usually accompanied by a bottle or three) with chums Richard Burton, Omar Sharif, and Richard Harris during the swinging sixties – a decade in which it was no doubt supremely grand to be Peter O’Toole. He spoke at length on his career-defining role as Lawrence of Arabia, of being told by the “inspirational” David Lean at the beginning of filming that indeed, “This is the start of a wonderful adventure.” So very true, not just in reference to Lean’s magnificent film, but also to O’Toole’s charmed career and fully lived life, as well.

   

What a splendiferous raconteur Peter O’Toole is, and what a privilege to hear him turn a tale. He spoke nostalgically of going with his ‘Daddy’  for an ice cream and then on to the picture show, where his first great movie memory was seeing the Marx brothers’ A Day at the Races, surrounded by his father’s fellow bookies. He had nothing but praise (and spot-on imitations) for Noel Coward (“Our master … greatest of the century”), as well as his early champion Katharine Hepburn (“The best of America”). Having recently watched one of O’Toole’s Charlie Rose interviews where he reluctantly related his first backstage meeting with Hepburn, I had to chuckle at the less explicit version he told here to Osborne. Oh, the wonderful, bawdy stories I’m sure O’Toole could tell, given just a bit of encouragement (or a wee tipple). Here’s hoping he soon fulfills the promise to complete the third volume of his poetic autobiography, Loitering with Intent.

It boggles the mind that this greatest of actors has never won the Oscar (perhaps the Academy’s greatest shame), when in a just universe he should own a handful. Not just for his brilliant Lawrence, but also for The Lion in Winter, The Ruling Class, or most recently his poignant, career-capping performance in Venus. “The biggest loser of all time!” joked O’Toole on his eight Best Actor nominations. Additionally, he believes that his performance in Goodbye, Mr. Chips was one of the best pieces of work he has committed to film. Ever the tireless trouper, O’Toole earlier that morning had appeared at a screening of yet another of his classics, Becket, and he admitted to thrilling once again at hearing Richard Burton’s and John Gielgud’s voices.

Robert Osborne brought up the subject of Fate in regard to his career, and O’Toole offered that in general, he felt his great parts actually chose him. He did, however, absolutely love the script for The Stunt Man, and actively pursued the role, going so far as to tell director Richard Rush that if anyone else ended up playing that part, he would, in fact, kill him. Again passed over by the Academy for yet another thrilling performance. Osborne asked if this particularly bothered him and whether he’d like to win the Oscar. Peter (to thunderous applause) optimistically replied, “Indeed, I would … and I ain’t dead yet!” Unlike fellow honorary winner Kevin Brownlow, O’Toole felt outraged that these honorary Academy Awards are now presented at a banquet, and are no longer part of the main Oscar telecast. His honorary award, movingly presented to him by Meryl Streep, was one of the last to be included on an Oscar show, and the recent exclusion of such presentations further sullies the Academy’s reputation, at least in the eyes of many a classic movie fan. It especially riled O’Toole that his friend Eli Wallach (an honorary recipient last year) was not given the same on-stage presentation that he received just a few years prior.

What really shone through in this conversation with O’Toole, was his deep love for his chosen profession. He expressed his joy at being a good ‘jobbing’ actor, and that the best aspect of being Peter O’Toole, was in fact being given this special gift of acting. “I’m the luckiest man on Earth,” he rhapsodized. In conclusion, Osborne asked O’Toole if a magic wand could be waved to grant him just one wish, what it might be, and without hesitation he answered, “A good part.” Cinephiles the world over would wholeheartedly agree.

A few hours later, back west down Hollywood Blvd., another great Oscarless screen legend (save his honorary consolation Academy Award) held court at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Kirk Douglas, 94 years young and full of vitality, bounded to the stage to chat about his career with (who else but) … Robert Osborne, yet again. Douglas, never one to be typecast, starred in films as varied as the noir classic Out of the Past, Vincent Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life, Champion, Lonely are the Brave (his personal favorite), Ace in the Hole, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Vikings, as well as two of Stanley Kubrick’s early greats, Paths of Glory and the film he was about to introduce, Spartacus.

Thanks largely to the early support of Lauren Bacall, Douglas began his film career at the top (playing Barbara Stanwyck’s husband in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers), and has not looked back in the over ninety films he’s made since. After seeing a little picture called The Killing in the late fifties, he thought, “What an interesting director,” and gave the young Kubrick a call to see if he had any other properties. Upon reading the script he was sent, Douglas immediately called Kubrick back and said, “Stanley, this picture won’t make a nickel, but we have to do it.” Douglas then helped secure financing, and Paths of Glory, one of the most brilliant anti-war films of all time, was created.

When it became obvious that Spartacus’ original director Anthony Mann was not going to work out, Douglas helped arrange for Kubrick to take over the reins of the mammoth, all-star production. Douglas stated that he considers Spartacus to be his most important film, and no doubt this is due primarily to its crucial role in bringing the Hollywood blacklist to a long-overdue end.

“It almost makes me want to cry when I think of what Dalton Trumbo, the writer, went through,” Douglas movingly related. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s HUAC hearings had wreaked havoc on the Hollywood community, in particular screenwriters suspected of being Communist sympathizers. “Dalton Trumbo spent a year in jail,” continued Douglas. “And then the studios went along with McCarthy and didn’t allow any blacklisted writer to set foot in the studio, and I got Dalton Trumbo to write the [Spartacus] script under the name of ‘Sam Jackson.’ Well … when we were shooting I began to think, I feel funny to have on the screen ‘Sam Jackson,’ and I thought about it. And I think that I was young enough (because if I were older I might have been too conservative), because the next morning I came to the studio and I said, ‘Dalton Trumbo will have his name on the script, I’m leaving his name as this, and with permission to come to the studio.’ And [although they said] ‘You will never work in this town again’ … the sky didn’t fall in, and the blacklist was broken.”

At this point the packed Grauman’s Chinese audience spontaneously rose to their feet for a prolonged standing ovation with shouts of ‘Bravo’ to honor a man’s seemingly simple act, a half century past, that resulted in such important consequences for those unjustly maligned. A decision modestly recalled by Douglas, yet one that helped change the course of Hollywood history. As a member of the audience, it felt good to give back even just a little to this principled man, to acknowledge as a group of film lovers our appreciation for his courage and integrity. While it wasn’t exactly an ‘I am Spartacus’  moment such as the one that would occur up on the screen a few hours later, it indeed was satisfying to stand and honor the actor who so brilliantly portrayed the Roman slave, to applaud this man’s simple act of doing the right thing at a time when many around him did not. Another indelible moment inside the cinematic church that Sid Grauman built, followed by a showing of one of the silver screen’s great epics.

One might think that after seeing both filmdom’s Lawrence and Spartacus in the flesh on the same day, the remaining half of the festival would feel somewhat anticlimactic. Au contraire. Returning the next morning to the courtyard outside of Grauman’s Chinese, the assembled crowd was greeted by Maurice Jarre’s iconic Lawrence of Arabia theme music. An over-caffeinated entertainment show producer even had the bleachers full of expectant fans singing the memorable theme aloud for the cameras. Soon the man of the hour, Peter O’Toole, emerged from Grauman’s with dashing son Lorcan and lovely daughter Kate at his side. Robert Osborne (does this man ever sleep?!) joined O’Toole and family on the podium to commence this inimitable Hollywood ceremony, the setting of hand and footprints in a fresh slab of cement in the Chinese Theatre courtyard.

  

“This is really kind of the ultimate Hollywood award that you can get,” explained Osborne. “The Academy Awards started in the late ’20s, about the same time the first footprints at Grauman’s Chinese were put in. There were thousands of Academy Awards given away, but this is only the 232nd time that somebody has put their footprints in.” He went on to note that this was also the first time that the concrete had been made to mimic the desert sands of Arabia, including being flecked with gold dust. Osborne continued, “Indeed we are very proud to honor certainly a golden man in all of our lives … Peter the Great. Here’s Peter O’Toole!”

   

To the applause of fans, friends, and past co-workers (including What’s New Pussycat’s Paula Prentiss with My Favorite Year director Richard Benjamin, The Stunt Man co-star Barbara Hershey, sisters Allegra and Anjelica Huston, Rose McGowan, and Illeana Douglas), O’Toole stepped to the mike to say, “It’s been many years since I’ve had an intimate relationship with cement. And that relationship turned out to be an unhappy one.” Explaining that as a poor student, one of his first jobs was as a shop assistant hauling 112-lb. bags of cement for hours on end, he continued, “I hope today the outcome will be a little more cheerful.”

  

   

  

And indeed it was, as O’Toole, dapper in panama hat and colorful scarves, added his lasting imprints to the historical courtyard. A shout of “We love the Irish!” was heard as the Huston sisters and a saucy Rose McGowan joined the O’Toole clan for a beaming group photo. A moving and fitting tribute to one of filmdom’s truly great stars, who, basking in the love of his fans, friends, and family, ambled off into the warm Hollywood sunshine, hopefully to find that most-wished-for, elusive next great part.

  

Warren Beatty (who along with Peter O’Toole was perhaps the most strikingly handsome of sixties cinematic heartthrobs), made an extremely rare film festival appearance hours later after a screening of his Oscar-winning masterpiece, Reds. Beatty’s reputation as a ladies’ man nonpareil often obscures his status as one of the foremost political/romantic filmmakers of our time. His Bonnie and Clyde, Shampoo, and the aforementioned Reds are, in my opinion, not only the best films of their respective years, but also rank with the greatest of their decades – three different decades at that.

After a screening of his rarely seen 194-minute epic on Love and the Russian Revolution, Beatty sat down with chum Alec Baldwin to talk about the film process, politics, and Reds in particular. As writer John Reed (Ten Days That Shook the World), Beatty gave one of his finest performances, opposite then love Diane Keaton, in one of her finest roles. When Baldwin asked about the difficulties in working opposite his significant others, Beatty slyly replied, “I will forgive you your pluralizing.” Ever the gentleman, Beatty went on to say that while watching the film again just then, how moved he was by the generosity of his fellow castmates, showering special praise on Miss Keaton. Beatty felt she brought so much to her role as Reed’s wife, Louise Bryant, that without her participation Reds would have ended up a completely different film. As his epic dealt with the history-changing Bolshevik Revolution, it came as a surprise when Beatty said, “The most important revolution that has happened in our lifetime is the liberation of the female.” He felt that the anger that Diane Keaton was able to bring to the role, her character’s frustration at not being taken seriously and the struggle to overcome such ingrained societal impediments, resonate still to this day.

As the post-screening conversation progressed, Beatty loosened up considerably, delving into Baldwin’s questions in depth with intelligence and frank humor. For a celebrity known for his intense privacy, it was refreshing when he even agreed to take questions from the audience, something not done at most of the festival’s other screenings. When asked why he rarely makes pictures anymore, he laughingly referred to “This little thing called life.” Specifically, his four children with longtime love Annette Bening, whom he jokingly compared to four small Middle Eastern countries with which he had to negotiate. “Each one of them is more interesting than five movies.” He continued by comparing the process of moviemaking to vomiting. “You don’t like to vomit,” Beatty joked, “but you know you may feel better if you do.” So whether it’s to purge some long-held cinematic passion project, or simply to get out from underfoot around the house, the prospect of another daring, politically astute film by Mr. Beatty would be a cinephile’s dream indeed. Here’s to his closing words for the admiring group of film lovers in attendance. “I am going to make another movie. In fact,” Beatty vowed, “I’ll make several.”

  

A bit later that evening, Robert Osborne walked to the Grauman’s Chinese stage as the gathered TCM’ers sang him a rousing version of “Happy Birthday.” After thanking the large crowd for his birthday serenade, he went on to announce that this screening was the one he most looked forward to at the festival … George Cukor’s 1944 Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and the screen debut of the guest of the hour, the wonderful Angela Lansbury. Her varied and lengthy career all began “like a fairy tale” almost seventy years ago when she went from being a shop girl selling cosmetics for $28 a week, to being signed to a $500 a week contract by Louis B. Mayer and cast as the saucy trollop Nancy in Gaslight. Asked by Osborne if there was certain family feeling amongst the MGM contract players, Lansbury replied, “Not particularly.” She offered that it was in fact, “rather a cruel, cold place,” unlike the feeling she had at Paramount, where drinks in the dressing rooms after shooting were a happy and regular occurrence. And while The Manchurian Candidate may be her finest screen performance to date (and a film she introduced earlier this year on TCM’s Road to Hollywood national tour), Lansbury nabbed two Supporting Actress Oscar nominations with just her first three MGM films, for Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Her film released between these two did win the Supporting Actress Oscar, alas not for Lanbsury, but for the actress who played her mother, Anne Revere.

That film, National Velvet, is the perfect one to segue into the final day of the festival, the Elizabeth Taylor day, if you will. As the film was directed by Kevin Brownlow favorite Clarence Brown, and with two of the film’s co-stars (Lansbury and Mickey Rooney) in attendance at the 2011 TCM Fest, one can only imagine how fantastic it would’ve been had Miss Taylor lived long enough to attend this celebration as well. Sadly, she passed on just five weeks before the festival began.

Fortunately, those with connections to Elizabeth Taylor seemed to be everywhere throughout the fest, not just her National Velvet co-stars Lansbury and Rooney, but also eternal sister-in-scandal Debbie Reynolds, fellow bridesmaid Jane Powell, as well as former co-stars Warren Beatty, Peter O’Toole, and Eva Marie Saint. Miss Saint, who had co-starred twice with Taylor, joined Robert Osborne beneath the large Grauman’s Egyptian screen (apt site of last year’s Cleopatra screening) to reminisce and pay tribute to Elizabeth. A pristine 35mm print of George Stevens’ classic A Place in the Sun (which Osborne admitted was his all-time favorite film) had just screened. Saint joined Osborne up front, somewhat shaky because her stomach was in aching knots after just watching Elizabeth’s wrenching good-bye scene with Montgomery Clift at film’s end. “I mean, that scene, I mean …” struggled Saint, choking up. “You know, she has to say good-bye to him, that’s a very difficult scene. And I thought she did it so beautifully.”

Indeed she did. Elizabeth Taylor truly came into her own in this film, a graduation of sorts after starring opposite dogs and horses earlier in her career. Eva Marie Saint said she believed that this was due in large part to working with the brilliant Montgomery Clift, a milestone in Taylor’s career and in her life. “She said that when he cried, he really cried. He gave it all. And when he held her and trembled, she felt that,” confided Miss Saint. “And it was an awakening, almost a catharsis, an epiphany … that this is what acting is. To give of yourself. You could see it up on the screen.”

Osborne and Saint, so comfortable in each other’s presence, shared many affectionate and humorous Elizabeth Taylor stories between them, including one where Osborne, in one of his very first Hollywood gigs as a seat warmer at the 1970 Oscar telecast, had the rare good fortune to fill Richard Burton’s seat next to Miss Taylor. As Elizabeth suspected he might, after excusing himself Burton never returned, and ended up staying backstage “celebrating” throughout the majority of the show (for which Osborne is eternally grateful). Saint remembered with fondness her time working with Miss Taylor on Raintree County and The Sandpiper, recalling how Elizabeth loved to laugh, and play little tricks. She marveled at how very generous an actress and person she was, and despite the many ups and downs, what a good life Taylor had led, always without complaint.

Midway through A Place in the Sun is a ravishing close-up of Taylor cradling Clift’s head at the dance, whispering the words, “Tell mama … tell mama all.” The image is an indelible part of cinema history, and to see it projected in such a venue, surrounded by a large appreciative audience, crystallizes what the movies are all about, Saint reminded us. In this case the experience was especially poignant, coming so soon after Elizabeth’s death. And yet the immortality of her timeless beauty, of the “soul” Saint had spoken of, evident up on that giant silver screen, left one immeasurably sad at Taylor’s passing, but also grateful that her essence will remain, to be shared wherever her films are screened.

And the cinematic gods were smiling down that day, as a last-minute inclusion of Elizabeth Taylor’s greatest role had been scheduled in one of the festival’s remaining empty time slots. Not only would a crisp 35mm print of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? be shown, but the film would be introduced by its cinematographer, Haskell Wexler (judged one of the ten most influential cinematographers in movie history by his peers), who along with Taylor won an Oscar for his seminal work on the film. It was a (delightful) shock, so soon after experiencing Elizabeth Taylor’s stunning radiance in A Place in the Sun, to see her transformed into Martha, drunkenly braying “What a dump!” at Richard Burton’s henpecked George. A better, more immediate example of acting range could not be hoped for.

Wexler had nothing but high praise for Taylor, both as an actress and a person. It was at the height of the Vietnam War when he accepted his Oscar, and he used the opportunity of his televised speech to make what was, at the time, a loaded political statement. “I said something, sounds banal, but was very dangerous, and I said, ‘I hope we can use our art for peace and love,’ ” explained Wexler. “At the time those were fighting words in this country. And I got a lot of letters … also a lot of unpatriotic things, which hurt me. But the good thing about it is, Elizabeth told me a little while afterwards that she was very happy that I said what I said.”

When interviewer Leonard Maltin, apropos of nothing, asked Wexler if he’d witnessed any on-set bawdy, raucous behavior from Taylor, Haskell emphatically answered, “No.” He continued, “I did see a really dedicated, serious actress, and a movie actress … as far as hitting marks, turning her face just the right way to get the good light, working with the other actors. Incredible woman … she’s really a very independent thinking, good woman.” The feisty 86-year-old Wexler’s Virginia Woolf stories were a delight … from lighting men fighting boredom by getting drunk up on the scaffolding above the set, to Richard Burton’s concern that Wexler’s documentary style camerawork might highlight his pockmarks, to Elizabeth’s daily morning hug with Wexler, with the playful intent that his lighting of her wouldn’t make her out to be too excessively hideous. Wexler seems rightfully proud of the film, which holds up so well forty-five years later. It was especially moving to see it on this last day of the festival, a final fitting tribute to one of Hollywood’s last great movie stars.

Well, almost a final tribute. Later that evening, after briefly chatting with the ever-gracious Robert Osborne who mingled with festgoers at the TCM Club’s closing night party, I ducked out and headed over to Elizabeth Taylor’s favorite pub, West Hollywood’s The Abbey. If Leonard Maltin wanted bawdy and raucous, this was definitely the place to be. A catfight of epic proportions greeted me on the sidewalk out front as two young Marthas-in-training threw shoes, pulled hair, clawed and fought. Inside the packed establishment the music throbbed as black-leathered dancers gyrated on the tabletops. A tequila-sipping regular there right up until the end, Elizabeth loved The Abbey, and even donated an oversized, somewhat gaudy portrait of herself which hangs in a (relatively) quiet corner of the pulsating club. Colorful in her Cleopatra finery, a beneficent smile beaming and welcoming arms outstretched, one could almost hear her beckoning “Tell mama” one more time, above the pounding dance beat. It was a far cry from Virginia Woolf’s near empty roadhouse, yet the Abbey’s all-encompassing party atmosphere, lorded over by the life-embracing spirit of Elizabeth herself, seemed the fitting capper to a wonderful day of Taylor tributes.

While my focus throughout the overflowing four-day TCM Classic Film Festival was to hear the assembled talent speak, I did find time to squeeze in a few solo screenings of films I’d likely never get to see on the big screen again. Perhaps the most delightful of these rarities for me was a new restoration of 1932’s risqué comedy This is the Night. Known primarily (if at all) these days as Cary Grant’s feature film debut, the film was introduced by his daughter Jennifer, and in it one could already see the nascent stirrings of Grant’s debonair screen persona. That being said, I felt the film was stolen by Charlie Ruggles, whose hilarious drunken interplay with leads Roland Young and Lili Damita was a joy to behold.

Joan Fontaine’s 1943 The Constant Nymph, held up in litigation for over sixty years, was another cinematic rarity worth seeking out. The film contains one of Fontaine’s freshest, least mannered portrayals (for which she earned her third Best Actress Oscar nomination in four years), as well as a rousingly romantic score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, which comes to a head in the film’s heartbreaking conclusion. Robert Osborne was on hand to introduce the early 10 a.m. screening, stating that of the many films scheduled for the festival, “This is the great one to look forward to.” He mentioned that they had invited Joan Fontaine to attend, but as a rule she does not participate in film festivals such as this, and she regretfully declined. But who knows, perhaps this is just the extra nudge that will inspire sister Olivia to attend next year as the festival’s supreme guest of honor. And what a coup it would be if they agreed to appear together! If anyone could pull this off, it would be Robert Osborne, en route to his Nobel Peace Prize. Meanwhile, for Fontaine admirers (back in the real world), now that The Constant Nymph’s labyrinthine legal matters have been sorted out, this rarely seen romance should be appearing on TCM sometime in the near future.

The last screening I attended was Josef von Sternberg’s seventh and final collaboration with Marlene Dietrich, 1935’s The Devil is a Woman, which Dietrich claimed was her favorite performance. The world premiere of this beautiful MOMA restoration originated from Dietrich’s own private print, which she’d held in a bank vault after Paramount pulled all prints from circulation and destroyed the master. This ravishingly perverse film intrigues on so many levels, not least its condemnation by the Spanish government at the time, or that it shares its source with Luis Buñuel’s final film, That Obscure Object of Desire. (Dietrich must have found it satisfying that the masterful Don Luis felt he needed two actresses to portray a role she pulled off alone, with such star-powered singularity, over four decades earlier.) Throughout the film, Von Sternberg’s camera makes passionate love to Dietrich’s otherworldly face in sensual close-up, his feverish mise-en-scène perfectly mirroring the lead character’s doomed infatuation, like a moth to Dietrich’s flame. The film’s indelible imagery, filmed three-quarters of a century earlier, yet still shining brightly silver on this giant screen, was the perfect culmination to a long weekend of cinematic magic. Such ageless cinematic artistry, appreciated mutually by the film artists and film fans in attendance, and presented in the TCM Festival’s ideal circumstances, left a lingering and loving appreciation of the very best that cinema has to offer. Bravo yet again, TCM!

all photos – Steve Striegel