TCM Host Ben Mankiewicz Reveals Why We Love Classic Movies
It's been over 40 years since summer and the movies became synonymous for big, splashy entertainment at the multiplex. Turner Classic Movies is celebrating that long interconnection with its "Summer Under the Stars," the film channel's ultimate showcase for Hollywood's most treasured stars and filmmakers.
TCM's primetime host Ben Mankiewicz joined Moviefone to offer a taste of the splendors that will be offered over the summer months, including the ongoing June tribute to its Star of the Month Audrey Hepburn; a July deep-dive, 40-film retrospective of the career of the Master of Suspense with "TCM Spotlight: Alfred Hitchcock," which dovetails with a free online academic course; the "Summer Under the Stars" series, paying tribute to 31 different performers over 31 days, including celebrating Robert Mitchum's centennial and marking the 40th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley; and the limited series "TCM Spotlight: Gay Hollwood," focusing on the impact of the LGBT community on cinema.
Moviefone: From your perspective, what is that special relationship between summer and movies and the audience?
Ben Mankiewicz: First of all, we owe it all to "Jaws." Still one of my favorite things: our presumption of the genius of Hollywood executives, that it took them until 1975 to figure out, "Maybe people might like to go to the theater in the summer and see a big movie." The summer movie is such a part of our life now, but it really did not exist until "Jaws."
Now, that does not necessarily relate to the particular connection that Turner Classic Movies has to its fans. But nonetheless, the idea of summer and the movies is, I think it's fair to say, really began with "Jaws" becoming such a blockbuster hit in 1975.
What do you love about bringing this special slate of summer programming to the Turner Classic Movies audience?
I love that we're trying new things, and the things that we're trying are working. We had such great success with both of our other MOOC [massive open online course] –- and believe me, our PR department will be thrilled that I used the word MOOC in an interview; I don't usually use it in conversation. Our first one was on noir, and our second one was on slapstick. They've worked. They've been really popular because they're really good, and this is a whole new way of interacting with the audience.
I feel like, and I believe it in my soul, that there is no channel on television that has this intimate a relationship with its viewers as TCM does. Off the top of my head, I don't think any other television channel sponsors a college level course that we're teaching our fans, and teaching ourselves. There are a number of TCM staffers involved that take this course. I will certainly take the Hitchcock course. Again, it is a way to interact, and more than interact, but connect on a really emotional level with people who love movies.
We keep finding interesting ways to do it because it's so valuable to us to form some sort of meaningful bond with these people who love the movies that we show. That's just the course -- to say nothing of the extensive 44-film Hitchcock programming that we're going to have in July.
Jumping in at any point in Hitchcock's career, there are always new things to see, new insights to be gleaned, new discoveries to be made.
As somebody who loves cinema as much as you do, tell me what you love about re-examining Hitchcock in his different eras, because we're going to see all of them on the channel this summer.
I think one of the great values of Hitchcock is that loving Hitchcock can run from casual movie viewer, who can't name more than one Hitchcock leading lady, maybe not even any, but just knows that, "I love that he scares me," right? All the way to the most intense film scholars in the world who study Hitchcock, not just as part of a broad-based knowledge of film, but study solely Hitchcock.
And there's a wide recognition that you can certainly make an argument that he's the most important film director to ever live, right? Some people might disagree and that argument might be valid, but that argument can be made by serious people. These movies will work, and this course will work, and our programming with Alexandre Philippe will work for anyone anywhere on that spectrum. You can jump in.
You don't have to have gone to NYU film school, you don't have to be a budding director, you don't have to be Alexandre Philippe or Martin Scorsese to see the enormous creativity that went into making a movie like "Rope," right? You can watch "Rope" and think, "Okay, that was pretty cool." That, to me, is the ultimate value of Hitchcock.
Are there a handful of his films that you especially got something out of while you were revisiting them?
"Rope" in particular, and that's why I bring it up. But I also had a fun experience with "Rear Window." "Rope" I hadn't seen in some time, and didn't remember the value of "Rope," right? To me, we talked about it so much, and the conversations with "Rope" were about the gimmicky part of "Rope," which Hitchcock talked about: paraphrasing him, but he called it a movie that was basically one long visual trick, making it seem like one shot. I think it's actually eight reels that he used, right?
When I watched it again, in preparation for the conversation with Alexandre, I didn't even notice, I didn't care. I was just into it. I thought John Dall, like Robert Walker, is one of these great, unsung Hitchcock villains. He's fantastic! I loved "Rope." If you'd asked me before I'd started this programming with Alexandre to name my five favorite Hitchcock movies, "Rope" wouldn't have been there. You ask me now, I can't make a list of five without putting "Rope" in.
There were a lot of movies that I completely thought differently about, the first "The Man Who Knew Too Much" among them. But also, as sometimes happens with, certainly, people who love movies, I know I like "Rear Window," but I don't think I'd seen "Rear Window" since college. I've talked about it plenty, I know it, I've read about it a ton as part of this job, constantly reading about it. Whenever I talk to some Hitchcock expert, or sitting down with any star who's been in any Hitchcock movie, you want to talk about "Rear Window," even if you're talking to Tippi Hedren and Eva Marie Saint -- they weren't in it, but you still want to be able to talk about it.
I had a wonderful conversation at our last film festival with Martin Landau, who told me that he made his henchman character gay. He just made that choice himself. Hitch didn't give it to him. He did it, and Hitch didn't say anything to him, and he thought, "Uh-oh." He asked him, "What do you think?" And Hitchcock said, "If I have a problem with something you're doing, believe me, I'll let you know."
So when for the rest of his life, when James Mason was asked if his character was bisexual, and therefore in a relationship with both Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau, Mason would always say, "No, but I'm always asked that question because of what Marty chose to do without checking with me."
Let's talk about the other summer heavy hitter: Audrey Hepburn, who remains as iconic as ever – just her image alone is something that people still respond to, and that her movies have remained as engaging as ever. Talk to me about her filmic legacy.
First of all, I'll tell you this about Audrey Hepburn. When we're working on the scripts for TCM, there are, like, six words that I banned. And one of them is "iconic," right? I'm like, "We can't say it. We can't write it. We say it too much, and we've cheapened it." Except, once you've banned it, then you have to start making exceptions, and Audrey Hepburn is one of the exceptions. I've got to give that one up.
She remains a symbol. Part of it is her backstory, but certainly part of it is the movie. Part of it is the paucity of actual movies. For such a huge star from Hollywood's golden era, there are way fewer movies than almost every other actress of her generation. So her hit-it-out-of-the-park rate is pretty high. Once we get past "Roman Holiday," it's hard to find one that doesn't work.
What was one Hepburn film that you had maybe not paid attention to for a while and reopened your eyes about her performance in particular?
Certainly "The Children's Hour," no question. It was sort of pitched as this bold, post-Production Code "These Three" [director William Wyler's previous adaptation of Lillian Hellman's play] with teeth. But it still isn't nearly as toothy as it should be, but it's still terrific, and it's still these two incredibly vibrant stars at sort of their strongest moments, speaking of Shirley MacLaine with Hepburn. And if you put yourself in the time, we're still talking 56 years ago, so certainly, not as much progress from the first version to the second as you'd like. But still pretty bold, and if you do enough reading between the lines, you can see what's going on.
And look, I know it's not a great movie, and partially it's because of my fierce loyalty I have to Peter Bogdanovich, but I love "They All Laughed." I know there are things wrong with it, and maybe I love it because of the things that are wrong with it. But I definitely think it's worth seeing.
Sometimes you love a movie for its flaws.
Yeah, totally, and for what it's trying to be. And knowing what was happening in Bogdanovich's life at the time. Again, that's why what we do is so important: the curation matters so much.
When you put these movies in historical context, we're not just telling Hollywood stories, we're not just telling gossipy stories. You put these films in the context of the people who made them, the people who star in them, and the story becomes more than simply what you're seeing on screen. And I think that connection means more to the audience.
And we didn't even mention "Summer Under the Stars," which is literally our biggest programming event every year. 31 different stars for all 31 days in August, that we did a different star for 24 hours. It's a big summer for us, and we're excited for it, really. Everybody is.