Interview: Leonard Maltin on Classic Movies (2015)

Interview: Leonard Maltin on Classic Movies (2015)

With publication of the third edition of Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide: From the Silent Era Through 1965 (Plume, 2015), presented by Turner Classic Movies (TCM), I interviewed the film historian, university instructor, critic and author at his home in the San Fernando Valley about the new book, his podcast, working with TCM, favorite artists and classic movies.

This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Scott Holleran: Now, talking about the third edition of the Classic Movie Guide. Did you pick TCM or did they pick you?

Leonard Maltin: I approached them. They were very receptive, which pleased me no end. Which also pleased my publisher because they’re going to help promote the book. It’s a great marriage.

Scott Holleran: What is the basic value proposition of the Classic Movie Guide for someone who’s new to classic movies?

Leonard Maltin: Well, we’ve tried to make a user-friendly guide. There are plenty of sites online where you can go and get heaps of information. We don’t give you heaps of information; we try to give you [only] the most essential, useful information in capsulized form. That’s the idea and always has been the idea of our movie guides. And, so, if it’s of someone’s film debut, we note that. If there’s somebody who later became famous who’s in a tiny role, we note that. If it’s based on a Broadway play or a bestselling novel, we note that. We try to pack as much as we can into our tight little paragraphs so you don’t have to go searching to accumulate that information. It’s all there.

Scott Holleran: What’s the driving editorial decision: Is it that you want the reader to get a sense of whether the movie’s worth the time or is it a more definitive, scholarly approach?

Leonard Maltin: No, I don’t think it’s scholarly. It’s well-informed, I think, and it’s—as you know, Scott, when all else is said and done, it’s an opinion. We do give a rating and a review, and it’s our collective opinion, the editors’ and mine. And you may disagree. I’m always hesitant to say, “You should see this,” or, “You can skip that.” We do give an opinion, and, sometimes, we’ll say we think it’s terrible. But, you know, then I’ll get mail from people saying, “I loved it.”

Scott Holleran: How much debate goes on between you and the other writers?

Leonard Maltin: Well, I’m the editor-in-chief, so— [laughter]

Scott Holleran: —You get final say—

Leonard Maltin: —I have to have some perks to that job.

Scott Holleran: What are the additions to this third edition of the Classic Movie Guide?

Leonard Maltin: Well, we did a lot of amending to the existing book, which means fixing mistakes, embellishing reviews, adding information, clarifying synopses, adding cast members that we had omitted who deserved to be included, just tweaking the book, trying to make it more thorough—more accurate in every possible way, as well as adding more than 300 new reviews.

Scott Holleran: Such as?

Leonard Maltin: A lot of silent films, a number of foreign language films, and a lot of B movies. Our criterion was whether it is available for people to see; is it on cable television? Is it on DVD or Blu-Ray? Is it downloadable? There are a lot of films, many, many more than we could list that exist in archives and museums, but outside of visiting that archive, you can’t get to see it. So, this, again, is supposed to be a user guide, and that’s the particular purpose of this book. I mean, for instance—the great find in New Zealand five or six years ago of John Ford’s long-lost movie Upstream from 1927, a staggering find for a film that no one had seen since 1927 that actually is good. Just because you find the film doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to be worthwhile or live up to your expectations, but this is a delightful movie, a comedy, kind of a backstage comedy and really entertaining. And it’s now on DVD as part of the National Film Preservation Foundation series. So, you can see it. That’s why it’s in the book.

Scott Holleran: What’s the most popular film to be added?

Leonard Maltin: No, most of the additions are—we already had most of the big, mainstream titles. So, these tend to be a little off the beaten path. There are some that I was surprised we hadn’t tackled before. On TCM last night we showed the Colleen Moore movie Why Be Good? a late silent movie with a Vitaphone soundtrack. It’s a wonderful—a really good movie starring one of the most popular leading ladies of the silent era. She was like the number onebrea box office star in the late Twenties. And, it’s a very interesting film that is now available on DVD from Warner Archive which we screened on TCM. Last night’s was its TCM debut. Now, five years ago that film wasn’t available to be seen. It’s another one that was missing in action for like 80 years, more than 80 years. So, it’s a treat to be able to include things like that.

Scott Holleran: Is there an example of a film that had a more nuanced assessment that gets a more positive assessment in this edition?

Leonard Maltin: There are some rewrites, and some changes of opinion. And you’re going to ask me for examples.

Scott Holleran: Any come to mind?

Leonard Maltin: [Pauses] Naughty Marietta, the first Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald movie, had gotten kind of a blah review, and I had seen it as a young person but not in decades. I revisited it a year or two ago, and it’s a delightful movie. It’s really good. And I said, “Well, we haven’t been fair to this movie.” So, I rewrote it and improved its rating.

Scott Holleran: I know that, sometimes, I’ll think, I see why I liked a movie when it came out, but it doesn’t hold up well, or vice versa; that there’s more to this than I remembered liking about it. Does that happen with you?

Leonard Maltin: Yeah, I mean, it cuts both ways. Sometimes, its better than I remember, and sometimes, it doesn’t live up to my memory of it. And in an ideal world or in an idealized world, I would re-view all 10,000 movies and reassess them because some of the change of opinion has to do with changing times. We don’t live in a vacuum. None of us, and the world changes. It changes our view of things. New movies come along that change our perspective on older movies. So, you can’t write anything in concrete when you’re writing about film, I don’t think. So, I try to stay open-minded to that.

Scott Holleran: I notice in reviews that sometimes a reviewer will overpraise a film because it’s clear that they really like the leading lady or the leading man or someone in the cast. Or, they have a favorable disposition to a director. Is there a common thread as you’re editing copy that you see over time, something that stands out as a common mistake you see in film assessments, reviews or critiques?

Leonard Maltin: That’s for other people to say, I think. I don’t know that I could identify it. We try to be fair. We try to be fair-minded, and we don’t indulge in hyperbole. We’re very stingy with our four-star ratings, for instance. Some people criticize me for that. But, I feel that if you praise everything or if you praise it too glibly or too lightly, then, when it comes time to really honor a film, it doesn’t have the same meaning or the same impact because you’ve been saying good things about so many movies that come along. We want those higher ratings to have real significance.

Scott Holleran: Are there any new features?

Leonard Maltin: The only really new item is sort of a gimmicky list I put together of some favorite performances from A to Z.

Scott Holleran: Your condensed favorites list?

Leonard Maltin: Yeah.

Scott Holleran: I would think that tracking down whether it is available would itself be heavily research intensive—

Leonard Maltin: —Well, yeah, that’s my video editor, Casey St. Charnez, who’s been doing that for decades for the video guides. And he and his wife run a video store, and have for years, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That’s their domain. I trust him implicitly on that. He does a very good job.

Scott Holleran: Sometimes, I’ll notice that a movie becomes available, then goes away.

Leonard Maltin: Yeah. But that’s been true on DVD for years. And before that, on VHS, something would go out of print just like a book sometimes goes out of print, which is why we never take that symbol out of the book. If it was ever available, we indicate it because you could maybe hunt for it and find it.

Scott Holleran: What is a common response you get from past editions that differentiates from the regular, now retired Leonard Maltin movie guide?

Leonard Maltin: The angriest reaction we get is if there’s an actor we’ve left out of the actor index in the back. It’s a very selective star index in the back that people like having, so they can have an easy reference to looking up the films of Humphrey Bogart or the films of Loretta Young, and if I’ve left out one of their favorite stars, they’re very peeved. Very peeved. And, you know, if we did a thorough index, it would be almost as thick as the book itself. Mostly, some people can’t agree to disagree. And I’m not trying to force my opinion on anybody. Obviously, it’s my book. My name is on the book. I’m offering my opinion. But I’m not insisting you agree with it. When people say they like me as a critic, what they mean is they tend to agree with me. I found that out years ago. And so, if you know my work, you know how to assess my reviews. You know that I tend not to like gory horror films. So, if you know that going in, you can better judge my review of a horror film. And, I don’t hide my prejudices or my taste or my likes and dislikes. So, I think think that’s the value of having a known quantity as a critic as opposed to just some anonymous person online position a review. It may be very intelligent and very well reasoned opinion, but you don’t know that. You don’t have a history with that person.

Scott Holleran: Do you think the Classic Movie Guide helps sustain film criticism?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t know. That’s a tall order. What we do is such a shorthand version of film criticism. I think it’s valid, but it’s still very—

Scott Holleran: It’s a starting point because it gets the reader thinking about a film?

Leonard Maltin: Yeah. I hope so. That’s a nice way to put it.

Scott Holleran: Silent films seem to be receiving something of a renaissance right now.

Leonard Maltin: Yes. In fact, I dare say that there are more silent film showings than vintage talking film showings around the country which is just great. And that means that more people are being exposed to silent films on a theater screen with live music, and that’s the way they really ought to be seen.

Scott Holleran: They’re getting re-scored and remastered. Why?

Leonard Maltin: People continue to discover the magic of silent films. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival every spring is a wonderful event that often sells out the Castro Theatre up there. It’s just heartwarming to see. And it’s not alone; there are many showings around the country.

Scott Holleran: What else will you be doing, if anything, with Turner Classic Movies?

Leonard Maltin: I’m continuing to host their Disney evenings. I’m very lucky to have had that evening last night with Ben [Mankiewicz] and I’m delighted to be doing the Disney series for them. I usually participate in their Classic Film Festival every April.

Scott Holleran: Can people see Leonard Maltin doing any original programming anywhere else?

Leonard Maltin: Well, I’m still working for Reelzchannel. I’m about to tape a new movie review special with my partner, Greg Drake, which we’re going to record next week and which will be airing in mid-October. Those are always fun to do. We tape those in Albuquerque, so that’s an adventure in itself. And I’m doing my weekly podcast, almost a full year’s worth so far.

Scott Holleran: Maltin on Movies?

Leonard Maltin: Right, on the Wolfpop network, part of Earwolf, and that’s available for free from iTunes. And there’s a link to it on the home page of my website.

Scott Holleran: And what’s the feedback you get there? How is it different?

Leonard Maltin: We hear from all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons. It’s very interesting, very engaged audience. It’s fun.

Scott Holleran: So, you like podcasting?

Leonard Maltin: I do. I like the informality of it and the immediacy of it.

Scott Holleran: How does it differ from traditional radio broadcasting?

Leonard Maltin: It doesn’t have to be perfect. I had to learn that. At one time, I was having our engineer edit out all of my flubs and all of my, every time I stumble over a word or something like that. And then, he said to me, “It doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect.” I thought about it, and I listened to some other podcasts. I realized he was right. We can be casual, and it’s conversational. I think that’s the main difference. Also, it doesn’t have to be a particular length. It can go shorter or longer, and it doesn’t matter.

Scott Holleran: But you usually try to keep within a certain timeframe, right?

Leonard Maltin: We like it to be under an hour because those seem to be the ideal length for podcasts, I’m told. But some weeks it might be forty-four minutes. And other weeks, it might be fifty-two minutes. It doesn’t matter. I heard from an old friend in New York I hadn’t talked to in ages who said she listens to it while she exercises. [laughter] You know, it’s totally unpredictable.

Scott Holleran: Your daughter, Jessie, is getting more involved, right?

Leonard Maltin: Yes, she is. I enjoy it, and she enjoys it, too. When I was ill this summer, she Skyped in from the UK with my partner Baron Vaughn and filled in for me. That was wonderful.

Scott Holleran: Which 2015 films, in your view, will end up being regarded as classic movies?

Leonard Maltin: You know, that’s hard to say. I don’t know. Some of what grabs us right now is so of the moment, either in terms of topic or its approach, it’s hard to know how they’re going to wear over the years. I don’t know. I saw an early screening of Steve Jobs at Telluride, and it’s a very flashy film. And very good, I think. Will that approach stand up to the years? Will it seem overly flashy? I can’t know. We can’t know that. But I think Danny Boyle did a great job with Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, and Michael Fassbender is terrific. You can only judge for now. To me, the ultimate oxymoron, and it’s used a lot, is the term “instant classic”. Instant would-be classic or classic wannabe, I’ll accept those. But people don’t say that. They say “instant classic”. Well, we don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.

Scott Holleran: The idea of classic movies has changed in terms of how people think of it. On TCM, they’ll show B horror movies. Sometimes, I’ll think, Really? This is not a classic movie.

Leonard Maltin: Well, not everything old is classic. Just because it’s old doesn’t make it a classic. But TCM has been very canny in broadening its horizons and showing a wider variety of films, including tacky stuff from recent vintage and newer films coming up through the decades that have staying power. Look, the Seventies, which is an era that many people regard so highly in American filmmaking and writing, and rightly so, that’s 40 years ago. Forty years is a long time.

Scott Holleran: Do you think that this approach dilutes or diminishes how people should properly regard what constitutes a classic movie?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t want to be uptight. We call this a Classic Movie Guide, and we have a lot of stinkers in here, too. So, it’s another way of saying “vintage”, I guess. Not just old. I’m trying to be careful with my terminology, but—let’s face it. It’s a broad-based term for older films. I accept that. There are some films that are thought of as classics that I may not necessarily love.

Scott Holleran: Such as?

Leonard Maltin: A Place in the Sun. I’m not a great fan of A Place in the Sun. Some people revere it. That’s not the right word. Some people think highly of it. Many people think highly of it. I’m not one of them. It has some great moments. So, my opinion may be the minority view in that case.

Scott Holleran: So you do look at the movie as a whole movie.

Leonard Maltin: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. The greatest irony is the decade of the 1950s. So many of the films of the 1950s that were Oscar winners and critical favorites back then were big, important movies with a capital I. And those, Around the World in Eighty Days or Ben-Hur, those are not necessarily the movies that fans and movie buffs enjoy the most now. The Searchers, which was dismissed on its release in 1956, is now one of the most treasured films in all of American cinema. As are many other westerns and science fiction films and thrillers and genre pieces that were considered almost program movies or inconsequential movies in that same period. You’ll get more people talking about Invasion of the Body Snatchers than you will Around the World in Eighty Days.

Scott Holleran: That goes to what you’re saying about changing times and mores—

Leonard Maltin: Yes.

Scott Holleran: And ethics, that we look back on Invasion of the Body Snatchers and see it as a metaphor for conformity—

Leonard Maltin: —Yes.

Scott Holleran: And The Searchers, we are more enlightened about racism, for instance. I’m not sure that people viewed the John Wayne character as villainous when they went to see it in theaters back then, or as having a dark side.

Leonard Maltin: Right. No. I mean, if you read some of the reviews, it’s astonishing. “Just another John Wayne western”, you know. Really? What film did you see?

Scott Holleran: Speaking of a couple of your favorites: Bad Day at Black Rock from the Fifties. Why is that one of your favorites?

Leonard Maltin: It’s a great film. I mean, some of its ideas have been echoed in subsequent movies, but it’s still a great concept and beautifully executed. Spencer Tracy is so solid in that film. The supporting cast is exceptional. The use of location up near Lone Pine.

Scott Holleran: And the editing, the concision.

Leonard Maltin: Oh, yes. Everything. Everything about it, everything about it just clicks. And it’s a tough movie, too. It’s a very hardboiled film. And, of course, the other genre I should have mentioned before is film noir. That is so endearingly popular today I think because of its cynicism. We live in a more cynical world. So I find, dealing with my students at USC, they can more easily accept cynicism than they can accept sweetness, light and innocence in older movies. They’ve grown up in a harder, harsher world. A post-9/11 world.

Scott Holleran: Was Bad Day at Black Rock a commercial and critical success in 1955?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t think it was a hit, but I think it was well received. It still has the element of surprise to it.

Scott Holleran: The Furies, that was, if you can remember—

Leonard Maltin: Oh, yeah. That’s 1950. The Furies is a fascinating film—absolutely fascinating. Talk about dark. Judith Anderson is so good. Everyone is so strong in that film. And again, it’s an example of—people who think of old Hollywood films as being simplistic or all having happy endings and blue skies ought to take a look at The Furies. [laughter]

Scott Holleran: Or Bad Day at Black Rock.

Leonard Maltin: Or Bad Day at Black Rock. They may be in for a shock or something of a shock. And these films were all made by studios; these were made under the studio system. Strong-minded writers and directors and producers got films made that were complex and multilayered and not as sunny or simplistic as some people would have you believe of that period.

Scott Holleran: You mentioned your students at University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Can you think of a movie or couple of movies consistently over the years that students come back to with high praise—

Leonard Maltin: Well, I don’t teach a film history class. I teach a contemporary film class. So, but what I do is I sneak in short subjects at the beginning of class, old shorts, cartoons and shorts, to get a taste of film history. And, I showed them Betty Boop last week, and Popeye, a Max Fleischer cycle, and those cartoons from the 1930s need no apology, no explanation, they just play to an audience. They play beautifully, as if they were made this morning. And to an audience that’s used to seeing postmodern cartoons, self-referential humor, a lot of things that you don’t find in the older, animated shorts. Yet, they responded as any audience would.

Scott Holleran: Is Song of the South in Classic Movie Guide?

Leonard Maltin: I think it has been from the beginning, yeah.

Scott Holleran: But that’s not available.

Leonard Maltin: Well, it is—

Scott Holleran: You made an exception?

Leonard Maltin: —if you look in the right places. Every rule—

Scott Holleran: Is made to be broken?

Leonard Maltin: —has its exceptions.

Scott Holleran: Should Disney release Song of the South on Blu-Ray?

Leonard Maltin: I think they should with appropriate introduction and commentary to put it into context.

Scott Holleran: I always thought Disney should consider inviting someone such as Sidney Poitier, who’s served on the Walt Disney Company’s board of directors, to introduce it and provide a wider context. Why haven’t they? Have you talked to Bob Iger about that?

Leonard Maltin: I’ve not personally had a conversation with him about this, no.

Scott Holleran: But you are regarded as a Disney historian and expert.

Leonard Maltin: Yeah, but he’s made his own assessment and opinion. And he’s asked about it every year at the shareholders’ meeting, and he’s been pretty emphatic about it. He hasn’t used the word “never”, but he’s pretty emphatic in his thinking about it. My feeling is that nothing is gained by sweeping something under the carpet. I think the problem for Disney is that Disney is such a big target. No one thinks of 20th Century Fox or Warner Bros. or Universal Pictures in the way they think of Disney. Disney has a bond with its audience and a reputation, so they’re more vulnerable. I understand their trepidation. I completely understand their trepidation.

Scott Holleran: Have you seen Song of the South?

Leonard Maltin: Yeah.

Scott Holleran: Is it a racist film?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t think it is. Uncle Remus is the hero of that movie and a lovable, beloved character. And that’s how I always saw it when I was a child when I first saw the movie, and I didn’t grow up to be a racist or think that all blacks were subservient or spoke in a dialect. I just took this as a particular story set at a particular time.

Scott Holleran: Who are some of the, in your view, looking back at the whole scope of classic movies from the silent era to 1965, some of the more underrated directors or directors who haven’t gotten their due.

Leonard Maltin: Well, I mentioned this name in an interview earlier this morning to someone who’d never heard of him. King Vidor—I think he is actually overlooked when the roster of great directors is cited. His first great success was The Big Parade, one of the greatest of all silent films. He then went on to make The Crowd, another milestone film about—and a very, a typical Hollywood product. He made a delightful comedy with Marion Davies called Show People in 1928. He left the studio system to make a very personal project called Our Daily Bread in the Thirties. He was constantly reaching and experimenting and trying new things. He made The Champ with Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery in the early Thirties which was an enormous success. H.M. Pulham, Esq. is a film I like very much. Northwest Passage. He made many great films, and he had some misfires as well. But [he’s] not easily pigeonholed. One of the things I admire about him. And I showed one, one of my favorite under-appreciated films of his, at the TCM festival two years ago called The Stranger’s Return with Miriam Hopkins and Franchot Tone and Lionel Barrymore, which suddenly turned up on TCM. A really, really good movie, a very adult movie, from the early Thirties. Again, atypically sophisticated and adult for its time.

Scott Holleran: Who’s your favorite movie star from the era of silents to ’65?

Leonard Maltin: Bogart.

Scott Holleran: Is Casablanca one of your—

Leonard Maltin: That is my all-time favorite movie.

Scott Holleran: Is its director underrated?

Leonard Maltin: Yes, that’s a good one. Michael Curtiz is underrated. He was an incredible director with a dynamic visual sense. He hated ordinary shots. He put vitality into everything he did.

Scott Holleran: What are a few movies people should see by Michael Curtiz?

Leonard Maltin: The Kennel Murder Case, early Thirties [1933]. Yankee Doodle Dandy, of course.

Scott Holleran: Any others by Curtiz?

Leonard Maltin: Mildred Pierce.

Scott Holleran: What about producers?

Leonard Maltin: There were great producers in the Golden Age and the Golden Era who exerted great influence and who sometimes sat on the shoulders of directors and guided them in a positive way. Daryl F. Zanuck was a very gutsy producer, studio chief and producer. And sometimes his interference wasn’t welcomed, and sometimes it was. And he and John Ford had their bones of contention, but they also made some great films together. It was very bold of them to make The Grapes of Wrath. They had to make some concessions to censorship of the time, but they still managed to capture the essence of John Steinbeck’s book in what was almost certain to be a noncommercial venture. And Zanuck did that time and time again with The Ox-Bow Incident, with Gentleman’s Agreement, with Pinky. He was a very forthright guy who stuck to his guns when he believed in a property.

Scott Holleran: Is he one of the producers that you think of when you think of—again, silent to ’65—people who made movies better?

Leonard Maltin: Yes, absolutely. He did at Warner Bros., and he did when he started at 20th Century Fox. And Hal Wallis, who was the head of production at Warner Bros., did remarkable work. And the proof is in the surviving memos from Warner Bros. that Rudy Behlmer collected into a fascinating book called Inside Warner Bros. [Fireside, 1986], which reproduced all these unbelievable memoranda that showed just how savvy Hal Wallis was as production chief. It’s must reading for any classic movie fan, just endlessly fascinating to see how he micromanaged the films under his watch at Warner’s.

Scott Holleran: Is Kazan one of the great directors?

Leonard Maltin: Yes, absolutely. And his first films were made for Daryl Zanuck. I love his first film: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Scott Holleran: His last film, or one of his last films, The Arrangement: I know that’s after this era, but how do you regard that? Is that going to be a classic film?

Leonard Maltin: No. I don’t think so, but America, America, I think, is fantastic from his later period.

Scott Holleran: Who deserves credit for Gone with the Wind?

Leonard Maltin: That’s a collaborative film. I guess who deserves credit is David O. Selznick, primarily. But, not solely because he worked with so many directors and several screenwriters, not to mention William Cameron Menzies’ production design and Walter Plunkett’s costumes and Max Steiner’s music, etc., etc., etc. No film is made by a single person, but if there’s a single vision to that film, I think you’d have to say it’s Selznick’s.

Faye Dunaway on Turner Classic Movies (2016)

Faye Dunaway on Turner Classic Movies (2016)

Faye Dunaway, 76, recently made history when she named La La Land as 2016’s Best Picture with Bonnie and Clyde co-star Warren Beatty at the Academy Awards—the winner turned out to be Moonlight—but one of the screen’s most glamorous modern movie stars had already reappeared in Hollywood last spring for a taping of a rare television interview in Hollywood. The Academy Award-winning Dunaway, star of Network, The Thomas Crown Affair and Chinatown, sat before an audience attending the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival (the interview is scheduled to air on Turner Classic Movies on April 3; check local listings). At one point during the two-hour interview with host Ben Mankiewicz, Dunaway, who discussed Bonnie and Clyde and Warren Beatty, The Towering Inferno and director Elia Kazan, reminded her host: “You said I’d get a break.”

At that, the audience laughed and applauded, as the 1970s’ leading actress smiled, waved and left the stage, only to return a short time later to resume the interview with a brief statement to the audience that she knows she’s made mistakes—”I’m not going to talk about those”—and acknowledged without specificity that mistakes are part of her career. Accordingly, Mankiewicz, in his first major festival interview for the network, made no mention of Mommie Dearest, the 1981 creative and commercial disappointment based on a salacious bestseller in which Dunaway portrays Forties movie star Joan Crawford. Among movies mentioned and covered were Dunaway’s hits and pictures opposite Dustin Hoffman (Little Big Man), Mickey Rourke (Barfly) and Frank Sinatra in his last motion picture (The First Deadly Sin).

DunawayTCMFF2016

Faye Dunaway being interviewed at TCM’s Classic Film Festival 2016 at Hollywood’s Ricardo Montalban Theatre.

The interview started with an exchange about Faye Dunaway’s breakthrough role in Arthur Penn’s shocking, violent Bonnie and Clyde, the 1967 film about the 1930s crime spree and mass murders by Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. The Oscar-nominated performance caused a fashion trend and earned Dunaway, who had also appeared that year in The Happening and Hurry Sundown, consideration for both the best commercially and creatively viable productions. She co-starred the following year as an insurance investigator in Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair with Steve McQueen, which she admits in the TCM interview “might have been my absolute favorite movie,” referring to the original as more sensual—and less overtly sexual—than 1999’s Rene Russo-Pierce Brosnan remake.

The native of Florida’s panhandle told TCM that she related to Bonnie, the small town Southerner who goes on a bank robbery rampage with her boyfriend, Clyde, and described co-star Warren Beatty, who produced the film, as “indefatigable”, adding that she had previewed and enjoyed his latest picture Rules Don’t Apply.

After Bonnie and Clyde catapulted Faye Dunaway into movie stardom in those final months of Hollywood’s glamorous years—she told the audience she’d auditioned for director Arthur Penn at the now-controversial Beverly Hills Hotel, where she would be photographed a decade later on the morning after she won the Best Actress Oscar for Network—her roles became more complex. Dunaway played an oilman’s daughter who fights to own and operate his oil fields in Stanley Kramer’s Oklahoma Crude with George C. Scott. She earned another Oscar nomination as the mysterious femme fatale in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (which she called “mercurial neuroticism”). She played the villainess in Richard Lester’s 1973 hit adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and its sequel, The Four Musketeers, which she said was released without the cast’s knowledge or consent. She played a skyscraper architect’s romantic interest in 1974’s biggest hit, The Towering Inferno, a civilian in Sydney Pollack’s surveillance state thriller, Three Days of the Condor, with Robert Redford in 1975, and a self-centered television executive in Sidney Lumet’s and Paddy Chayefsky’s prophetic Network in 1977, for which she won the Academy Award as Best Actress for playing soulless Diana Christensen, who domineers the TV network to showcase a circus of reality-distorting programming. Dunaway observed that the character also had a certain poignancy.

“Paddy named Diana after Diana Rigg, who starred in [Chayefsky’s 1971 movie] The Hospital,” Dunaway told TCM. By the turn of the 20th century, she had worked with the best and brightest, from actors Hackman, Brando and Depp to directors Kramer, Jewison and Kazan. Dunaway told TCM that she had learned from the masters, crediting a particular acting tip from Anthony Quinn, whom she says advised Dunaway during filming of The Happening to “work harder off camera than on.”

Mankiewicz brought up details of Dunaway’s early life and career, from her attendance at University of Florida and a teaching scholarship to Florida State University to her time at Boston University and working with Elia Kazan in New York City. Kazan was “invaluable” to her, she explained, telling her what to do off camera. Dunaway said that his counsel prompted her to do her own work studying the characterization. Working with Kazan on a cinematic adaptation of his own novel, The Arrangement, she says she matched a Billie Holiday poster with a relevant thought for her character, Gwen, from one of the blues singer’s recordings, putting it as a caption to the poster. It was what Holiday said to her husband when he came home with lipstick on his collar. The caption reads: “Take a bath, man. Don’t explain.”

Faye Dunaway said that delving into a character’s imagined background and philosophy is part of her job as an actress.

“That’s when I’m happiest,” she told Turner Classic Movies. Citing her iPhone’s Bob Dylan collection in an exchange about her critically acclaimed performance as an alcoholic in 1987’s movie version of Charles Bukowski’s Barfly, she emerged during the course of the TCM Classic Film Festival interview as a freethinking loner and individualist. Indeed, though she will now also be remembered as the presenter who called out the wrong Best Picture winner, Dunaway came across last spring as a woman of the world, starring in Marc Forster’s Hand of God on Amazon, using Uber and enjoying life in Los Angeles, though she admitted to Mankiewicz that, on some days, LA can disappoint.

“I went to the [movie theaters at The] Grove the other day and there wasn’t a [single] movie I wanted to see,” she said in the interview, which will air on Turner Classic Movies on April 3. When asked what she does to keep finding depth in new roles, Faye Dunaway replied with this thought: “Fill yourself up again.”

Interview with Lasse Hallström on A Dog’s Purpose

Interview with Lasse Hallström on A Dog’s Purpose

Lasse Hallström recently took a break from work to talk with me about his newest movie, A Dog’s Purpose, in theaters now. Mr. Hallström, whose films range from Dear John and Hachi: A Dog’s Tale to The Cider House Rules, The Hoax and Chocolat, has been directing motion pictures since 1985 with his feature My Life as a Dog. This is his first interview about the picture since A Dog’s Purpose debuted. This is an edited transcript with one minor plot “spoiler”.

Scott Holleran: Congratulations on a commercially successful debut at the box office, where your movie, A Dog’s Purpose, made its money back in one week. Thank you for making an intelligent, wonderful and meaningful motion picture.

Lasse Hallström: Thank you for the lovely review. I really appreciate it. I put a lot of heart into this film and I totally enjoyed the process.

Scott Holleran: Applying the movie’s theme, what are you working on now?

Lasse Hallström: I finished shooting a live action version of The Nutcracker [Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms] based on the original story by E.T.A. Hoffman in the 1800s—the ballet came out in the late 1800s—which will come out around Thanksgiving 2018. So, now I start editing. It’s a lot special effects. I’ve never had a budget like this before. It was fantastic, not that the budget didn’t weigh on us—it’s a tremendous responsibility. We had a wonderful lead girl named Mackenzie Foy. She played the daughter in Interstellar. I think she’s amazing in it. We have cinematography by Linus Sandgren (La La Land, The Hundred-Foot Journey), music by James Newton Howard (The Hunger Games, Batman Begins, Concussion) and Tchaikovsky and we use the original ballet music. We have Morgan Freeman (An Unfinished Life, Feast of Love), Helen Mirren (Collateral Beauty, The Hundred-Foot Journey) and Keira Knightley (Collateral Beauty). It was a lovely experience.

Scott Holleran: Your last movie, The Hundred-Foot Journey, and this one, A Dog’s Purpose, are bright and colorful. Is this a conscious choice?

Lasse Hallström: No. If there’s a [subconscious] choice, I can only say I enjoy making movies that focus on character and what characters have in common—in India, France, or America—I love character observations. So I work with actors to help to create something authentic and recognizable. That’s what drives me really.

Scott Holleran: What technology do you find best helps you achieve the look you want?

Lasse Hallström: That’s a good question. I have a split answer. If I’m egotistical, I would go with the digital system when it comes to capturing performances because I love to improvise especially with dogs in order to keep rolling. But for the artistic look I certainly prefer film. If I want the best and most authentic look, I have to go with film. Subtleties of the skin get flattened out with digital. The greenery of the forest looks very different, too. My cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, who just did La La Land, has taught me the wonderful difference between film and digital and I have to stick to film. Film is superior when it comes to subtlety of color.

Scott Holleran: What one quality did you seek in the actors who played Ethan?

Lasse Hallström: I look at the ability to improvise and be alive in front of the camera. I tend to want to improvise around the script. There’s a lot of improvising. It’s a great asset for me, it’s more vibrant. For example, when [two characters in A Dog’s Purpose] break up, that was all improvised. The scripted version felt a little written. So I used the improvisation.

Scott Holleran: Which scene best essentializes the movie’s theme?

Lasse Hallström: [Pauses] I don’t think I have one. Personally, I like the end shot of Maya [a character played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste] when she pats her dog and says ‘what are you thinking?’ and he says “…one of my best lives, really”. I thought that was the best interaction. I can’t say I have a defining moment.

Scott Holleran: Why did you decide to make another movie about dogs?

Lasse Hallström: It’s coincidence, really. I have to say if I’m offered something with potential charm that’s driven by character and allows for that, I’m undaunted. I like the idea of hearing a dog’s thoughts and trying to get in the head of the dog. I pay more attention to dogs now. I try to figure out what they’re thinking which makes me want to connect with dogs even more. I find that I’m more passionate in wanting to know what’s on a dog’s mind. I think you know about my [having had] five chow chows. I’m a fanatic dog lover. [Pauses] I lost my chow chow right before we started shooting [A Dog’s Purpose]. So, now I just have memories of them.

Scott Holleran: Did you have Dennis Quaid in mind as Ethan?

Lasse Hallström: He was cast very early on. It’s a lead character but I had worked with him before on Something to Talk About. I really love him. We both love dogs and play golf and we’ve worked together before so it was easygoing [on the set]. He’s got a great sense of humor.

Scott Holleran: Did he collaborate with the other actors playing Ethan at earlier ages?

Lasse Hallström: I kind of told him [about the character] and he met and discussed the character with K.J. Apa. I think they decided to have some mannerisms in common, like a little nervous thing with his hand. I trusted him to the point of letting him do whatever he wanted to do including when to tell the cameraman to stop. So we did a lot of takes. I said: here’s the crew, here’s the camera and there’s the crane.

Scott Holleran: Why did you choose Josh Gad (Frozen) as the voice of the dogs?

Lasse Hallström: That was an idea from the studio that I loved. We really hit it off long distance and, with him in Los Angeles and me in London, we kissed and hugged long distance. I still haven’t met him.

Scott Holleran: You chose Rachel Portman, who scored your movies Chocolat and The Cider House Rules, to compose the musical score. Why?

Lasse Hallström: She always delivers. I love what she’s doing and she’s a dog lover, too. She loved the film and was inspired by it, so we had another good experience. She made so many scenes [with her musical score]. It’s a perfect complement to that breakup scene.

Scott Holleran: What’s the most common criticism of the movie which you think might be valid?

Lasse Hallström: I knew it was [going to be] that I’ve been making too many “heartwarming” movies. So, it’s a bit too sweet even for me. It’s the nature of the project. I keep getting attracted to stories that have a certain life-affirming quality. I’m just that kind of guy. I can’t resist charm and life-affirming moments that entertain or, as we say in Swedish, roa röra, a phrase which means entertain and touch or move.

Scott Holleran: What’s the most common praise for the movie that you think might be valid?

Lasse Hallström

Lasse Hallström: The one I pick up on and appreciate is that it’s heartwarming after all. But being drawn to it is crossing the line into sentimentality. I’m actually allergic to sentimentality. But I’m very, very drawn to it, or to the conflicts, because I keep saying that if I’m honest or realistic with wanting to convey strong emotion or sentimentality I can stay on the right side [of the line]. If I’m false or pushy, I can fall into sentimentality. The fact that people are moved by it, not by blatant attempts to push buttons and evoke emotion, may be why the movie earned an A from Cinemascore audiences.

Scott Holleran: Had you seen Frank Marshall’s Eight Below?

Lasse Hallström: No. But Frank Marshall is probably a kindred spirit. He has a positive outlook on life.

Scott Holleran: What did Walden Media add to the movie?

Lasse Hallström: I got to meet them for notes on the edit. But nothing was imposed on us.

Scott Holleran: What did Amblin add to A Dog’s Purpose?

Lasse Hallström: I really enjoyed working with the heads of Amblin, Michael Wright and Holly Bario. I respect them very much. Steven [Spielberg] wasn’t involved very much this time but he liked the final result which is the ultimate reward to me because he is my master.

Scott Holleran: What did Universal add to the movie?

Lasse Hallström: They gave it a fantastic release. They’re the best at releasing and doing publicity from what I’ve been told.

Scott Holleran: Is this the movie you wanted to make?

Lasse Hallström: Yes. There’s nothing I can’t stand for.

Scott Holleran: Had you read W. Bruce Cameron’s book, have you spoken with him and has he seen the movie?

Lasse Hallström: I read it, I met him on set and he likes the film. Expect similarities to the book but also a lot of differences. However, it is heartwarming.

Movie Review: High Noon

Movie Review: High Noon

United Artists’ High Noon (1952) is a lightning rod of controversy. This compelling movie was made with the best talents and its taut, purpose-driven plot gains and keeps attention. Any honest appraisal must account for its flaws, too. I recently saw it again at the Autry Museum of the American West, where the movie will be discussed in a program next year comparing the classic Western to what’s become known as the Hollywood blacklist.

The picture’s timely connection to a congressional campaign against Communism pertains to its downside. High Noon has a stagy, stiff quality that feels pedantic, forced and overproduced. In that sense, like Gary Cooper’s film for Warner Bros., The Fountainhead (1949), it’s too obviously delivering a message. Part of the problem is the age difference between Cooper as Hadleyville’s marshal Will Kane and Grace Kelly (Rear Window) as his deeply religious bride. And this problem feeds off the plot’s need to make the marshal more like a prop than a fully developed character.

On its own terms, however, High Noon engages to a degree. Marshal and Mrs. Kane flee from an evildoer on their wedding day—as the married couple does in Oklahoma!, also directed by Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity, A Man for All Seasons, The Nun’s Story)—though they are not forced to do so and this, in particular, is a crucial distinction. To his credit, the marshal has retired his badge and job by the time he turns tail and gallops with his blonde young bride and, though he changes his mind, he later changes it again after putting the badge back on and decides to flee from harm. This is important because it shows that the lawman is conflicted.

So, infamously, is the town of Hadleyville. But the audience is supposed to morally judge them, and not him, for being conflicted. This while the marshal eventually, strictly and stubbornly out of a sense of duty carries out his mission to confront the evildoer coming in on the noontime train. Add a constant tick-tock clock and a song sung by Tex Ritter, with Dimitri Tiomkin’s Oscar-winning score, complex and interesting supporting roles and High Noon holds interest. As allegory for what the writer apparently considers an unjust anti-Communist hunt, High Noon does not hold up.

See the movie and judge for yourself. What works as moral dilemma is what drains and undercuts the allegorical warning. This explains why High Noon, first offered to John Wayne (who rejected the leading role) and held up by leftists and those who condemn anyone (such as director Elia Kazan, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Viva Zapata!, On the Waterfront) who named Communists (such as High Noon‘s credited screenwriter, Carl Foreman) in the HUAC hearings, gets praised and claimed across the political spectrum. The movie is mixed.

No one scene explicitly captures this more than the speech in church by the morally gray, rotten character played by Thomas Mitchell, who basically endorses pragmatism (speaking of timely political references) as the reason for denying a defense of the town, on the grounds that protecting Hadleyville from thugs jeopardizes government handouts. This from a character who says he admires Will Kane and rightly demands that Will Kane be heard in his plea for help, that the hearing be civil and that the townspeople do, in fact, contrary to some claims, constitute the whole town.

“This is our town,” pleads Mitchell’s character and then he proceeds to make the case for abandoning its defense and appeasing its enemies (speaking of timely political references again). It’s not surprising that the mixed, pragmatic philosophy of this movie, chosen by the Autry’s members as the audience favorite in 2016’s Western film series, dominates today’s culture, politics and foreign policy; anyone on the left, right or in the middle can justifiably project himself onto the Will Kane character. High Noon was apparently one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite movies yet Bill Clinton showed it in the White House numerous times.

What decent person wouldn’t want to see himself as the crusading hero seeking to render justice in a “dirty little village in the middle of nowhere” (starting with a lonely train station as in 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock) as Katy Jurado’s Mexican character puts it? With producer and director Stanley Kramer (Judgment at Nuremberg, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Inherit the Wind) producing and said to be heavily involved with the filmmaking, how could High Noon not end up being serious, topical and absorbing? The cast of characters, though there are too many and they say too much, are a fascinating assortment of profiles in cowardice.

As evil men gather over the movie’s signature song at the start, church bells ring and religion comes off as the antidote selected by the townspeople to deal with whatever’s wrong with the world. They dread facing the truth, and, while the voice of reason is also a voice for pragmatism, he gathers and rallies the town in a church, where the parson, all but ceding that sermonizing offers no real, practical value here on earth, fully abdicates religion as a philosophy. Hadleyville’s lone intellectual, the judge who marries Will and Amy Kane, cites 5th century BC history and the fact that he’d previously fled a similarly challenged town called Indian Falls as he packs up and folds an American flag to get out of town. Lloyd Bridges’ deputy marshal sees himself as a victim who knows on some level that he lives through others. An innkeeper (who today would be a vocal proponent of Donald Trump) is more explicit in stating that the ends justify the means.

In this sense, Hadleyville’s a stand-in for America and its religion is pragmatism and High Noon certainly rings true in this regard, down to the fact that the whole place’s days are numbered. To this point, the Battle Hymn of the Republic plays in the climax as the clock ticks, emphasizing that the town’s doom comes closer while the town prays away precious seconds. While Gary Cooper’s Will Kane runs around town pleading for help against the four monsters about to strike, a character played by Harry Morgan hides, making the town’s cowardice more explicit, in case the audience misses the point. Someone asks: “How do we know that [the villain] is on the train?” Someone asserts that “it’s not our jobs” to protect the town. Even Will Kane’s mentor, an arthritic, old man, opposes confronting the thugs, telling him: “It’s all for nothing.”

But why would a hero go to enlist an old man in the first place? This is the problem with High Noon, which contradicts Kane’s heroism at every turn.

Whether he’s riding out of town after retiring his badge—and he was uncertain and unsteady in both decisions from the start—Will Kane can’t seem to stand on his own and decide what’s right. On one hand, with a town so undeserving—and you learn how thugs came to rule as the town’s lousy characters come along—it’s easy to see why the former marshal doesn’t want to go it alone. It’s hardly worth the effort as the town’s already half-dead. As the Tex Ritter song, “Do Not Forsake Me, My Darling” plays as a taunt in the saloon, it’s as though Will Kane goes door to door taunting himself, doubting whether he does have a moral duty to save a town that won’t defend itself (he doesn’t), casting himself adrift wherever he goes. When his ex-deputy (Bridges) asks Kane “Why?” Kane answers: “I don’t know.”

Yet when Katy Jurado’s morally ambiguous character—depicted as decent but remember she’s been the hero’s and the villain’s leading lady—proclaims that “when [Kane] dies, this town dies, too,” what’s the evidence that the town’s worth saving, or that the man who’d risk dying for a town that isn’t worth saving is any kind of hero? Will Kane takes his final steps past the offices of Julius Weber, the watchmaker, reasserting the theme that civilization is running out of time, closeups come in a cluster when the clock strikes noon and, as the camera pulls back making Cooper’s Kane smaller and smaller, it’s clear that he’s puny. And he’s alone.

Or is he? This is High Noon‘s final deceit, and, in its resolution, High Noon sort of justifies every pragmatic argument anyone in town’s ever made. You can have your cake and eat it, too, this classic movie aims to say, with Howard Hawks and John Wayne teaming for 1959’s underrated and emotionally superior counter-argument, Rio Bravo, several years later. The evidence that this picture won the audience is strong. Look around, down to who rules the day, and mark High Noon as an artful example of anti-heroism that dominates and influences in fiction and in fact.

 

Movie Review: A Dog’s Purpose

Movie Review: A Dog’s Purpose

A Dog’s Purpose is a wonderfully rendered fairy tale from Hollywood’s most magical filmmaker. I laughed, I cried, and I thought about “the meaning of life” as the opening line of the movie asks the audience to do. This is such a rare combination in movies—and people, especially show business people, go on about how Hollywood used to make light and intelligent pictures and bemoan that they’re not like that anymore—that this Universal film, made with Amblin, Walden and others and based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron, deserves 100 percent support.

The best pictures often don’t get what they deserve and A Dog’s Purpose, with a target on it from a group opposed to almost any relationship between pets and humans from the start, is one of them, which I know firsthand. In fact, when the smear campaign against the movie was launched, courtesy of a selectively edited video released for distribution through a trashy website, its own stakeholders were effectively shamed into submission, burying heads in the sand, dodging questions and queries for clarification and cancelling the movie’s premiere. Those who spoke out in defense of the movie, including one of each of its writers, actors and producers and the director, Lasse Hallström (The Hundred-Foot Journey, My Life as a Dog, An Unfinished Life, Chocolat, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), either came off as defensive or as if they were almost apologizing for the movie in advance. Josh Gad (TV’s The Comedians and Frozen), who does the voice of the dogs, took the bait and denounced purported footage in a controversial video rather than back the movie. Almost no one—not Universal, Amblin or Walden, or Mr. Hallström—chose to condemn the smear campaign, which sanctioned the flawed premise of the attack (that a picture, or pictures that are edited and arranged, is an argument) and passively legitimized a disturbing and potentially dangerous trend against the exercise of free speech. Going to see a movie should not require an act of bravery.

This time, I bought my own ticket on principle. I was joined by another guest when he found out I was going to see A Dog’s Purpose and I was asked again by two friends if they could come, too. The audience at Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinemas was lively and diverse. They were mostly families with young children, single men and single women, seated separately and alone, and couples or groups of friends like us.

Like most of his movies, which are some of the most life-affirming movies ever made, director Lasse Hallström’s A Dog’s Purpose plays to everyone capable of kindness, love and rationality. With a sharp and searching narration, as in An Unfinished Life and his seminal adaptation of John Irving’s novel, The Cider House Rules, intersecting plot lines and multiple characters converge into one poignant point about the whole of one’s life. The action starts, however, with themes of ownership, tagging and naming and what a dog uniquely means to a boy. The particular boy (Bryce Gheisar) to whom this dog first belongs reads comics and books about characters such as Captain America and Tom Sawyer and he grows into a fine teen-ager (K.J. Apa, TV’s Riverdale).

The wholesome, unspoiled quality of the boy’s character adds to the film’s conflict and grounds the movie’s other characters and subplots, building on subtle and gently delivered themes about dog people as peculiar, sad and lonely, and out of step with others, introverted and perhaps deferential to others, too. It’s a keen insight which is easily overlooked amid the dog tales, pathos and humor.

But it’s this type of skillfully woven idea that stirs one’s thoughts and moves one’s emotions in A Dog’s Purpose. So many of these tender truths dot the trail with wisdom, warmth and depth, such as a girl (Britt Robertson, Dan in Real Life, Tomorrowland) winning a prize for herself at a shooting gallery, a hardworking Midwestern father who slowly yet understandably lets himself go or a kid who’s jealous of the star quarterback. Then, there are the short but intelligent, clever or hilarious takes on the rivalry with cats, the sights and aromas of farms, or the irony of overindulging in hot dogs. That’s not to include how a dog’s hard work liberates a stoic policeman. Or that a dog’s companionship aligns in love and life with a college student. Along the multiple incarnations of a dog’s life, imaginatively depicted as foraging for a dog’s purpose, cultural points pop up—a Dynasty smackdown in the 1980s, guns in the 1970s, folk music in the 1960s—and A Dog’s Purpose comes in stunning pictures of a morning fog at the farm, a depressed home with an impoverised dog chained to a post, a happy dog bounding through the field to greet his master. It’s as sentimental as life and I suppose that if A Dog’s Purpose comes off as overly sentimental—a common complaint about Lasse Hallström’s moviesit’s in direct proportion to one’s own cynicism, as usual. This movie is treasure in every scene even when you see the scene coming.

With a cast including The Mod Squad‘s Peggy Lipton and Truth‘s Dennis Quaid in his finest performance since Far From Heaven—and a nice companion role to his quarterback Mike in Breaking AwayA Dog’s Purpose leaps from the screen with wonder, twists and an unequivocal answer to the meaning of life. In what may be his best movie since Chocolat, Lasse Hallström’s A Dog’s Purpose routes life’s loneliness into the chilling, wrenching and marvelous experience of owning and having a dog and with the reward you would almost certainly come to expect.