When a major movie studio paid a young artist over $17 million for his movie about a slave who planned and led a bloody rebellion, actor, co-writer and director Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation became the talk of Hollywood. Epic, new dramatizations of American historical events are rare and Parker’s movie garnered serious attention, interest and praise.
That the film became controversial after Parker’s past became an issue—he had once been accused of rape and the accuser, it was later disclosed, committed suicide—overshadowed the rare, historical depiction of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion.
History teacher Alexander Marriott, an instructor at Alvin Community College and Wiley College in Texas, recently offered an examination of the facts and the movie in this exclusive new interview about Nat Turner.
Scott Holleran: Is Nat Turner’s rebellion fundamental to the history of American slavery?
Alexander Marriott: That’s been debated by historians. Yes, in the sense that resistance to slavery is a fundamental part of that story and to Nat Turner’s rebellion. In terms of how many people were killed [during the insurrection], according to Thomas Gray, the lawyer who took Turner’s confessions, the death toll among the whites was 55—12 men, 18 women, 25 children—I do not see wide variations in any of the accounts for this figure and the breakdown. As for the number of people killed in the aftermath of the rebellion, this is open to some historical conjecture. According to the most recent monograph on the rebellion by Patrick Breen, the number of blacks killed and/or executed after Nat Turner’s rebellion has been overstated by previous historians. Instead of ranging from 100-200 in the Southampton area, Breen pegs the number of blacks killed without trial in the 30s; [Breen asserts that] 17 were tried and sentenced to death, including [Nat] Turner. Even the most inflationary accounts do not suggest women and children among the enslaved were lynched and hung. Breen makes a compelling case that their status as valuable property impelled authorities to quickly reign in any vengeful impulses of panicked Virginians to protect their slaves from annihilation. Turner’s is also the most spectacular form of rebellion. It’s the only one that came off that does target women, children and babies and, because slaves in Haiti had rebelled in 1790 and word of that had traveled, its nondiscriminatory nature realized the nightmares of American southerners of what a slave rebellion would look like.
Scott Holleran: Has there been a cinematic depiction before Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation?
Alexander Marriott: There could possibly be a French film, but as far as English-language cinema goes, I’m not aware of any dramatic film adaptation, which is too bad. It’s an intensely complicated story. At the time it happened in the early part of the 19th century after the 1790 slave rebellion in Haiti, Nat Turner’s rebellion certainly gave pause to white Southerners who had been speaking openly about white Southern society and how slavery could be integrated in the American South. Could a large population of former slaves live among their former slaveowners? The answer after the Haitian rebellion seemed to be No. Nat Turner’s rebellion did trigger a debate among Virginians about abolition.
Depiction of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion
Scott Holleran: Did Nat Turner’s insurrection ultimately hurt or help the cause for abolition?
Alexander Marriott: If the cause is the immediate end of slavery then Turner’s rebellion probably did not do anything to that cause one way or the other. Turner’s rebellion fits into the failure of the American Revolution to eliminate slavery, which is part of the cause of the Civil War. Slavery was a contradiction to America’s founding. If you take [abolitionist] William Lloyd Garrison when news arrived about Southampton County in Boston, he pointed out that what Nat Turner had done was the inevitable consequence of slavery. It’s dark but illustrative. Among black abolitionists, Turner was not viewed as a villain. I’ve never come across any long remarks that Frederick Douglass produced on Nat Turner. Douglass certainly would not have morally condemned Turner.
Scott Holleran: Was Nat Turner a religious zealot, as the movie portrays?
Alexander Marriott: Everything we have to go on suggests that the answer is Yes, though no more so than other preachers in 1831. There were a lot of [Christian] revivals by both races for evangelism.
Scott Holleran: Is the scene in which slave preacher Nat Turner delivers baptism to a white man accurate?
Alexander Marriott: That did indeed occur and it was a controversial thing—even the most debased white person would not have [typically] come to a slave for baptism but Turner had built up a real reputation. Most whites would have been amused that a scoundrel [as depicted in the film] was being baptized by a slave preacher. The baptism contributed to the sense among Southampton County whites that Turner was not a particular threat. The sense was that he was specially marked. This was known by whites as well as slaves.
Scott Holleran: Is there evidence that rape as depicted in The Birth of a Nation occurred?
Alexander Marriott: Did rape occur under slavery? Yes. Was Nat Turner’s wife, Cherry, raped? No, according to historical records but if she had been there would have been no reason to note it and every reason to avoid noting it—with the exception of Nat Turner himself, who was literate—but Turner’s bible was not burned and he did write things down in the bible. As the rapes are portrayed in the movie, there’s nothing historically wrong with either of those portrayals. The notion that [rape] wasn’t happening all the time is not supported. Rape was not talked about—it was beautifully but horrifically portrayed in 12 Years a Slave that [slave] Patsy was being raped [by the slavemaster] and everyone knew it but didn’t talk about it. Thomas Jefferson’s mistress Sally Hemings is herself the product of Jefferson’s father-in-law. One of the other ways we know it happened is the color dynamics—darker field hands and lighter skinned house slaves—the evidence is everywhere around us.
Scott Holleran: How did his father’s escape from slavery impact Nat Turner and what happened to his father?
Alexander Marriott: We don’t know—we do know that Turner’s father ran away and was successful—and it’s hard to have records. The same is true with 12 Years a Slave author Solomon Northrup.
Scott Holleran: Is Parker’s portrayal of Nat Turner accurate?
Alexander Marriott: I don’t object to it in any formal way—there’s enough ambiguity and gap in the historical record that he can be a lot of things, which is why Nate Parker could make Nat Turner whatever he wanted. My own read on Turner is that Parker could have and should have focused a lot more on black preaching and how African Americans interacted with Christianity and [put more emphasis on the] gathering [of slaves in religious congregation] in the barn. Most of Turner’s [preaching] competition was not well read and Turner cut his teeth by listening to other black exhorters. Religion was not an attempt to repent in church on Sunday. So the black church would have been emotive and demonstrative and you don’t have any of that [in The Birth of a Nation] and [showing the demonstrativeness] would have made a lot more sense. Among themselves, certainly church was a very musical ceremony, which is an important part of blacks’ religious experience.
Scott Holleran: Did Turner’s rebellion target white women, children and babies?
Alexander Marriott: Yes. What makes the Turner rebellion so terrible and catastrophic is that it’s absolutely everything Southerners had always feared—it’s the worst-case scenario—an attack in which women and children were murdered. There’s no question that [Gabriel] Prosser’s [earlier slave rebellion] was a military style rebellion, so there were no attempts to terrorize and there’s no question that Turner was going to go on the Old Testament-style wrath as God’s sword, meaning killing babies and women and children. They killed the [slaveowning] Travis family in their beds and went back to kill the baby. In the movie, the only children seen killed on screen are blacks. But we know that a little [white] boy had his head chopped off while running away from a slave. In the movie, we see Turner himself kill [slavemaster] Sam Turner but [in fact] the only person I’m aware that Turner killed is a small [white] girl who was running away. He bludgeoned the child to death with a fence post.
Scott Holleran: Was Turner rational?
Alexander Marriott: Yes, to the extent that he knew his position in the world and that anyone who turns to evangelism can remain rational. The first date he originally planned for the rebellion was the Fourth of July—Turner became sick with anxiety and couldn’t do it—and that date could not have been randomly selected. His reputation was that he had always been planning things. He was coming up with plans to steal foods—he was the one to go to for plans and he’d established himself as a leader, not as a doer. And, apparently, the rebel slaves did not have a problem with Turner not doing the killing.
Scott Holleran: Was Nat Turner’s attention to detail captured in the movie?
Alexander Marriott: No. In the film, suddenly, there was a meeting in the woods—without Nat Turner vetting anyone who participated in the rebellion. You couldn’t regard The Birth of a Nation as a biopic because it leaves the history behind.
Scott Holleran: Is Nat Turner’s grandmother accurately depicted?
Alexander Marriott: She did exist and she was a direct captive from Africa. But we know so little about these slaves that writers can just create types. During the siege, Turner did skip [attacking] the plantation where [his wife] Cherry lived. Turner literally claimed that the ability to read and write came to him [from God]. After his unusual ability was discovered, he was given formal education though it was not as formal as portrayed in the movie. We know that he could read so he could have read whatever he got his hands on.
Scott Holleran: How do you regard Nat Turner’s confessions?
Alexander Marriott: One of the interesting questions anyone who studies Nat Turner has to grapple with is [historical documents]. In Nat Turner’s case, we get a long confession that gives insight into his thoughts. Thomas Gray was the lawyer [who interviewed Turner and elicited the confession] and he certainly did have an agenda—he could make money from the document or, as a white Southerner, he may have been tempted to downplay that, when asked if [slavemaster] Travis a good master, Nat Turner said Yes. So, if Travis was not a bad master, why [did Nat Turner] not spare him and his family? Not everyone who was killed was bad. So, when you read the confession document, you have to read it carefully. I tend to think [Gray] seems interested in trying to figure out what made Nat Turner tick. The Nat Turner that emerges from the confession document does come off as a possibly delusional, religious madman—does this mean that slavery is not that bad?—and Southerners could get some level of calm out of that. Some skeptical scholars might wonder why Turner doesn’t talk about all the horrors of slavery he’s seen. But the confession document is regarded as potentially useful document when it’s subjected to corroboration, not as a fraud. It’s also regarded as Turner’s confession filtered through a white man in Virginia in 1831. And, of course, Frederick Douglass did talk about these horrors of slavery. Turner would have seen really, really awful things done to him and to others, too. If you read 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northrup does not beat around the bush about [what happened to] Patsy. But he did it in a way it could be published.
Scott Holleran: Is the theme of The Birth of a Nation and/or Nat Turner’s rebellion that the ends justify the means?
Alexander Marriott: My impression is that Nate Parker thinks that resistance requires direct action, not sitting back and accepting what’s happening. From Nat Turner’s standpoint of the rebellion itself, he must have believed that this was an Old Testament-style [calling] and that he was delivering the wrath that God called for and that the system and deliverance from it required total annihilation, which is why he could [order a baby being killed] and why Turner never expressed remorse for it. Even Gray does not portray Nat Turner as meek or repentant.
Scott Holleran: Is it true that Nat Turner was hung, skinned and beheaded?
Alexander Marriott: Yes. Southerners made sure that no one would be coming to Nat Turner’s grave.
Scott Holleran: Rebel slaves are depicted killing with beheadings, too. Was this common practice?
Alexander Marriott: Remember the French Revolution. Beheading is a visceral way of warning [enemies] that this could happen. In England, it became the method for executing aristocrats. Going to public executions was common.
Scott Holleran: How should one regard slavery?
Alexander Marriott: Slavery is too easy to think of as endless fields of cotton for the South or as unending misery, toil and human squalor for the slaves. In some ways, it was worse and in some ways it was better and it wasn’t just the South—slavery was originally legal everywhere—it explains why the country has the heterogeneous racial quality it does, which is a strength, not a weakness. The United States had to overcome this problem and there’s a point at which Americans did start to get along reasonably well. We’re not all killing each other in the streets. Almost everyone gets that slavery is wrong. If you read Frederick Douglass, he wrote about his enslavement that the worst moments were when he was treated the best.
Scott Holleran: Is Frederick Douglass a good starting point for someone who takes slavery seriously while putting slavery in a proper American historical context?
Alexander Marriott: Yes. You couldn’t do any better. The one caveat to that is that Douglass is fairly unusual—he was not a Deep South slave, so he did not have the worst experiences as a slave. Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs is a good way to get a different perspective from a slave in New Orleans. She writes about her life as an urban slave woman. For a perspective from a Deep South field slave read Solomon Northrup’s account of enslavement on sugar and cotton plantations in Louisiana in 12 Years a Slave. One of the great things about the abolition movement is that abolitionists went out and found people who could write. They left us with a body of literature.
Scott Holleran: What does The Birth of a Nation get wrong?
Alexander Marriott: The [depiction of the] rebellion itself is all wrong, which is sad because the silliest thing was the confrontation in Jerusalem [Virginia] when they end up having the big showdown—nothing like that ever occurred. The U.S. Army did not show up. The movie doesn’t show Turner’s time as a fugitive. It portrays that he gave himself up and that’s completely wrong. He did not surrender. It was happenstance that when he was found he was emaciated. It had been eight weeks. Also, Nat Turner was not beaten up by the townspeople as portrayed.
Scott Holleran: What does The Birth of a Nation get right?
Alexander Marriott: The first bit about Nat Turner [as a boy] with his grandmother and mother and their concern with his African heritage and what the bumps [on Turner’s] body mean—that they [thought the body bumps] meant he was going to be a leader—that was true. The plantation’s houseguest getting a slave to [have sex] with—that’s pretty accurate. And, if anyone comes away from this movie thinking that slavery was unpleasant and harsher than they thought, that’s good.
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 . 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, 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).
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.”
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: 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.