RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVE
(This feature originally ran in 2008)
Cinema Retro Editor-in-Chief Lee Pfeiffer chatted with Robert Osborne, the popular host of TCM's movie broadcasts. Osborne, who is also the official Oscar historian, is well known for his informative introductions and epilogues for the films that TCM broadcasts. Director Sidney Lumet once said that even if he doesn't desire to see certain films, he always tries to tune in for Osborne's introductions. Osborne is as affable offscreen as he is on the air. Witty, knowledgable and conversant in all things Hollywood-related, he has many of the attributes he ascribes to the stars he grew up idolizing. In addition to being a columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, Osborne is by all accounts America's premiere film historian.
CR: You seem to have every movie lover's dream job: to get paid to watch and analyze classic movies. How did this come about and what led to your association with the Academy?
RO: When I was first starting out as an actor, I was under contract to Lucille Ball at Desilu Studios, which was owned by Lucy and Desi Arnaz. Lucy knew I had this passion for movie history which at that time was not a normal thing. Most people weren't interested in movie history. She said, "You know, you would have a happier life as a writer than as an actor. You should be writing about movies, because nobody is." She told me that she thought being an actor would never make me happy, but writing would. She knew I was a journalism major at the University of Washington. She told me that if I took up writing as a profession, the first thing I had to do was write a book because people would look at you differently if I did. She told me it didn't even have to be a good book, but that everyone is impressed with anyone who writes a book because most people lack the discipline to do it. I knew she was telling me this for my own good, not some other agenda, so I quit being an actor and became a writer.
The thing I decided to write about was the Academy Awards because you could always find a list of who won Oscars, but you could never find a list of who was nominated. It was even hard to get one from the Academy because that was a very small organization at the time. So I wrote this book and it hit a chord with people because you couldn't get a book about the Oscars anywhere else. The cult success of that book has followed me around ever since. Years later, when they decided they wanted a history done of the Academy, they asked me to write it. (The latest edition of the book is titled 75 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards-Ed.)
CR: So you owe a lot to Lucille Ball...
RO: I do, and for many reasons. She was right on because when I was trying to get a start at the Hollywood Reporter, it was having written a book that put me ahead of my competition. She knew my personality and told me that because I came from a small town in the northwest, I wouldn't be able to easily compete with tough people from New York that had come up through the ranks. She told me she didn't think acting would make me happy. She was a great psychiatrist and pyschoanalyst. She had plenty of street smarts.
CR: How long have you been associated with Turner Classic Movies?
RO: Since we went on the air in 1994, actually.
CR: How long does it take you to prepare your introductions for the seemingly countless number of movies you discuss in a given month?
RO: I take about two weeks a month writing and rewriting them. Sometimes people construct an intro and I take it and put it in my own words or add material. Say it's about a Bette Davis movie and I happen to know how Bette Davis felt about the movie, I will add that to the script. After working on the scripts for about two weeks, I go to Atlanta and spend about five days taping 150 of them. So its a process that takes about three weeks. Then I'm also doing the Private Screenings series or filming with a guest programmer. It's never a burden because I would be doing all this as a hobby if not a profession, so it all goes back to Lucy. It alllows me to be doing what I'm really interested in. I'm very lucky in that sense. There are many people who are very knowledgable about film and should be doing this and I feel fortunate that I got to be the one to do the job.
CR: I'm not trying to pander here, but...
RO: Oh, you can pander a little bit!
CR: Alright, what separates you from many other so-called "movie experts" is that you really do display a genuine knowledge and enthusiasm for classic films. You're not just reading a teleprompter. I think the fact that you also knew so many of these movie legends also adds immeasurably to your work.
RO: I went to California at a time when it was relatively easy to meet these people. If you had a good suit and fairly good manners, you would be invited to places. If you went to a party, there would be Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood and Cary Grant and Henry Fonda with their wives. Many of the people were of an age where they weren't working that much any more. They loved somebody like me because I knew their history. It's hard to believe, but back then you could see Cary Grant at a party but most people didn't care that much because his day was largely over. There wasn't nostalgia around or a passion for these people. So they loved someone like me to talk to because I knew about their careers - and they were willing to chit-chat about it. If I had been out there fifteen years earlier, they would have been busy with their careers and they wouldn't have had time for me. If I had gone out there fifteen years later, many would have been retired or dead. I got out there at a perfect time in terms of being able to meet some of these people.
CR: Most of what passed for film journalism in the 1960s was still of the Hedda Hopper/Louella Parsons gossip news.
RO: Yes, and there was also a great rapport in those days between journalists and publicists. There was a guy named John Flynn, who was Jimmy Stewart's publicist. He would call up and he and Jimmy would take you out to lunch at least once a year. I could ask Jimmy about his career, past or present, and they would get some good newspaper space and I would get a good interview. Today, there's a very hostile feeling between the press and celebrities for good reason. A lot of press that is hostile to the celebrities is looking for negative things to write about.It wasn't just Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons and Sheila Graham- there was a lot of journalism that wasn't gossip. It wasn't necessarily pandering journalism and interesting stories were being written. Those early interviews that Rex Reed used to do were dynamite. He had great insights into some of these people.
CR: Yes, and Peter Bogdanovich had the foresight to interview legendary actors and filmmakers who were being all but ignored by the mainstream press.
CR: Let's talk about TCM's 31 Days of Oscar. This is the fourteenth annual one of these that the network has done and I believe there are some films making their debuts on the network during this festival.
RO: Yes, and one I'm particularly excited about is Wings which is the first movie to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture. We're also showing the first Lord of the Rings movie. So we're covering the Oscars from the first year right up into the 2000s. Older films make up the bulk of our library and are the strength of our library, but we bring in new films to keep the schedule fresh. We have a deal with Columbia Pictures for a few years so we're showing the whole Columbia library. That will allow us to show films like Cover Girl with Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly, Irene Dunne films we've never shown before and a lot of interesting stuff. We want to appeal to all ages and there's no one era that appeals to everybody. Some people love the Val Lewton horror films of the 1940s and some people love those B space films from the 1950s. We hope that someone who never saw our channel will watch Lord of the Rings and come back and discover John Garfield. I was at an event the other night and Lauren Bacall was talking and she said, "If you've never seen Topaze starrring John Barrymore from 1933, then to you that's not an old film - it's a new film." She's right. If you've never seen Casablanca, made in 1943, then that's a new film. She was talking about Turner and what an adventure it is to have these new experiences if you've never seen these movies before.
CR: We occasionally introduce classic movies at the famous Film Forum theater in New York as well as the Loews Jersey City theater, a restored movie palace...
RO: Yes, I'm familiar with it...
CR: ...and I always say I envy people who haven't seen these films before because they get to experience it for the first time.
RO: I said the same thing to someone the other day who had not seen Sunset Boulevard. I said, "My God, I envy you! To see Sunset Boulevard for the first time? You are so lucky!"
CR: With the demise of AMC as a viable network for classic movie lovers - at least since they started chopping up films and inserting commercials- it looks like Turner stands alone in fighting the good fight in showing movies in their original versions.
RO: Certainly, no one is doing it with the interstitials that we have and the presentations that we have and the extensive library that we have. It's so essential to see films without commercial breaks and interruptions. If you see Hitchcock's Rebecca, which we're showing during the 31 Days of Oscar,that whole movie is predicated on mood and slow suspense. You can't break that mood for a commercial. You lose the the rythym and the impact of it.
CR: Turner was also instrumental in waging a campaign over the years to educate viewers about the necessity of showing films in their widescreen formats. Do you think the public is now more accepting of the practice?
RO: I think so, and it's helping that people are buying bigger screens. I think one of the problems was that when people had small screens, letterboxing was really difficult to watch. Also, we've never shown a colorized movie. That's kind of gone away but it was very prominent when we started. A lot of younger people are now beginning to appreciate black and white films.
CR: I've always been against colorization, but Sony recently sent Cinema Retro these new DVDs of Ray Harryhausen's films. They present the movie in black and white and in a new colorization process that I have to admit looks fantastic. What do you think of colorization when a director like Harryhausen approves it and says its the way he wants the films to be seen?
RO: Well, I think DVD is the perfect place for it- especially if it gives you the choice. I saw a Shirley Temple movie that's in the new Ford at Fox boxed set and it presents it in black and white and in sepia tone. I think it's fine to do that, but I think for TCM we should continue to only show films in their original format. You know they shot Seven Brides for Seven Brothers a second time in a flat screen dimension and we don't even show that.
CR: Can you assure classic movie lovers that there are no plans to destroy the format of the network as AMC did by inserting commercials and editing films?
RO: There are no plans. The people who run the channel are very adamant about it and everybody knows what a great boutique channel this is. But one never, ever knows what changes may happen in the future. One can never write anything in cement about anything in the world. We don't even know there will be a New York City here at the end of the month- we can only hope. But right now, everything is fine and we're making deals for movies until 2014. So nothing is going to happen in the immediate future.
CR: Does TCM really listen to viewer requests to show specific movies?
RO: They absolutely do. Just write in from our web site at www.tcm.com. They really read those requests and they are very influenced by that.
CR: One last question: what is your favorite movie that will be shown during 31 Days of Oscar?
RO: Notorious - it's a knock-out and we're showing it on February 23. It's one of my favorite movies of all time - but of course, so is Casablanca, Nashville, The Big Chill - we're showing them all. But Notorious, I have to say, is just dynamite.