The TCM Classic Film Festival celebrates classic movies on the big screen alongside the iconic players involved in making them. Created by cable network Turner Classic Movies, the festival is now in its fifth year, while the network celebrates its 20th.
The four day festival, which begins Thursday, will include additional programming such as Q&A sessions with special effects artist Rick Baker; a hand and footprint ceremony with Jerry Lewis; and a postage stamp dedication ceremony for the late Charlton Heston.
SSN sat down with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, who’s been involved with the festival since its inception, to find out more about this year’s line-up and why classic movies are important.
SSN: Every year the festival has a different theme. This year it’s Family in the Movies: The Ties that Bind, with opening night film Oklahoma!. How does this year’s films fit into that theme?
Mankiewicz: We like to have a theme to tie things together, but we want to keep it broad. Family can mean a lot of things—nuclear family, extended family, a family who made a film. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a pretty dysfunctional family; The Heart is a Lonely Hunter stars Alan Arkin as a deaf mute who’s the only family to another deaf mute; I’ll be interviewing Quincy Jones, and one of the things we’ll talk about is his daughter Rashida, who’s also an actress.
SSN: A regular night of network programming has theme. The festival is similar in that way, but on a larger scale, correct?
Mankiewicz: Many nights on the network are mini, four-movie festivals. We’ll tie those movies together in an interesting way and curate them with an intro and an outro. That’s what the festival is, except it’s four days with just under 80 movies. We put them all in context, give the audience an idea of what it means that this movie was made, [and] why it matters.
SSN: Do you keep the films within specific years?
Mankiewicz: Not at all. Fiddler is from 1971, Hunter is from the ‘60s. This year we’re also showing The Music Man from the ‘50s and Gone With the Wind from the ‘30s. The network exists primarily to honor movies of the ‘30s [through the] ‘60s, but that’s not a rule. We’ll show movies from this century when they become relevant or we can put them in proper context. There’s no cut off.
SSN: The films are shown in theaters that have their own history, from the Chinese to the Egyptian to the El Capitan. Is that important to the ambience?
Mankiewicz: No question. These are splendid, beautifully crafted pieces of American architecture. One of our final night films is Hitchcock’s last silent movie, The Lodger, and we’ll have it with live orchestra accompaniment. Viewers will get the same experience that people in 1927 had. A few years ago we showed Thief of Baghdad at the Egyptian, where it had premiered almost exactly 90 years earlier.
SSN: You have many guests participating, among them Alan Arkin, Jerry Lewis, Shirley Jones, Tim Conway, filmmaker Norman Jewison, and composer John Williams. Is it hard booking talent for the festival?
Mankiewicz: It’s easier to book this festival in year five than it was in year one. There’s a sense of urgency because many of the people who participated in these movies have reached an elegant age. We want to get them in front of the cameras, in front of a crowd, and document their contributions to an audience that cares.
SSN: At the same time, you have a younger generation participating. Patton Oswalt is introducing David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and Anna Kendrick will introduce George Cukor’s The Women.
Mankiewicz: The people I meet in the industry who watch TCM is a serious list of heavy hitters. Anna Kendrick obviously didn’t see The Women when it came out, but it matters to her and she wants to talk about it.
SSN: There are many festivals in Los Angeles, including AFI Fest, the Hollywood Film Festival, the Los Angeles Film Festival, Downtown Film Festival Los Angeles, and the Hollywood Black Film Festival, among others. How do you distinguish yourself?
Mankiewicz: I love a lot of those festivals and they’re important, but most of them showcase new movies. There’s no festival that brings you, over a four day period, 75-plus movies primarily from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
SSN: Why is that important to showcase?
Mankiewicz: It honors the lifeblood on which [current] movies are built. No one asks that question about books. No one would say, ‘Why do I have to know who Tennessee Williams is or read Catcher in the Rye?’ We presume that books have lasting important cultural history. I don’t think we should question whether movies do or not. There are some silly books and some silly movies, but at its core, film is the most powerful medium there’s ever been.
SSN: What do movie fans get from this type of a film festival?
Mankiewicz: These are great movies; the best movies we’ve ever made. They’re the building blocks on which movies today are built. The great directors [of] today, like Martin Scorsese and Curtis Hanson, know the significance of Howard Hawks and John Ford. Quentin Tarantino can tell you shot-for-shot just about any Sergio Leone movie ever made!
SSN: How has the festival grown over the years and where do you see it going?
Mankiewicz: There’s no shortage of great films and no shortage of themes we can talk about. I think we had under 50 [films] the first year and now we’re just under 80, so we’ve already grown because we added a couple more theaters. We see ourselves less as a television network and more as curators of this medium.