For the second year in a row, the TCM Classic Film Festival is available from home and now even more accessible than ever with two ways to watch. The festival takes over TCM through Sunday, May 9 with 96 hours of movies, interviews, table reads, and world premiere restorations. The festival is also streaming on HBO Max with an almost entirely different selection from those programmed on the channel. TCM host Ben Mankiewicz told me HBO Max gives the festival an opportunity to use archive material of Robert Osborne along with new pieces created by their team to give the audience an experience similar to watching bonus features on a Blu-ray.
I spoke with Mankiewicz about making the TCM Classic Film Festival streaming experience unique, how he confused Martin Short’s 1994 movie Clifford for Clifford the Big Red Dog, and how Jon Voight talked about his support of Trump in their recent interview. Mankiewicz also delves into how TCM’s audience responded to their “Reframed Classics” series and his interest in discovering films that were previously lost.
Selections from the festival and their supplemental material will be available for the entire month of May on HBO Max.
The Film Stage: It feels appropriate that we’re talking on Orson Welles’ 106th birthday. Did you hear Paddington 2 overtook Citizen Kane as the best reviewed movie on Rotten Tomatoes?
Ben Mankiewicz: I’m not sure I realized that. Yes, it is, in fact the 6th. It’s funny, it was a Chicago Tribune review from 1941 on Kane. The Tribune bought the Hearst papers in Chicago 15 years later. As there’s more contemporary reviews of Kane its percentage is going to go down. It wasn’t like everybody loved it at the time––especially those who were trying to curry favor with Hearst. It’s not like every review thought it was magical. It’s a fun story, Paddington 2 taking over Kane. But Paddington 2 is good, and people love it.
What was it like to bring Mank from unmade script all the way to the Academy Awards?
I really loved that whole experience with Mank. It was very emotional for me to see the film in the first place. I never met my grandfather, but really, Gary Oldman portrayed him in a way that was very much the manner in which my father described him. [David] Fincher screened the movie for me with nobody else in the theater except my wife. It was nice. From that moment the title card came up, it was very emotional. I love the movie. I love that it won more Oscars than Kane.
Will you talk about programming the TCM Classic Film Festival online and on-air as distinct experiences with different movies?
That was the idea. I think what made it very exciting for the programming department was this is brand new to us to be able to work with a streaming service like HBO Max. They’re our partners, and will be going forward. It was this new challenge, something we’ve never been able to do before. To offer people these totally different experiences was something that excited the channel, and then specifically the programming department when it came time to set this up. Because there are all these wonderful things that we’ve shot and created over the years that don’t really have a permanent home on TCM. Some of them we can show but some of them are very long, so we don’t know quite how to program them on TCM, because our mission is to show the films. So here, though, what we can do is bring you these movies on HBO Max and then create these events around it as if you’re opening a brand new Blu-ray of the film. It’ll include some introductions from Robert, some introductions from me, and plenty of material we shot fresh, but existed one time a couple of years ago. So all these wonderful conversations that we’ve had throughout the years have now found a place to work themselves in, to add to the curation and add to the context of the film. And we’ve shot significant new stuff for the festival. I’m really impressed with what we were able to do here. There are all these wonderful conversations that we’ve been able to include and find a place for. HBO Max has provided us a place for that, so I think we got really lucky.
For your tribute to Martin Short, the festival is showing Innerspace and Clifford. Clifford is this totally demented movie and Roger Ebert said of it, “The movie is so odd, it’s almost worth seeing just because we’ll never see anything like it again. I hope.” Why did you choose one of his most reviled movies for the tribute?
Some of it comes down to rights issues and what HBO Max has available from Martin Short. And we wanted to honor Martin Short because he’s Martin Short. So the programmers told me they would like me to talk about Innerspace and Clifford and I had not seen Clifford. Nor do I recall Clifford‘s release in 1994. People were like, “Ugh, you gotta watch Clifford. Oh my God, it’s terrible. I can’t believe this.” There was some of that thought, I must admit. All clearly from people who, I guess, just read a synopsis. So, I’m not kidding, I thought Martin Short was playing a kid who owned Clifford the Big Red Dog. So then I read about it and I think this sounds like an interesting comedy. Before I saw it, I heard Jason Bateman’s podcast and they had Martin Short on so I was listening to the show, and Will Arnett starts talking about Clifford. And I was like, wow, he really likes it. And there’s no nonsense happening here. This is clearly a guy who’s incredibly funny and sophisticated, who doesn’t understand why people don’t understand that Clifford is an important piece of 90s comedy. I was like, I don’t really want to hear anymore, I’m gonna watch Clifford right now.
When I watched it I was like, this is unbelievable. This is one of the funniest movies of the 1990s. I didn’t know! Martin’s so committed to this and obviously, that’s the kind of thing that maybe in the 90s turned Roger Ebert off a little bit. It’s so over the top, it’s so uncomfortable. But if you know what you’re gonna get, then it’s just like this perfectly played skit that has been thoughtfully expanded into ninety minutes. And there is no better partner for the enraged straight man than Charles Grodin, who does no wrong as far as I’m concerned. I don’t like to throw this word around but there are these two geniuses doing what they do so I couldn’t recommend Clifford more highly. You need to watch Clifford! I feel like I’m abdicating our responsibilities as a defender of classic Hollywood, but yeah, I’m a big advocate of Clifford.
You have so many jobs, and I couldn’t help but think if you interviewed Jon Voight on The Young Turks instead of CBS Sunday Morning it would have been a different kind of interview. How do you balance your candor between your various audiences?
It’s actually not that hard. First of all, this is going sound stupid, but I really only know how to be me. For a while, I tried to be a guy on TV and a local news anchor, and I just didn’t have any success until I started being like, if something interests me, it interests other people. If I have any strength, it’s also then recognizing just because something doesn’t interest me, doesn’t mean it won’t interest other people. I’m kind of a mainstream guy. If I think something’s a cool question that I’m interested in the answer to, I bet they will be too. So I started being myself and that comes out on TCM or CBS Sunday Morning or whether I’m talking about politics on The Young Turks. But make no mistake: everything in my career really flows out of TCM.
TCM has given me this platform that I’m incredibly grateful for. That’s a big part of why I’m at CBS Sunday Morning, there’s a nice crossover audience there. But of course, if we had Jon Voight on The Young Turks it would have been a different interview, no question about it. I loved doing that interview and I know there was a social media reaction to it. But to me, this was a guy who you think you know, and surely the manner of his support of President Trump is objectionable to people, but this is a brilliant actor who loves being part of that community, loves being an actor, loves tearing an acting part open and understanding character. He loves sharing it with other actors. He believes in the community. Loves being part of it, and thinks the collaborative part of it is the best part of this business. I hope that came across in the piece. Jon Voight is a really likable, decent person to be around. I’m not for ignoring critical issues this country faces because somebody is a celebrity. But I also think that there are times and situations where we can find some meaningful commonality––that it’s worth it just for our own individual sanity. So I very much enjoyed meeting Jon and I hope and look forward to seeing him again, having a meal, and talking about movies.
How did TCM’s audience respond to “Reframed Classics”?
Very, very well. Obviously these are issues which ignite strong emotions, and the strong emotions end up having the loudest voices. And that’s just how it works. Now those voices get amplified. That’s the world we live in. When you’re in this business––a business filled with artists––you have to have the courage of your creative convictions. We were, as a company, top down from the chairman of Warner Brothers, all the way down to everybody working at TCM thought it was critically important that movies play a huge role in framing how we feel about the national conversation about race and ethnicity and gender and sexual orientation. It’s because of the enormity of the power of motion pictures. Since they played such a critical role in framing it in the first place, and hence we got the name “Reframed.” We wanted those movies to play a critical role in understanding where we go. I see these movies as incredibly valuable teaching tools going forward.
We had no interest, of course, in canceling these movies, this has nothing to do with what some people are calling cancel culture. I mean, as evidenced by the fact that we literally showed the movies in primetime. Since 1994, what we’ve done is put these movies in their proper context, their proper Hollywood context, their proper entertainment context, their proper cinematic context, and their proper political context. Hollywood has been a political town since the moment that this business started, particularly since sound came to it. So that matters and that’s part of what we do. We’ve been doing it for 27 years. So it was exciting for us to have this opportunity to put these movies in a fresh context.
Our goal is not to make anybody feel guilty by liking these movies; our goal is to make people understand these movies and the powerful role they play better, so that as we go forward these movies will continue to be part of this conversation. Because I have news for everybody: these conversations, they’re not going away. And I want badly for the movies to play a role in understanding these classic movies that we take care of. That’s our job. We’re the caretakers of this art form. I want to make sure that these movies stay a relevant part of the conversation to understand where we’ve been so we can get to where we want to be.
I’m interested in the festival’s decision to close out with two Chantal Akerman films.
The idea is that you want to overwhelm people at a festival with too many choices and they’re not all the same choice. The idea isn’t to give people a choice between The Searchers and Stagecoach. We know that our bread and butter is the Hollywood classics, but that includes foreign films and directors from other countries so that you get a full, broad picture of world cinema. You introduce people who love Paths of Glory and Lilies of the Field to Chantal Akerman.
What is the one movie you’ve wanted to show on TCM but haven’t been able to?
There are all sorts of lost films. John Huston thought when he made The Red Badge of Courage that he made his best film and he already made The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. So if he says this is the best movie I’ve made that’s saying something. But the audience reaction in the sneak previews they did weren’t good. Focus groups weren’t good. They added narration, they cut a little bit. And then he went off to make The African Queen. He leaves the country and executive producer Dore Schary cuts it to under 70 minutes. He took out a bunch of death scenes and left it as what it is, which is sort of this safe, rather antiseptic war picture, which is obviously not in any way what The Red Badge of Courage ought to be. So it’s lost. What I want to see is John Huston’s vision for it. I’d love to see Orson Welles’ vision of The Magnificent Ambersons. Right now we think those things don’t exist, but movies have a way of popping up in strange places.
The TCM Classic Film Festival is now underway through May 9. Learn more here.