The 80th Academy Awards are over, and doubtlessly many are arguing over the presentations, merits (or lack thereof) of the nominees, etc. Let's take a brake from all of that and turn back to Turner Classic Movies and 31 Days of Oscar. Or more specifically that host of hosts, Robert Osborne. Robert Osborne has been the host of Turner Classic Movies since it first hit the air. He is a film historian, journalist, the official historian of the Academy Awards and author, most notably of the indispensible 75 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards. He is not only extremely knowledgeable about film history, but he's interviewed many stars and downright legends. In addition to all of that he is a gentleman and a very nice guy. And at the end of the day - a classic film fan like the rest of us. Recently, before the Academy Awards show, I had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Osborne about TCM, the Oscars, interviewing the stars and classic films.
JC: Mr. Osborne…
RO: Hey, J.C.! How are you?
JC: I’m doing great, how are you?
RO: Good. Thank you for all of the nice things you write about TCM.
JC: Well, I guess I am a TCM fanatic.
RO: Well we like that! That’s not a bad thing to be!
JC: You’ll have to forgive me if I am little nervous, because I’m not quite as experienced as you in conducting interviews.
RO: Don’t be nervous. I’m your friend; I come into your house every night.
JC: Yes, you do!
RO: So don’t be nervous!
JC: OK, well I just have a couple quick questions. I know your time is valuable, and you have others to talk to, but I want to ask you kind of a couple of things about the Oscars. Kind of in line with 31 Days of Oscars and also just some things about classic films in general. The Oscars, of course, are coming up soon…
JC: You’ll be there of course.
JC: It is the benchmark awards show, but it also has had its share of criticism and odd years and things like that. Why have the Oscars endured for so long?
RO: Well, I think they’ve endured because they really do represent the best in Hollywood. We’re all kind of movie fans and movie buffs. So it’s kind of the pick of the litter. It’s also usually involved with people that we’re familiar with; at one time it was Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy and Better Davis, and now it’s George Clooney and Julie Christie and new people. But through the ages, you know, it’s always been filled with glamorous people and it takes us, the Oscar show itself, takes us to a world that most people don’t, you know, aren’t inhabiting all times. So I think all of that together is… and it’s also synonymous with being the benchmark and being the best at whatever you do, so I think that’s why it’s endured. I also think it’s endured because there’s never been a scandal connected to it. Which is amazing- because something that involved with attracting money and if a picture wins an Oscar it can make a lot more money- that there’s not been ever a scandal connected to it, the Oscars. And they work very hard to protect that. That’s very important. So I think there are many, many reasons, but I think the main reason it has fascinated people for so long is- and our 31 Days of Oscar schedule would be a sample of that, because it’s representing great films, that endure, and films that, even if you’ve sent them once or twice, or fifteen times, you still want to see them again.
JC: There are a lot of them, that you see pop up on television, and you’ve just got to stop what you’re doing and finish watching it.
RO: Right. There are certain movies like- and I get really angry with myself- Casablanca. It will be on TCM and I’ll think, ‘Well, I’ve seen this…you know, much too much,” (laughs) and you watch one scene and you’re still there two hours later.
JC: Because you’re drawn into that world.
RO: Yes. They almost…, some of these great movies that we have, and we so many of them in this month of February, is that they almost refuse to let you leave once you get in. They’re like page turners on a book. One scene just takes you to the other. I’m forever saying, “Oh, well, I’m just going to wait until that scene where they do this or that scene where Ingrid Bergman does that”, but you’re still there at the end of the movie. It’s one of those things that’s so great about good film making.
JC: One of my favorite shows on TCM is Private Screenings.
RO: Oh, thank you.
JC: It’s fascinating to me how at ease everybody seems to be with you when you talk to them. Do you have a chance to talk them before the actual interview?
RO: Well some of them I have known before. I think that part of that comes with them watching TCM and realizing that I’m not going to go out and try and trap them and that I’m not interested in their personal life, except maybe in how it affected their screen choices and things. I have to tell you, TCM is a very friendly place and people come down there and the whole crew and everybody makes them feel comfortable and at home. And I think that ease makes people at ease then when they are sitting talking to me. And also, what we usually do is when we have somebody like an Angela Landsbury or Jane Fonda or Jane Powell or whoever, you know we kind of sit and chat for a couple or three hours, and that’s cut down to an hour. So it’s not as though it’s like there is a “freneticness” to it all. They can relax and talk and they get the feeling that they are talking with somebody that not only knows their background but likes them and is interesting in them. I think one of the problems that a lot of celebrities understandably have today in the newsmedia is that they’re out for news scoops or scandal or something…
JC: The “gotcha” element…
RO: Yeah, the gotcha thing. And we don’t have that and I think that helps them relax.
JC: Is there somebody that you have interviewed that you had an idea of who they were and didn’t know them that well, but when you interviewed them they surprised you, in a good way or bad way?
RO: Well, yeah. Robert Mitchum I had known on and off for a long time, and I had been to film festivals with him and sat and talked with him and sometimes tried to get away from him only because he was a heavy drinker and he liked to sit at the bar for hours. He was fascinating and told great stories. You know, he was much brighter than we ever give him credit for. He would write poetry and all that sort of stuff. He would tell fascinating stories, but after a while, when you have to get up and work the next day or do something, you don’t want to be sitting at a bar at two AM for the third night in a row. And so, I’d known him on and off for a long time, and he came to do the interview. He was very witty and all of that, until the camera was on, and then he absolutely stonewalled me the whole time the camera was on.
JC: I remember seeing that…
RO: He’d do yes and no answers and everything. And then we’d break for lunch and he’d be like a Chatty Cathy doll again. He was just being cantankerous and ornery. (both laughing) You know, I could’ve killed him, I could’ve killed him. The only other thing he would do, he would raise his hand, because he had emphysema so terribly he had a nurse with him and the oxygen tank. He would raise his hand, and we thought he had to go to the bathroom. He’d go out and have a cigarette. He’d be sitting out there with a nurse and an oxygen tank attached to him having a cigarette. And you just wanted to say, “Are you crazy?” Well, he obviously was a really great guy and certainly one of my favorite actors.
JC: One of my favorite interviews was the Private Screenings you did with Mickey Rooney, that was also included on the recent Mickey and Judy DVD Collection. He just seemed so much fun.
RO: Yeah, he was crazy, you know, too and he’s one of the most talented people in the world.
JC: Is there someone out there; actor, actress, director, that you haven’t interviewed that you would love to?
RO: I’d love to do one with Olivia de Havilland. She unfortunately lives in Paris, so that’s not too easily arranged. I’d like to do Michael Caine. I’d love to do Gena Rowlands. There are several. What we don’t ever try to do though, is just collect people just to be collecting them. They’re expensive to do and they’re fun to do, but we also want to have an exclusive club of people. So we’re very selective about who we invest the time in to do that. There are certainly people with great careers that would be interesting to talk to, but we really try to hold it down to a minimum and get people that are really valid, where somebody like you, is really interested in watching, because you’ve not been disappointed in it.
JC: It’s a wonderful show…
RO: Thank you.
JC: When I got interested in classic films, when I was very little, my dad exposed me to quite a few, and radio shows as well. And now I’m in my 30s and I still surprise people with my interest (they think I’m too young to know the films) and the writing that I do about classic films. From my perspective I see more and more people my age and younger getting interested and passionate, and running websites about them. I’m introducing my kids to them…
RO: Great! That’s music to my ears.
JC: They are big Abbott and Costello and Three Stooges fans right now, much to my wife’s chagrin…
RO: (Laughs) Well that’s great. How do you like our 31 Days of Oscar schedule this year?
JC: I love it, with the “Decades.”
JC: Last year with the schedule divided up into categories [Oscar nomination categories] and was great to see the different kind of films that were nominated. And I think in a way, like you mentioned earlier, this is a good way for people to get more familiar with, not just the Oscars, but with some films that they didn’t know were ever nominated.
RO: Right. Well, you know it’s also interesting, because if you have a history with the film too. We change, so therefore those films change for us. A movie that maybe we saw as a kid and didn’t like, you can see know and really appreciate. By the same token, a film that you liked as a kid or when you are in high school or just out of high school, that you thought was terrific, you look at it now and you say, well that’s not really so great. But it also gives us a chance to see films, not in our 31 Days of Oscar so much because those are all pretty much great films or they wouldn’t have been in that echelon, but just Turner Classic Movies in general. You’ll see a film, that may not be a terrifically great film, but it comes at a certain time in an actor’s life, and actor you particularly like, and it’s interesting to see how their careers were all built. And I love that about our channel too.
JC: Is there a place, for someone who is just starting to get interested- I’m talking in the line of films- for somebody is just getting interested in classic film, what’s a good starting point for them?
RO: Well, I really think that’s the whole concept of our franchise, “The Essentials.” It’s kind of like, if you really want a background in film, these are some of the ones that are essential to see. That’s once a week on Saturday nights, and it goes all year long. This year, Carrie Fisher has been co-hosting with me and next year it’s Rose McGowan. And I think that’s the best place to start to see these films. We try to explain why it’s essential and why this is an important film, and I think that would be a good place for anybody to start.
JC: Is there a director or actor or actress that you think their body of work is underrated and they are due for rediscovery?
RO: Well, I think Howard Hawks doesn’t get as much attention as he deserves. He was a great director in so many, every different category. And also a wonderful director, Clarence Brown, that almost nobody talks about, that did The Yearling, National Velvet and a lot of the Garbo films. He was one of those great directors that nobody really talks about, but of course in those days nobody really talked about anybody but the stars. Unless you were a Hitchcock or a Cecil B. DeMille and had your own publicist, people didn’t know who you were all that much. Clarence Brown is still forgotten and more attention should be paid.
JC: And what was your favorite classic film DVD release from last year?
RO: From last year? That- I would have to think about, there were so many. I can’t think of just one off the top of my mind just now. That’s a good question, I’ll have to give that some thought.
JC: OK (laughs) Well, thank you Mr. Osborne for chatting with me today.
RO: Thanks, it was nice talking to you!
JC: I appreciate it. It was wonderful talking to you.
RO: And thanks for your enthusiasm! Goodbye.
Thanks very much to Robert Osborne for taking the time to talk with me and thanks to Turner Classic Movies and Sarah Schmitz at TCM for setting up the interview.
You know, Rick, I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.