King of the Classics
Robert Osborne presides over TCM film fest
By Carl Kozlowski 04/12/2012
Robert Osborne has built a career around his passion for movies, having served as the prime host of Turner Classic Movies (TCM) cable TV network for the past 18 years, delivering interesting anecdotes and fascinating trivia during introductory segments to 28 classic feature films each week. But if it weren’t for the advice of Lucille Ball, he might never have become a film historian at all.
Growing up bored in a small town in the state of Washington, Osborne found escape by going to the movies each weekend. He fled to Hollywood as soon as he hit adulthood and tried to make his way as an actor until he made an appearance on “I Love Lucy.”
“I made a good impression on her, and she became my friend until the end of her life decades later, but that impression wasn’t due to being good actor, for sure,” he laughs. “Ball told me we don’t need more actors, but we need people writing about movies. So I studied more, was self-taught about film history and started writing more, and everything went from there.”
Osborne will be taking Hollywood by storm today through Sunday as the prime host of the 3rd Annual TCM Classic Film Festival. Spotlighting 75 movies in four days, the fest is a movie buff’s dream and has already exploded in popularity during its first two years. This year’s festival sold out its general passes, which allow viewers to see all the films, the very day they went on sale.
But there are still tickets available to individual films for those interested in seeing expertly restored classics on the big screen. The films are often accompanied by a question and answer session featuring the actors and filmmakers who brought the films to life. This year’s fest pays special tribute to legendary producer Robert Evans (“Chinatown,” “Love Story”), actress Kim Novak (“Vertigo,” “Bell Book and Candle”), director Stanley Donen (“Funny Face”) and the eternally youthful Debbie Reynolds (“Singin’ in the Rain.”)
“The mix of those kinds of personalities always brings so much to the table, plus the mix of films, where you can see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing on the big screen and ‘How the West Was Won’ in its original form,” says Osborne with pride. “All of us who work at TCM love TCM, and so often it brings us films that would have sat on shelves unseen. But you don’t really experience the magic unless you share it in an audience with a big screen, because it’s a totally different experience than on iPhone or on a TV screen.”
Summing it all up, Osborne makes one last plea to convince San Gabriel Valley movie buffs to make the short trek to Hollywood for a magical weekend.
“To see great movies with people who love movies is a real treat,” he says. “You can see a silent movie, then ‘Chinatown,’ then ‘Funny Face’ — all eras, all matches — and that’s another thing that’s so much fun. One of the things I object to today is every movie is so alike, and there was a time when there was variety, and we reflect that, and it’s kind of thrilling.”
According to TCM Senior Vice President of Programming Charlie Tabesh, the festival’s eclectic programming is a reflection of the variety that the network itself tries to offer throughout the year. He’s also happy to point out that the fest’s array of films from multiple decades helps dispel the myth that the station only plays ancient black and white films.
“We’re honoring the 25th anniversary of ‘Moonstruck’ with a special screening this year,” says Tabesh, of the 1987 film that won Cher a Best Actress Oscar and helped propel Nicolas Cage’s career. “Our focus is classic Hollywood and the studio era, but each year we have ‘31 Days of Oscar’ leading into the Academy Awards, so we played really recent films like the ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Good Will Hunting.’ So much of what we’re doing is tied to themes like that, and we don’t edit anything. We’ll air ‘Good Will Hunting,’ with all the [foul] language intact, but we’ll air it late at night, due to its being stronger.”
Tabesh believes there’s no point in messing with success, and as such this year’s fest will feature five key venues for screenings, with the Cinerama Dome hosting the most spectacular epic of the year, “How the West Was Won.” He notes that one major challenge comes from deciding whether to show a particular film in its original 35mm film format or rely on digital presentations.
“Without question, more and more films, as they’re being restored, are being restored digitally, so the films are not always available in both formats, and we’re forced to choose which film plays at which theater based on which format it’s available in,” says Tabesh. “It makes the puzzle a little more complicated. I wouldn’t say there’s a preference — at the end of the day, we want the very best version. If the best presentation is in digital cinema (DCP), that’s what we would want, but 35mm is still important, and most films are not available on DCP. Only the Egyptian Theatre is equipped to show every format.”
With five genre-spanning films and conversations with Robert Evans representing the 100 years of history for Evans’ favorite studio Paramount Pictures, and a two-hour live, career-spanning discussion with the reclusive Kim Novak, this year’s fest has plenty of mystique. It’s that allure that Osborne — who’s also still active at age 79 as the author of numerous film-history books — hopes will keep people of all generations coming to see the classics.
“The thing that, I think, is great about our channel is that it’s there for people of all ages,” says Osborne. “If you say you don’t like good movies, wait a second — we’re not asking you take medicine. These are really fun. If something’s good, it’s timeless and wonderful to have it out there to see it. I think it’s wonderful for old people to see movies they have great memories of, but also wonderful to see young people discover the actors, directors now and get a bigger idea of movie history and quality.”
The 3rd Annual TCM Classic Film Festival takes place today through Sunday at five different theatres in Hollywood. For tickets and more information, visit tcm.com/festival/.