As TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar kicks off, we had the chance to interview film critic and host of Turner Classic Movies, Ben Mankiewicz. He dished a bit on how he became a film fanatic, his favorite (and least favorite) things about award season, and what 31 Days of Oscar is all about.
TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar runs from 2/1 until 3/3. So if you haven’t already, add Watch TCM and start streaming some award winning films!
How and when did you become a film fanatic, and how did you turn it into a career?
I grew up in Washington, DC, where my dad, Frank Mankiewicz, was a significant figure in Democratic politics. He was Latin American Director of the Peace Corps under JFK, then press secretary to RFK, and later ran George McGovern’s campaign with Gary Hart. He left political activism to become President of National Public Radio. All this is to say I grew up far more interested in politics than movies. I knew my family’s movie history – my grandfather, Herman Mankiewicz, wrote the screenplay to Citizen Kane, and his brother Joe’s long list of credits includes writing and directing A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve, earning him four Oscars in two years – but I thought (and still think) my dad was the smartest and most successful Mankiewicz of them all. Two events stand out to me on the path to expanding my relationship with movies. First, my mother insisted I watch North by Northwest with her on television. My memory tells me she said I’d love it “even though it’s in black and white.” And I remember watching it with her. And I remember thinking “OK, this black and white movie is pretty exciting.” Except North by Northwest is a color film – and we watched it on our color TV. So much for trusting memory. In college at Tufts, I took a film course – Tufts didn’t have a film program. I took it pass/fail and completely anticipated coasting. But then I didn’t want to coast. I was fully invested in the class in a way I’d seldom experienced. I wrote a final paper on the Warner Brothers picture The Santa Fe Trail, which egregiously toys with the history of John Brown’s messianic mission to end slavery before the Civil War. Anyway, I got an A+ (the only A+ of my life), which, of course, was completely wasted in a pass/fail course. It’s been 30 years and I’m still ticked off.
What’s your favorite part about being the host of TCM?
The best part of being the host of TCM is getting to experience first hand how much the channel means to people. We’re woven into the fabric of our fans’ lives in a way no other channel is. I watch games on ESPN, but I feel no emotional connection to the network. I’m a Better Call Saul junkie, but no one has ever said, “boy, I sure love AMC.” The words “I’m a Showtime fan” have never been uttered by a human being, though Billions, Homeland, and Ray Donovan are part of my Sunday night routine. But TCM carries an emotional weight – it matters to people, connecting them to their parents, their grandparents, their childhood, to memories – right or wrong – of a simpler time. And being a face of the channel, I’m on the lovely end of daily expressions of gratitude from people to whom TCM plays a rich role in their lives.
What is TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar all about?
31 Days of Oscar is one of our two signature programming events each year (Summer Under the Stars is the other). From February 1st through March 3rd, every movie we present is either on Oscar nominee or winner. Our programming department picks a theme every year – this year’s is particularly clever. In prime time, we’re presenting double features of Oscar winning or nominated movies connected in some meaningful way – by actor or director, genre or Oscar category, or by a single plot point. We’ve paired up movies featuring on screen divorces, movies with butlers, movies set on the grittiest streets of New York, movies featuring effective therapy sessions. Clearly, the programming team had a blast this year.
What is your favorite part about award season and what are your biggest storylines to watch going to this year’s Academy Awards?
Awards season finally gives Hollywood a chance to shine the spotlight on Hollywood. Yeah. Anyway, I both enjoy and abhor awards season. Everyone is talking – mostly thoughtfully – about movies, so there’s the joy. The downside is the campaigning, the marketing of a movie to get a nomination and an award. And because we’re humans, we’re obsessed with winning, somehow turning those who don’t win an Oscar or a Globe or a SAG into losers, which drives me crazy. And that doesn’t even take into account the movies and performances that aren’t nominated. I hate that Eighth Grade was shut out by the Academy – that Emily Blunt wasn’t nominated for A Quiet Place, that If Beale Street Could Talk doesn’t have a Best Picture nomination. So I’m torn on awards season. But I always watch.
You can only watch one movie on repeat for the rest of your life. What movie are you picking and why?
What a terrible question. I’m tempted to pick Transformers 3, the loudest movie ever made (perhaps it was Transformers 2), because whatever single movie I pick I’ll eventually grow to hate after watching it over and over. So I’ll just choose a movie I already hate.
Pick one of each: Favorite Actor, Actress, and Director of all time.
I love character actors – who doesn’t – so I instantly think of Lee J. Cobb, Harry Dean Stanton, Jonathan Banks, Richard Farnsworth, Charles Bickford…guys like that. But if you want a leading man, I’ll take Bogart. There’s a sadness, a desperation in his best performances that elevates him in my eyes. For a female actor, no one is better than Geraldine Paige in The Trip to Bountiful. But I’m drawn to Diana Sands. She turned in great performances, then died far too young, before Hollywood finally started – albeit slowly – allowing black actors to tackle nuanced roles. For a director, how do you choose? I’ll take Don Siegel, because he made some great films, and he’s seldom included in a list of the best directors. Though it’s tough not to take Billy Wilder…but look, I didn’t.
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