Interview: Ben Mankiewicz
Posted on March 1, 2013 at 2:38 pm
“I have only one thing in common with Martin Scorsese,” I confided to Ben Mankiewicz. “We both pretty much keep Turner Classic Movies on all day.” Mankiewicz, who introduces many of the films on TCM, was in town for a special showing of the restored version of the classic silent film “Metropolis,” with a live musical accompaniment, and I was thrilled to get a chance to talk to him about my favorite station. He told me he is looking forward to hosting his father, Frank Mankiewicz, for a special Father’s Day presentation of “The Last Hurrah.” Frank’s father and uncle, Herman and Joseph Mankiewicz, were key figures in the golden age of the Hollywood studio. Herman Mankiewicz co-wrote the film that is consistently at the top of the greatest American film lists, “Citizen Kane.” And Joseph Mankiewicz was an Oscar-winning writer and director of films like “All About Eve.”
Mankiewicz talked to me about the discovery of 25 extra minutes from “Metropolis” to complete director “Fritz Lang’s original vision. A tremendous amount of the film was missing. Being able to get that — and they found it rather randomly — is exciting. There’s a phrase that gets used a lot — ‘It really still holds up.’ I was just in Dallas for a screening of ‘Rio Grande’ with Angie Dickenson and that definitely holds up. It’s unfair to expect that from every movie. You don’t make a movie in 1946 so that people can enjoy it in 2013. There are things I watched and liked at the time and they made money and it’s fine that we look at them now and they don’t seem to work as well. But ‘Metropolis’ holds up in a very significant way.” He mentioned the Billy Wilder film “Ace in the Hole” (Kirk Douglas as an unscrupulous journalist exploiting a tragic mine accident) and “A Face in the Crowd” (with Andy Griffith as a beloved media personality with an easygoing, country persona whose audience does not realize he is a megalomaniac) as examples of films that can seem even more relevant today. “You see those movies and ask yourself, ‘How did those guys know?’ I think there’s some of that with ‘Metropolis.’ The themes certainly apply today. The idea of a few powerful corporatists running the world — it certainly resonates. And the lore from the missing scenes, that helps, too.”
He was especially happy to be able to show the film in AFI’s grand Silver Spring Maryland theater with live musical accompaniment, telling me that even people who do not think of themselves as silent film fans find the experience of seeing them an extraordinarily powerful experience.
We talked about how today’s audiences, used to unlimited special effects and quick cuts, still respond to the older movies shown on TCM. “In Dallas for the ‘Rio Grande’ screening, everyone who worked for the theater was in their 20’s and they were dedicated enthusiasts, fans of everything, silent, foreign, David Lynch. So that’s encouraging. Only the cliché is discouraging. At all three of our festivals we get film students, kids with their parents because the kids wanted them to go. We commissioned an extensive and vast study of our audience and 67 percent of our audience is between 18 and 40. So our audience isn’t going away. Even those in their 40’s didn’t see these movies when they came out. Not even close.”
Today’s audiences have the greatest opportunity to see older films in history. Two generations ago, when a movie left theaters, no one ever expected it would be shown again. One generation ago, some older movies were available on a limited schedule on television. Now, with cable and DVD/Blu-Ray, almost anyone can see almost any film. If you see one movie you like starring Loretta Young or Gregory Peck or directed by Stanley Donen or Alfred Hitchcock, you can easily find all of their other films and watch them, too. And that is why people love TCM.
“Summer Under the Stars” and “30 Days of Oscar” are the most popular months on TCM. “I’m like everybody else. I intro them and then I go home and set the TIVO like everyone else.” He very much enjoys interacting with the fans at TCM’s annual festival and cruise. Most often, they want to know why their favorite films are not on — or not on more frequently. “The licensing stuff is both fascinating and mind-numbingly complicated,” he told me. “Every movie we can get ahold of, we’ll take.” Sometimes fans complain that the movies do not have the extended final credits today’s audiences are used to. But the problem is that during the studio era, most often there were very few screen credits. That’s why TCM has its own very extensive data base with information about the movies it shows.
I especially enjoyed talking to him about the tributes TCM airs, with contemporary stars talking about the stars of the classic era, like Burt Reynolds talking about Spencer Tracy. “Some of those stars are bigger today than they were when these movies came out,” he said, like Barbara Stanwyck. That’s one thing Mankiewicz loves about sharing these films with today’s audiences, the way they still connect so viscerally fully to viewers. “These movies just make them feel good. It was not a better time in America. We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress. But, to remember either seeing it with your parents or your parents saw it and introduced it to you or now, for people in their 20’s, watching with their grandparents, or just discovering these films for the first time, that gets me. We’re never going to push these movies out. We show movies from the classic era and that’s not going to change. I’d be proud to put ‘Argo’ on TCM but in 20 years it will still be too expensive. But we have great films to share and new generations to share them with.”