The Opening Night Red Carpet event for the TCM Classic Film Festival, which ran March 26-29, 2015, was the 50th anniversary of “The Sound of Music” at the TCL Theater aka Grauman’s Chinese in Hollywood. I got to see legendary actor Christopher Plummer as he walked the red carpet and was honored the next day with a hand and footprint ceremony – about time.
I was not able to get in to see “The Sound of Music,” but the next best thing was a poolside screening of “Grease” at the Roosevelt Hotel. They had an open bar and hors d’oeuvres that came with Pom Poms so we could show our support for the cheerleading squad who stood on shoulders and tossed each other around like toothpicks for an hour as a 50’s band played.
Lovely Illeana Douglas hosted the Q&A with five of the cast members. The “Grease” singalong made up for the missed “Sound of Music” sing-along and that first extreme close-up of John Travolta and those baby blues screamed “STAR” without uttering one word of dialogue.
A treat this year was the screening of the 1940 Disney animated classic “Pinocchio” at the El Capitan Theater. The theater has been restored to its original 1926 splendor featuring an East Indian interior. “Pinocchio” was the first animated feature to win an Academy Award, and in this case it won two, one for the timeless “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
“Pinocchio,” considered groundbreaking for its special effects achievement, was added to the National Registry of Film in 1994. The attention to every detail makes it a work of art. I was mesmerized by the underwater scenes and blue fairy sequences, and after seeing them, I now have a new understanding of Spielberg’s “A.I.” If the chance ever presents itself to see “Pinocchio” on the big screen, make it a priority.
I was jarred out of my nostalgic reverie by a panel entitled “A Surreal Existence.” Panelists Tony Mendez of “Argo” fame; Aron Ralston from “127 Hours”; and Mark Schultz, depicted in “Foxcatcher,” gave first-hand accounts and background on their lives.
Tony Mendez is one of the last people you would suspect of being a spy; his demeanor and appearance scream accountant. Tony said he’s responsible for saving more than one hundred people that he’s aware of — the number could be higher, but often he would get in at the beginning of a save and never know the end result.
Aron Ralston noted that perfect timing played a vital role in saving his life. Everything fell into place, and if it had been 12 seconds either way, he probably would have bled to death. He thanks his mom for saving for his life.
Aron said his lifesaving transportation looked more like a helicopter used to pick up celebrities for rehab than rescue missions. Upon reaching it, he noticed that it was outfitted with lux leather seats. He asked the pilot if he had a jacket or something he could wrap around his arm so he didn’t bleed all over the interior. Ben Mankiewicz said his mom would appreciate that.
Mark Schultz said he made “Foxcatcher” as a tribute to his brother’s memory. Not surprising was that all of the panelists approved of the actors chosen to portray them.
Up next was “Norma Rae,” presented by the actual union rep and now President Emeritus of Workers United, SEIU Bruce Raynor, played by Ron Leibman. He was responsible for buttonholing Sally Field’s character to rally other factory workers to champion union representation.
On to “Apollo 13,” which featured a Q&A with Captain James Lovell grilled by Alex Trebek with Bill Paxton making an appearance. The actual event upon which the movie is based is astounding; it looks like duct tape saved the crew’s lives. It doesn’t seem possible that they could have made it back, with one devastating problem after another trapping them in space. Perhaps there were other unseen forces at work?
Saturday started off with “Malcolm X,” preceded by a Q&A with Spike Lee, who told of Denzel Washington’s commitment to the role the prior year. He quit drinking, quit eating pork and maybe he even slept with white women…? He embodied the role so completely that at one point, he kept going after Spike yelled cut. Denzel channeled Malcolm X so completely that he doesn’t remember doing that part of the scene at all.
Not only did I get to see an hour-long Q&A with Shirley MacLaine, but again when screening “The Apartment.” I had no idea she had a three-year relationship with Robert Mitchum. She also said Fred MacMurray never picked up a lunch tab. When asked how she liked working with Peter Sellers on “Being There,” she said she never spent any time with him. She found out later that he didn’t want to get to know her personally and risk being disappointed in their personal relationship. He felt that could jeopardize his perception of what her character was in the film.
My next selection was the high point of the festival for me – “The French Connection.” I’m from the East Coast and fondly remember ‘70’s era NYC – the Mafia, the proliferation of drugs, prostitutes, rogue cops, Club 54, super sleazy porn movie titles proudly displayed – Disneyland for an aspiring writer.
After hearing William Friedkin speak at last year’s fest, I knew we were in for a treat. And being interviewed by Alec Baldwin? Win/win. Alec came out on stage, and the chairs were removed at Friedkin’s request, saying that chairs were for – insert word here. So they stood for one of the most entertaining hours I’ve ever spent at a film festival.
What makes “The French Connection” even more amazing is that Friedkin had no permits to shoot this film. Instead he had a few cops that would “facilitate” the making of the film, which sounds like a movie in itself. I’d hate to have been on the streets when the chase scene was filmed.
The casting process for the movie was as crazy as the Q&A. He had no intention of casting Gene Hackman. In fact, he was his last choice. The studio wasn’t happy with him either for going over budget, but palms had to be greased to get the film he wanted.
He went to the head of the Transit Authority and asked to do the subway-shooting scene. The man said he would lose his job if he allowed something like that. A dejected Friedkin said okay, then started to leave. The man said, “Where are you going?” and Friedkin replied, “Well, you said we couldn’t do it.” The man said, “I didn’t say it was impossible.”
The Transit Authority man wanted $40,000 and a one-way ticket to Jamaica. Friedkin asked why he didn’t just go for a round-trip ticket and take a few weeks off. The man replied, “If I allow you to do that scene on the subway, I will get fired, so I want a one-way ticket.” So after that scene, he retired to Jamaica and lived there happily ever after.
The floor was opened up to the audience for questions – never a good idea. Thankfully, John Singleton was in the audience and asked an intelligent question, bringing us back to reality. Friedkin related his casting choices for “The Exorcist” and again, the casting process was bizarre. It seems that in each of his films, there is a greater force at work that throws the right people into his films against his wishes.
Friedkin ended on a high note, relating what transpired at his first meeting with 12-year-old Linda Blair. It was a show-stopper; even Alec Baldwin was speechless and ended the marathon Q&A. I hope they have it on film. I couldn’t possibly repeat the story here, but as they say on the Internet, LMAO!
Sunday I decided to see “Out of Sight,” starring Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney. It was preceded by a Q&A with renowned film editor Anne V. Coates, who has worked on such gems as “Lawrence of Arabia,” for which she won an Oscar, and her most recent edit, “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Ben Mankiewicz did the honors, noting that “Out of Sight” is one of his favorite films. Anne expressed some surprise, to which Ben stuck out his hand and said “Hello, my name is Ben and I’m a man.”
As my final film, I chose “Marriage Italian Style,” which included a Q&A with Sophia Loren led by Ben Mankiewicz. Initially, Ben appeared to be like an embarrassed schoolboy to be in Loren’s presence, and when she touched him, he turned purple and giggled.
In 1960, she was nominated for an Academy Award for “Two Women,” but didn’t bother to attend the awards because no foreign film had ever won. Cary Grant called her afterwards to tell her that she not only won, but was the first person to win an Oscar for a foreign movie. She also received an honorary Oscar in 1991.
The actor she most connected with over the years was Marcelo Mastroianni, her co-star in the night’s film. She did her first film with him, saying as soon as she saw him, there was chemistry. Loren is still stunningly gorgeous and in a class of her own.
Ben thanked everyone for attending and recounted his favorite festival story about a woman he met earlier who said that she had been to Disneyland earlier in the week. Her husband had a heart attack while there, and she had to leave him so that she could attend the festival.
Afterwards was the closing night party, where attendees had the opportunity to snap a pic with Ben. Sadly, Robert Osbourne wasn’t able to make this year’s fest. I took advantage of my time with Ben and expressed my programming picks for next year. He looked around the crowd and said, “I don’t think that’s going to fly with this crowd.”
I realized I was speaking to the wrong person and approached Charlie Tabesh (that’s right, I call him Charlie) and said, “Charlie, do you have a theme for next year’s fest yet?” He said no, and did I have any ideas? Wrong question, because of course I do.
I told him I’d like to see horror and sci-fi. He hesitated a little, and I said, not the whole fest, but devote one theater. Then I saw the light go on. “Yes, maybe we could do mini fests in different theaters,” he said.
So like Jiminy Cricket sang, “When You Wish Upon a Star”…