It’s time once again for TCM to start its annual 31 Days of Oscar Film Festival. I recently had the great pleasure of speaking briefly with TCM host and noted film historian Robert Osborne about this year’s lineup and his continuing role as the face of classic cinema.
As you may have noticed, I’m a huge fan and avid proponent of classic cinema. I like to promote special screenings and limited engagements at every opportunity. I’m particularly found of TCM (Turner Classic Movies) and it’s impressive bank of films that reach back to the silent era, encompassing every genre, style, and movement known to the history of the movies. TCM constantly strives to bring the films of the past to the audiences of today through new and innovative programming designed to highlight the diverse aspects that yesterday’s art has to offer to a contemporary world. It is undoubtedly, an invaluable resource.
One such program is 31 Days of Oscar, TCM’s annual salute to the Academy Awards, showcasing the achievements of past winners and nominees. To me (an admitted classic film addict and movie trivia geek), this is the most wonderful time of the year. So, when I was given the opportunity to participate in a press junket promoting the month long event, I could hardly contain myself, and sent a resoundingly emphatic reply to an invitation to speak with TCM host Robert Osborne via telephone.
I am not an early riser, but on January 18th I got up very early in anticipation of the appointed phone call. As I sat in my Hollywood apartment, I ran through my carefully prepared notes, wanting to make the most of this rare opportunity to speak with the most authoritative voice in the realm of cinematic history. This is the man, after all, whom the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences itself made a special request that he continually update his definitive book about the history of the Academy Awards (the latest version is titled, 75 Years of the Oscar).
Sure enough, at the exactly 8:30am, Pacific Standard Time, my phone rang. A very pleasant young woman at the TCM Atlanta offices reminded me of my time restriction (only 15 minutes) before connecting me to the revered film aficionado, who gave me a sincere and friendly welcome; just as warm and inviting as his televised introductions. After I helplessly gushed over Mr. Osborne for a few moments, we broke into a comfortable and very amiable conversation.
I first noted his close identification with TCM and vise versa, and asked him if his relationship with the movie channel allowed him the ability to impact the programming, whether he had any direct influence on the development of the original productions, and if he was involved with any of the innovative new series. His response was an emphatic yes, saying, “I love that they (TCM) are so open to ideas. There are no egos that get in the way as there are at many big corporations. Anyone can come in with an idea and they will consider it”. This freedom of participation and open-mindedness is assuredly responsible for such unique offerings as TCM Underground on Friday nights and the recent focus on Cult Classic Cinema.
I had to ask about the moniker, 31 Days of Oscar. It’s a pet peeve, but the festival takes place in February, so why does it stretch over into another month? Mr. Osborne reminded me “this is the 13th year of 31 days of Oscar. Originally it took place in the month of March”, but when the Oscar ceremonies changed dates, so did the programming, and since February is a short month, “they didn’t want the literal number of days to sound like they were shortchanging anybody”. It’s only a number, but perception, much like the Oscars, is all in the presentation. And it gave them a full month to present all the films they want to show.
This year’s programming is broken up into daily themes focused on specific categories such as Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, and so forth. Though it’s not the same every year, as Mr. Osborne noted, “we try to mix it up every year. Last year, the lineup was designed so that an actor linked each film to the next by appearing in both” (an actor from any given film was in the next, the connection changing with each film). As an audience member, it was fun trying to figure out some of the connections. Osborne added “another year, films were grouped by year of release, keeping a context and allowing comparison”. By showcasing films this year by category, Mr. Osborne pointed out that you get to see how films stack up against each other in a like category as contemporaries, or perhaps how a certain film aspect has advanced over the years if the films presented back to back were produced decades apart.
February 1st kicks everything off with the interesting theme of Best Director nominees whose film for which they more nominated was not nominated itself. Followed by the expected categories of Best Actor or Best Cinematography, and the unexpected, such as old categories that have since been discontinued like Best Dance Direction or Best Motion Picture Story (later becoming Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay). There’s even a 72-hour Best Picture marathon that precedes the 79th Academy Awards telecast. Should the ceremony itself be of less interest to you than the movies they honor, TCM’s special programming continues without interruption until March 3rd.
Looking to the future of this special and specific program, I wondered whether TCM would find themselves recycling previous themes, inadvertently returning to the exact schedules they may have presented in years past. After all, there are only so many Oscar nominations out there, and only so many ways to present them. But Mr. Osborne was quick to dispel that possibility, due to “the new packages of Columbia films just coming out that have been previously unavailable for TCM airing”.
When asked if there were any particular favorites, a personal holy grail that has not been seen for many years due to various reasons (such as lost prints or licensing availability), Mr. Osborne immediately called to mind several golden nuggets with top name actors, including, "Knight’s Life with Clark Gable, Constant Nymph with Joan Fontaine, Desert Song with Denis Morgan, and Barclay Square with Leslie Howard”. All of these films hold fond memories for Osborne, the enjoyment of which he cannot share with the TCM audience until these films somehow become available once again. His information was so instantly accessible, his memory so quick to recall, I wondered where he found the time to continue broadening his knowledge, meeting the demands a resource such as his requires. He admitted that a comprehensive overview such as 75 Years of Oscar involves “constantly researching and every year a block of time after the Oscars is reserved for hands on attention. The next update, 80 Years of the Oscar is due out September 2008”.
I obviously have my own strong feelings for the relevance of classic cinema in the modern world, and I wanted to know Mr. Osborne’s opinion of the value that classic cinema holds in today’s world of gadget reliant filmmaking. Although I’m sure he could likely write an entire new book on the subject he offered a brief and astute comment on how anyone can revisit a film at any age and have a completely new experience. All, “movies (will) appeal to a certain age. At a certain age you want certain things and movies go on forever”. In essence, every film is out there waiting for you for the right time when you can have the greatest appreciate for them. So, go back and revisit those films that once held little interest for you. You may find that those same films hold a new meaning now that you have a new perspective to bring to them.
Ever the dashing figure of class and charm, Mr. Osborne graciously greeted my questions with great enthusiasm, his voice vivacious and full of an effervescent passion for a subject that is near and dear to his heart. I can’t imagine TCM without Robert Osborne and I hope I never will. In my last moments on the phone with the film historian, I asked if we could count on enjoying a continued partnership between he and TCM. A true diplomat, Mr. Osborne deferred that answer to his boss, but expressed a desire to continue in his role as the movie channel’s public persona. I concurred wholeheartedly and let it be known that for me, and many others, Robert Osborne is TCM.