Classic Hollywood: The first screening of 'Close Encounters'


his is Susan King, veteran L.A. Times movie writer and guardian of the Golden Age of Hollywood galaxy. Every Friday in my Classic Hollywood newsletter, I get to discuss everything near and dear to my heart, including notable births and deaths, the latest in books and DVD releases, events around town, fun vintage TV programming and movie milestones.

Speaking of movie milestones, Monday marks the 38th anniversary of the limited release of Steven Spielberg’s classic sci-fi adventure “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” which earned eight Academy Award nominations, including Spielberg’s first as director. It won an Oscar for Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, as well as a special achievement award for special effects.

Melinda Dillon and Carey Guffey in the 1977 science fiction thriller "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." (Sony Pictures)

For years, I had tried to see the first screening of a hotly anticipated movie: “Chinatown,” “Jaws,” “All the President’s Men” and “Star Wars.” And I had to see the first showing of “Encounters” that day. I was excited that it was the latest from Spielberg, but also because French filmmaker Francois Truffaut, whom I was busy writing my master's thesis on, was appearing in the film as the French scientist Claude Lacombe.

When I got to the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, I saw that everybody else had the same idea, with masses of humanity standing in line for the first show. I was shocked when I went to buy a ticket to learn the screening wasn’t sold out. So I got in line with the ticket in my pocket — I was reading William Goldman’s “Magic” while I waited — as more and more fans began to arrive.

Anticipation was so high that people in the front of the line started pushing against the front of the theater. They finally let us in, and everybody scrambled for a seat. For the next two hours plus, it was one of those magical communal experiences one can get only from watching a movie in a theater. And of course I had absolute stars in my eyes watching my idol Truffaut.

There was thunderous applause at the finale, and as the audience left the theater, the hordes standing in line began to applaud us because we were the first to encounter the blockbuster.

Around town

Omar Sharif with Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl." (Columbia Pictures)

The New Beverly Cinema pays tribute Sunday and Monday to Oscar-nominated actor Omar Sharif, who died in July at 83, with a screening of the 1968 musical “Funny Girl,” in which he plays Nicky Arnstein opposite Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice, and Blake Edwards’ rarely seen underrated 1974 romantic drama, “The Tamarind Seed,” which also stars Julie Andrews and features a magical score by John Barry

Don’t touch that dial

Saturday evening, TCM’s “The Essentials” features three films starring Dorothy McGuire, who came to fame in Hollywood as a child bride in the 1943 comedy-drama “Claudia,” a role she originated on Broadway.

She earned a lead actress Oscar nomination for the 1947 best-picture winner “Gentleman’s Agreement” and appeared in such hit films as 1945’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and 1960’s “Swiss Family Robinson.”

TCM is airing three of her best films: William Wyler’s lovely 1956 “Friendly Persuasion,” starring Gary Cooper as her husband and Anthony Perkins as her son; my personal favorite, the delicate 1945 romantic fantasy “The Enchanted Cottage,” starring Robert Young and Herbert Marshall; and the scrumptious 1954 melodrama “Three Coins in the Fountain,” which casts Clifton Webb, of all people, as her love interest.

Book nook

Legendary actress Debbie Reynolds of “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” fame earned the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award in January and is receiving an honorary Oscar on Saturday evening at the Governors Awards.

A poster for Stanley Donen's 1952 comedy, "Singin' in the Rain," starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. (Movie Poster Image Art / Getty Images)

She also has written a new book with Dorian Hannaway called “Make ’Em Laugh: Short-Term Memories of Longtime Friends,” which isn’t a standard biography, but vignettes, stories, jokes and musings from the 83-year-old veteran.

Sneak peek

Ciao! I go Italian in this Sunday’s Classic Hollywood, talking to Manoah Bowman, the author of the new lavishly illustrated book “Fellini: The Sixties,” from Turner Classic Movies and Running Press. The book features 150 photographs shot on the sets of Federico Fellini’s classic movies from that era, including “La Dolce Vita” and “8 1/2.” I also talk to British actress Barbara Steele, who appears in “8 1/2” and has written the afterword to the book.

From the Hollywood Star Walk

Notable births this week include Whoopi Goldberg (Nov. 13); Garry Marshall (Nov. 13); Brian Keith (Nov. 14); Veronica Lake (Nov. 14); Dick Powell (Nov. 14); Ed Asner (Nov. 15); Sam Waterston (Nov. 15); Lewis Stone (Nov. 15); Burgess Meredith (Nov. 16); Danny DeVito (Nov. 17); Rock Hudson (Nov. 17); Lorne Michaels (Nov. 17); Martin Scorsese (Nov. 17); Lee Strasberg (Nov. 17); Imogene Coca (Nov. 18); Linda Evans (Nov. 18); and Johnny Mercer (Nov. 18).

The King is dead

For nearly three decades, Clark Gable was known as the King of Hollywood. The ultimate heartthrob, Gable excelled in both comedy and drama, action films and historic pieces. And he even sang and danced to great comedic effect in “Idiot’s Delight.” He won an Oscar for lead actor in Frank Capra’s 1934 romantic comedy classic “It Happened One Night,” earned a lead actor nomination the next year as Fletcher Christian in “Mutiny on the Bounty” and his third for his most famous role as Rhett Butler in the 1939 Academy Award-winning blockbuster “Gone With the Wind.” He had just completed what would be his final film, “The Misfits” with Marilyn Monroe, when he suffered a heart attack on Nov. 6, 1960. Gable died 10 days later at age 59. Here is the L.A. Times obituary as it appeared on Nov. 17, 1960.

For more vintage Hollywood, go to the Classic Hollywood Los Angeles Times Facebook page and follow me on Twitter at @mymackie.