At most major film festivals, fans preview hot upcoming releases and sit in on a Q&A or two. At the TCM Classic Film Festival, the movies are old but the passion is current. Just ask the folks who run it.
“Fans have taken the attitude that this is a serious job, and you’d best not blow it,” said Turner Classic Movies prime-time host and official festival host Ben Mankiewicz of the channel’s mission to “curate and contextualize these great movies.” “There’s this extra level of kinship we have because they feel part of it. We have literally millions of ombudsmen because they’re all watching over us and making sure we do our job right.
“When we meet fans, they want to take a picture, they want to talk about the films they love, and they have no compunction whatsoever about telling us what we’re doing wrong. I think that’s fantastic.”
The festival, now in its ninth year, sprawls over seven Hollywood venues for four nights. Organizers say last year’s event had about 28,000 attendees. This edition boasts an impressive bounty of films — more than 80 — and an even more impressive lineup of guests.
Mankiewicz geeks out about several he’ll be interviewing: “Buck Henry, who I’ve admired since I started paying attention to movies and things that are funny. Eva Marie Saint; I wish she were my grandmother. Well, it’s not fair to my mother, but,” he says, dropping to sotto voce, “I wish she were my mother.
“Dyan Cannon, I get with Buck Henry,” for the 40th anniversary of “Heaven Can Wait,” which Mankiewicz says was one of the first movies he saw in the theater and loved. “And opening night is Mel Brooks and Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio.”
Scorsese will receive the inaugural Robert Osborne Award from DiCaprio. Named for the late, great champion of vintage cinema who was the face of the channel until his death last year, the award honors work in “preserving the cultural heritage of classic films.”
Then there’s the festival’s theme of the written word’s translation to screen, including movies based on poetry (“The Raven,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and Scorsese favorite “The Set-Up”); a panel on women in animation; the ever-popular pre-Production Code selections; and a celebration of women behind and in front of the camera. The latter includes a tribute to Cicely Tyson, who will be on “hand” for a hand- and footprint ceremony.
“We’re going to have Marsha Hunt,” said Festival Director Genevieve McGillicuddy of the activist and blacklisted actress whose long filmography includes “Pride and Prejudice” (1940) and “Johnny Got His Gun” (1971). “She’s 100. She’s so vital. She’s going to talk about the experience she went through” with the House Un-American Activities Committee. She’ll be seen in “None Shall Escape,” a 1944 film that anticipated the Nuremberg trials.
Among the rarities screening in this year’s lineup are Ida Lupino’s “Outrage” (1950), a drama about sexual assault, and the Carole Lombard-Gary Cooper romance “I Take This Woman” (1931).
McGillicuddy says the festival was conceived to “connect with the fan community of Turner Classic Movies. It sounds corny, but we figured, ‘If we build it, they will come.’
“For a large part of the country, it’s pretty unusual to be able to see classic films in the theater, which as we like to say, is the way they were really meant to be seen. There’s nothing like seeing a classic comedy with 600 people in the audience.”
She said she has heard fans say the festival feels “like a family reunion, like a long weekend at a summer camp. People reconnecting after having not seen each other since the previous year.
“I was in the restaurant at the Roosevelt Hotel a couple of years ago in the middle of the festival. I overheard a 10-minute conversation on the merits of the character actor Franklin Pangborn,” who appeared in many features in the ’30s and ’40s, including W.C. Fields films. “I thought, ‘I’m pretty sure this is the only place this conversation would happen.’ ”
Mankiewicz said he soaks in attendees’ enthusiasm.
“This one family, a husband and wife with an adolescent, they went to Disneyland, and the husband had a heart attack at Disneyland. He went to the hospital and was recovering. And his wife and son went to the festival,” Mankiewicz said, laughing. “They told me he said, ‘No, we’re here, I’m fine, go. I’ll see you Monday.’
“It’s a really rewarding experience. I mean, it’s stressful and tense and exhilarating, and the second it’s over, I miss it. I look forward to it all year and I can’t wait for next year.”
TCM Classic Film Festival
April 26-April 29, 88 movies at seven venues in Hollywood.
Individual tickets are $20 for most screenings and events.
Passes range from $299-$2149 and can include special events.