The Popdose Interview: Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies

Written by Film, Popdose Interviews, Television

As Turner Classic Movies begins it’s 31 Days salute to the Oscars, Scott Malchus interviews the face of the network, Robert Osborne.

Chances are if you’re a fan of the Academy Awards and the movies in general, you’re well aware of Turner Classic Movie’s annual “31 Days of Oscar,” a month long tribute to Hollywood’s most prestigious honor. During the entire month of February the film channel shows Academy Award nominated and winning films, uncut and commercial free. If you’re familiar with Turner Classic Movies, then surely you’re familiar with Robert Osborne, the longtime host of movies and the face of the network.

Osborne has been the prime time host Turner Classic Movies since TCM made it’s on-air debut in April 1994. From 1982-2009, he was a writer for the Hollywood Reporter, and Osborne is also known as the official biographer of “Oscar” because of the series of books he’s written on the subject. With awards season in full swing and “31 Days of Oscar” set to begin on February 1st, I had the opportunity to speak with Osborne, quite possibly on of the most pleasant and enjoyable interviews I’ve ever held. Enjoy.

What is it about the Academy Awards that entices the general public year in and year out? There’s so much information and media available to people that you’d think people would get cynical about the Oscars, yet this one awards show remains one of the most popular and most watched events of the year.

I think it’s been around a long time, as long as any of us can remember, at least with motion pictures, and everyone is kind of interested in the movies, it seems. The final say is the Academy Awards, it’s kind of the final endorsement. I’ve always felt that if the Oscars were given out, say, before any of the other awards shows, those other award shows wouldn’t really be of much interest to the general public.  I think that started way back when those giants were around, the Bogarts and the Clark Gables and the Ingrid Bergmans, and Katherine Hepburns, etc, and it just carries over. Even though it’s a totally different ball game in Hollywood now, some of that glory is attached to it.

It’s like; a Pulitzer Prize will always mean something because it has a long history of always saluting the best. I think that one of the things that used to attract people to the Oscar telecast was the fact that only on the telecast, when they began broadcasting the awards show on television in the 1950’s, that was the only time that you could see movie stars on television. Major stars of the time would not go on television in those days. But now the stars go on television for anything, so it does, somewhat, lessen the impact of the Oscar telecast. Also, with the other award shows, if you see  Clint Eastwood accept for best director for a movie, chances are you’ve seen him four other times accepting a award for that same movie. So that does take some of the impact away.

It’s a problem, I think, for the Academy, and one that they’re trying to solve, trying to figure out how to get some of the prestige back, when they’re a victim of their own success. Because the Oscar show is so successful, and so well watched, all the other ones jump on the copycat bandwagon.

Each year Turner Classic Movies chooses a theme for their “31 Days of Oscar.” What can you tell me about the 2011 schedule?

This year we’re doing trivia, where we’re linking together, say, “movies about royals have always been popular and three different actors have been Academy Award nominees for playing Henry VIII” and so we show those three movies: Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII, Robert Shaw in A Man for All Seasons, and Richard Burton in Anne of a Thousand Days. [All three films air back to back on Feb. 1, beginning at 8:00 PM ET—Ed] Another example is that Peter O’Toole has been nominated more times than any other performer that never won a competitive Oscar. He’s been nominated eight times, so we’ll do a salute to Peter O’Toole and show some of his nominated films (Feb 16, starting at 8:00 PM ET) They’re lumping them together in different ways.

How much involvement do you have when it comes time to picking the films?

Charlie Tavesh, TCM’s senior VP in charge of programming, is the guy who really does all the programming. The great thing about Charlie is the fact that he’s very open to suggestions.  With this line-up, there’s not too much that he needs suggestions from anybody. But during regular programming and also if we have things like our Summer Under the Stars festival, when we devote twenty-four hours to the films of one star every day in August, he asks for suggestions, because he knows I know some of these careers pretty well. He’ll say something like, “We’re having Van Johnson on this one day, how does this lineup read to you?” Or, say it’s Elizabeth Taylor, and I may say, “Well, Charlie, if we’re showing A Place in the Sun, that’s one that really should be in prime time.” Because Taylor is so wonderful in it and it’s so important in her career. Or say, if we’re saluting Gene Tierney, I may suggest, “Charlie, we should see if we can get from 20th Century Fox Laura or Leave Her to Heaven because those are the two great Gene Tierney films.” Or if we’re featuring Janet Leigh and we’ll discuss, “This is a great lineup, but we need Psycho in here somewhere.”  That’s where you can be a help to Charlie and where he seems to appreciate it. Nevertheless, it’s his baby and Charlie’s the one who does the picking.

What I love about this particular month on Turner Classics is that the station premieres many contemporary films, as well as airs some more obscure ones. Unfortunately some of those wind up in the wee hours and I was wondering if there are any movies that will be on this month that you could suggest to our readers to set their DVR’s to record.

You know, Betty Grable was one of the biggest box office stars of the 1940’s, the most famous of the pin-up girls. Because she was a 20th Century Fox star and Fox has their own channel (Fox Movie Channel-Ed), we haven’t had many Betty Grable movies. This year we are showing two of her really good ones, when she was in her prime. One is Coney Island, from 1943 (Feb. 13, 4:00 PM ET) and the other is Mother Wore Tights, from 1947 (Feb. 13 6:00 PM ET). Those I’d highly recommend. We’ve never shown Thelma and Louise before (Feb. 22, 1:00 AM ET), and Kiss of the Spider Woman (Feb. 15, 2:00 AM ET), which I think are great movies. Marilyn Monroe’s Bus Stop (Feb. 26, 6:00 PM), which she’s sensational in, we’ve never shown it. We’ve never shown The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Feb. 19, 10:00 PM ET), which won the Best Picture Oscar in 2003.

There are a lot of movies we haven’t shown before. And, of course, there are many films we have shown before and I think are worth seeing again. What’s great is the fact that you know that there’s something about every one of these films that had some quality or they wouldn’t be on this list. They’ve all been an Academy Award winner or nominee. That’s kind of fun, I think.

Yes, what I love about this programming is that TCM schedules movies that may not have been recognized as prestige movies, but there are other qualities to them that are worth seeing.

I think that’s also very important to realize about the Academy. When you’re talking about Academy Award winners, you’re not just talking about Best Picture or Best Actress, you’re also talking about, say, Best Music Score or Best Costume Design. Some of these movies aren’t ones that would qualify as Best Picture, but are certainly worth looking at for what it is they were nominated for or for what they won for. That way you can also make some wonderful discoveries of movies you haven’t seen before or have heard about but never had the chance to see.

Are there any films that sometimes show up on TCM that you’ve never seen before?

Oh, yeah, quite often.  We just did another season of “The Essentials” with Alec Baldwin and we do a lot of movies. I hadn’t seen East of Eden in a long time, and I hadn’t seen Splendor in the Grass for a long time, and I hadn’t seen All Quiet on the Western Front in a very long time, and watching them all again, it’s almost like seeing new movies because I’d forgotten so much about them. But I really needed to be up on them because I was going to be talking about them in detail with Alec, so it was great to see them again.  Some of the movies don’t hold up quite as well as you want them to, but it’s so amazing how many movies that you didn’t pay much attention to, that because you’ve changed, you’ve grown up or your thought processes have changed, all of the sudden they have deep meaning for you. That’s exciting about film.

I think that film and music are two of the significant art forms that if your life changes, you can go back to them and you may find something different about them.

Yes, absolutely.

What do you think about this year’s crop of films?

I think there are a lot of really good movies this year. I liked The King’s Speech a lot; I liked The Social Network. The Kids Are Alright and Toy Story 3 are great. I think that the problem the Academy faces this year for their telecast is that so many of the names that are going to be involved with the Oscar process this year are names that are not generally well known to people. It’s very hard to get people excited about a contest when you don’t know the players. I think they’re going to have a problem getting people interested. Also, a lot of these movies have only been put out in limited releases. There was a lot of good work done this year, like Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine. I think we have better actors, now, than maybe we’ve ever had.

[At this point I was told I had time for one more question. Osborne joked, “Make this one a blockbuster.”]

What are your favorite movies? If you’re feeling down and you need an instant pick me up, what film can you put on that will lift your spirits? And who is your favorite director?

If I’m in needing of a pick me up, I’ll put on Singin’ in the Rain, or maybe This is Spinal Tap or Best in Show. Probably my two favorite films of all time are A Place in the Sun and Sunset Boulevard. And my favorite director would have to be Billy Wilder. I love the range of his work and the movies he made, most of them. A couple of them I really dislike, but most of them I really love.

Here’s a link to the “31 Days of Oscar” interactive schedule for this year.