Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Reverend's Report: TCM Classic Film Festival 2011

In only its second year, this past weekend's TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood had noticeably greater attendance over the initial outing in 2010 and sold out all passes. The fest also featured an increased number of screenings, celebrity appearances and special events. Clearly, a new star has been born on the ever-expanding and diversified film festival circuit, and TCM plans to build on their success not only with a third event in 2012 but a first-time classic movie lovers' cruise this December.

Signs that the 2011 festival would be bigger than the first were in evidence opening night, with the addition of a bleacher area for people to watch red carpet arrivals for the opening night selection, a lovingly restored 60th anniversary edition of An American in Paris. The 1951 Best Picture Oscar winner's co-star (with Gene Kelly), Leslie Caron, was in attendance and reportedly charmed the crowd with her radiance and recollections.

While we had tickets for the oversold screening of An American in Paris, my partner and I willingly sacrificed them in order to attend a simultaneous showing of one of our few mutual all-time favorites: 1947's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Neither of us had ever seen it on the big screen, and it was a wonderful experience to view it "the way it was meant to be seen" as so many TCM Fest films are rightly presented.

Dorothy Herrmann (one of the daughters of the film's composer, Bernard Herrmann) was on hand to introduce the film and relate how its score was her esteemed father's personal favorite. "It sure wasn't Psycho," she said of her dad's preference for his work on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, to the amusement of the audience. Herrmann was represented at the festival by a number of films in a special tribute that included Citizen Kane, 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, the latter of which served as his final film score.

Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney (in roles reportedly slated originally for Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) memorably play characters who gradually fall in love despite the ultimate taboo: he's dead and she's alive. In this respect, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir may hold special resonance to this day for GLBT viewers who have felt love impossible for them, or for anyone who is still searching for that one "immortal" relationship.

The great Peter O'Toole graced the fest in person on both Friday and Saturday. On Friday, he attended a screening of 1964's Becket, in which he co-starred with Richard Burton, and sat down for a lengthy chat about his life and career with TCM's Robert Osborne that will be broadcast later this year. On Saturday, O'Toole was immortalized in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre by placing his hands and feet in cement. "It's been years since I've been this intimate with concrete," O'Toole told the crowd in a very funny, self-effacing nod to his drinking years. Sober for some time now, O'Toole's appearance will definitely be remembered as one of the festival's highlights. Also noteworthy was Friday night's appearance by Kirk Douglas to introduce Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus. While long past his loincloth-clad prime as seen in the 1960 epic, Douglas followed his stealing of this year's Oscar telecast with a number of memorable comments.

On Sunday, I took in back-to-back screenings of two renowned films I'd never seen: the rarely-shown British drama Whistle Down the Wind (1961) and George Stevens' much-acclaimed literary adaptation A Place in the Sun (1951), based on Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. The former is a still-provocative piece about children who mistake an escaped killer (Alan Bates, in his first lead film role) hiding in their barn for the second coming of Jesus Christ. Produced by eventual Oscar-winner Richard Attenborough (Gandhi) and the first film directed by Bryan Forbes (who would go on to make the original version of The Stepford Wives among other movies), Whistle Down the Wind impressively walks a very fine line between affirming faith and denouncing it.

Hayley Mills, daughter of actor John Mills and headlining ingénue of Whistle Down the Wind as well as a number of 1960's Walt Disney productions, was on hand to discuss the film, adapted from an allegorical story written by her mother, and her enduring legacy as an actress. "It's normal for kids to act," Mills replied in response to the question whether she was a "natural" actress. "I was terribly lucky," she said in all humility. She recounted her first day on the set of Disney's classic Pollyanna as "the most stressful and challenging" of her entire career, not least because she had impulsively cut her bangs off the night before shooting to the dismay of the production team. Mills, who has more recently appeared on stage in The King and I and in a number of TV series, is as lovely and vivacious now in her mid-60's as ever.

A Place in the Sun, which was nominated for Best Picture but lost to An American in Paris much to some film lovers' enduring dismay, was a revelation. The movie's packed screening during the TCM fest was designated a tribute to the late Elizabeth Taylor, who stars in the film alongside Oscar nominees Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters. Clift (who was never more attractive on screen than he is here between the tight white t-shirts he sports and, tragically, a near-crippling car accident he was in a few years later) plays the poor son of a Kansas religious worker who does everything he can to infiltrate the upper class, including possibly killing his pregnant girlfriend (Winters).

One would never think Clift was gay (he was, though deeply conflicted) based on his smolderingly heterosexual performance here. Taylor declared that between Stevens' direction and her partnering with Clift, A Place in the Sun was the film that taught her what it meant to truly act. Oscar-winning actress Eva Marie Saint, who co-starred with Taylor in both Raintree County and The Sandpiper, spoke admiringly with Robert Osborne after the screening about the impact of Taylor's work and life.

The festival's closing night on Sunday offered three equally tempting films at the same time: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, also starring Taylor; a 70mm print of West Side Story; and Disney's classic pairing of music and visuals, Fantasia. I opted for the latter, and was impressed by the number of younger patrons who came out to see what was for most of them the first opportunity they had to see the movie on the big screen (its last theatrical release was in 1990).

Fantasia was as spectacular as ever as shown in a beautifully restored, vibrantly colored digital print in Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Dancer-choreographer Marge Champion was in attendance (she reportedly served as a model for the ballerina-hippo in the film's Dance of the Hours segment), as was Walt Disney's daughter, Diane. The audience watched and listened in rapt silence, apart from moments when it was appropriate to laugh, and applauded heartily at the end of each of the movie's "movements."

The TCM Classic Movie Festival prides itself on catering to a "community" of reverent film lovers from around the world, and that community was out in force in Hollywood the last weekend of April. Kudos to MCs Osborne, Ben Mankiewicz and Leonard Maltin as well as to chief programmer Charlie Tabesh for their contagious dedication to the art, history and cultural impact of the industry's best work.

Report by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

1 comment:

  1. What an honor it was to see FANTASIA with you, Rev! Thanks for your thorough analysis of this year's TCMFF. We will certainly be back next year.


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