Wednesday, January 21, 2009

TCM: 31 DAYS OF OSCAR—The Evening Class Interview With Robert Osborne

True to my own thematic heart, this year Turner Classic Movies (TCM) approaches the Oscar® season with its annual "31 Days of Oscar" organized as a university curriculum, with Academy Award®-winning and nominated films representing such a wide array of departments as economics and biology to music appreciation and world history. As film host and historian Robert Osborne has specified, "In case you wonder why we call our Academy Award® salute '31 Days of Oscar' and extend it three days past the 28 days of February, no college degree is required to learn the reason. The answer is simple. When we began our Oscar® salutes in 1995, the Academy Awards® were presented every March which has 31 days. Then in 2004, the award month was changed to February, so we changed too, but decided to extend our salute as well to continue delivering a full "31 days" of the best of the best." As the official biographer of the Academy Awards®, Osborne is full of such facts and I welcomed the opportunity to talk with him once more; it's always a genuine pleasure.

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Michael Guillén: Hey, Robert, a pleasure to speak with you. Happy New Year!

Robert Osborne: Thank you. You too. Happy Obama Year!

Guillén: Yeah! Keeping in mind the theme of this year's Oscar® salute, should I address you as Professor Osborne?

Osborne: I think "Dr." might be appropriate.

Guillén: Speaking of this year's university theme, how was that developed? Did you have much to do with that?

Osborne: I didn't have anything to do with that. Credit goes to our programming department. We like to have a different take on the Oscars® every year in how we present the films. The one thing we want to emphasize is that this is a college that's fun to go to. I went to college and I didn't have that great a time so the idea of going to college for a month isn't my idea of necessarily a great time until I realized what college was like in those old movies. People sing and dance all day. Nobody really goes to school. No tests, or any of that. But it's a fun way to focus on the film's themes rather than the stars or any other kind of connection. We're giving it a go this year to see how people like it.

Guillén: One of the things I find instructive about TCM's programming is precisely this strategy of thematic programming, whereby it's revealed that movies can be accessed and read in many different ways.

Osborne: Absolutely! I couldn't agree more. That's the great thing about it. The magic of movies is that you can see the same movie three or four times; but—if you're looking at it from a different angle—it's like a new movie sometimes. If you're looking at it because it's a Katherine Hepburn film as opposed to a film directed by George Kukor as opposed to a film adapted from a Broadway play and is now a movie—or any other aspect of it—it does give a different focus and can make that movie constantly interesting.

Guillén: I understand you have 25-28 new titles you're introducing into the TCM repertory this year?

Osborne: Yeah, we have some really interesting stuff. That's another thing about our programming that I do like: we constantly keep adding to our own library that we own and leasing films for periods of time. Whenever you look at our
Now Playing guide or go to our website, you're not seeing just the same titles all the time. This year we have, for instance—which we've never had before—My Left Foot (1989) with Daniel Day Lewis, which I love, and the 1938 Pygmalion—the original My Fair Lady—which we've never shown before and which is such a great movie. We've added some movies from the '90s like Boyz N the Hood (1991), and Bugsy (1991) with Warren Beatty. We're also adding Pretty Baby (1978) with Brooke Shields, Carnal Knowledge (1971), and we've also got Elia Kazan's first film A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945) and a couple of very charming Paramount comedies from the '40s; one's called Take A Letter, Darling (1942) with Rosalind Russell and Fred MacMurray and No Time For Love (1943) with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. You mix those in with Gone With the Wind (1939), Ace In the Hole (1951), The China Syndrome (1979), and Casablanca (1942), it makes for a great mix of films.

Guillén: It certainly does! I likewise appreciate that you include international titles. I'm specifically looking forward to Kon Ichikawa's The Burmese Harp (1956) and René Clément's Gervaise (1957).

Osborne: It's going to be great. We're going to have a good time.

Guillén: In your capacity as the "official biographer" of the Academy Awards®, I was wondering if you could help me confirm or deny a rumor?

Osborne: I'll try.

Guillén: It's my understanding that the Oscar® statuette was designed by art director Cedric Gibbons and that—during the time that he was designing the statuette—his wife Dolores Del Rio was entertaining an out-of-town guest, namely Emiliano "El Indio" Fernandez, who—rumor has it—served as Gibbons' model. Do you know anything about that?

Osborne: I don't. That's not any point of the story that I've heard. It's entirely possible. But what I do know is that—when they were having their first get-together and the Academy was established to keep the labor unions from coming in, the Academy was there to arbitrate any labor problems; they didn't want the industry to be unionized. But by the time the Academy really got rolling, the unions had come in. When they started emphasizing one of their "little ideas" to give awards for the best performances of actors and actresses, when they started concentrating on that, they had a meeting in which the Board of Governors and other people were trying to decide what kind of award to give. Would they give a scroll? A sheet of paper? A plaque? Supposedly, Cedric Gibbons on a tablecloth at that very meeting sat down and sketched out the statuette that they give out to this day. When they went to the next step is what you'd be talking about and I have no idea of that process. It's a very intriguing idea. I've never really thought that maybe he did have a model to finalize the sculpture. Oscar® is supposedly a nude soldier standing on a reel of film with a crusader's sword; that's its basic concept.

Guillén: Does the Academy Awards® have an archive in Los Angeles accessible to the public?

Osborne: Oh sure! They're a library. They've got that. But the reason why I'm wondering about your question is because the book that I wrote for the Academy—
80 Years of the Oscar—was through the help of their researchers and your question is something that has never come up so I'm not sure if they have that information.

Guillén: I was just curious if Cedric Gibbons left any of his original drawings of the statuette or anything like that within the archives?

Osborne: I don't believe there are. There may be and you could certainly find out by calling the Academy library. They're most helpful. I'm not sure if you've dealt with them before?

Guillén: I haven't; but, I'm curious to do so. Also, in your capacity as the official biographer of the Academy, you likewise serve as a red carpet greeter each year at the ceremony. What does that entail?

Osborne: What it entails is being the first one to greet them when they come in and make them feel welcome before they head down this red carpet, which—when you're standing there—looks like it goes on a mile and a half with thousands of people screaming and yelling in the bleachers on the other side. I welcome them on behalf of the Academy and make them feel welcome and comfortable, say a few words, and also announce them on the loudspeaker so that not only the press on the red carpet but the fans in the bleachers know they've arrived. I make a presentation of that. The first year I did it was a little nerve wracking; but, this will be my fourth year and I had a great time last year.

Guillén: As a fan, let's say, is there anybody you look forward to meeting this year on the red carpet?

Osborne: Well, you know, all of them I must say. I really do enjoy the whole thing. The Meryl Streeps of the world always come with something to say and they're always very pleasant; it's just a very enjoyable experience. It's nice to meet new people I haven't met before.

By the way, I just looked it up and the reason I'm questioning the Dolores Del Rio / Cedric Gibbons connection with the Oscar® statuette is because they were married in August 1930, so she wasn't his wife at the time the statuette was designed. This was all put together in 1927-28. Del Rio didn't get divorced from her previous husband until June of 1928. She may have been running around with Cedric Gibbons at that point but it's entirely possible that she wasn't. She certainly wasn't married to him at the time when the first Oscars® were given out.

Guillén: Final question here, Dr. Osborne: It's my understanding that this year the Academy has decided to pay tribute not only to those films which have been considered by the Academy for awards; but, that a clip reel has been prepared to honor films which the moviegoing audience has loved and which have not been considered for awards by the Academy. Do you have any thoughts on that populist tip of the hat?

Osborne: That's certainly viable. Movies belong to everybody. The Academy tries to honor the best that's out there; but, there's no reason why they shouldn't say that Dumb and Dumber was popular with the public even if it didn't score any Academy Awards®.

Guillén: Thank you, Robert.

Osborne: It's always a pleasure talking with you. Enjoy the Oscars® yourself!

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