Ben Mankiewicz talks The Plot Thickens, TCM

TCM host Ben Mankiewicz at the premiere of "And the Oscar Goes to..." presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and Turner Classic Movies, on Thursday, January 23, 2014.

Film critic Ben Mankiewicz spoke with Solzy at the Movies in late April about The Plot Thickens, TCM’s podcast documentary of filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich.

Ben Mankiewicz
Ben Mankiewicz

How did you first get involved with the Peter Bogdanovich podcast documentary for TCM?

Ben Mankiewicz: I had wanted to do something with Peter Bogdanovich for quite some time. He’s a huge hit at our festival. He and I have developed a really nice friendship. He’s just great. I described them as a living link to classic Hollywood—talking about a guy born in 1939, frequently cited as Hollywood’s greatest year. He would argue with you instantly that it’s 1940 or 1941. But nonetheless, that seems fitting. When he was a film writer and then a critic, he interviewed all these great directors. Of course, as many people know, there are individual books on Ford and Welles, but also Hawks, Hitchcock, and Lewis Milestone, silent directors like Allan Dwan. You can go back in Peter’s wonderful book, Who the Devil Made It. He tells these stories about these directors and as soon as he starts telling these stories, he instantly breaks into impressions of them—plus Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. There are few people that are better storytellers about Hollywood than theater. Plus, he became this first-rate director in the early 1970s—every bit the star that Coppola, William Friedkin, Martin Scorsese, and Mike Nichols was and then he was at the top of the Hollywood food chain. He came crashing down with three straight flops. He was kind of on his way back and then in the meantime, he’s got this high-profile relationship with Cybil Shepherd on the front page of People.

So anyway, initially, it started as this idea to get Peter to tell these stories about these directors. He recorded all these interviews that are in the book, Who the Devil Made It. He didn’t really record them to be on broadcast. He recorded them to write articles right so he didn’t need them to be broadcast quality. We initially wanted to do a podcast or have him be on the air. I wanted to do something with Peter. I also wanted to do a podcast and had been pitching that for a long time. I thought these interviews would make a great podcast idea where in each episode, Peter is talking about a different great director. The idea changed as soon as the producer, Angela Carone, who has been more responsible for this than anyone—she started listening to the podcast and reading about Peter. She said, “I don’t think it should be about the directors. I think it should be about Peter’s life. It should be Peter’s story and we can include some of this stuff but Peter’s story is more interesting.” She was right and then Peter’s willingness to do this and bear with us through these changes was remarkable and then to surely bare his soul to be honest and forthcoming—that’s what makes this podcast is Peter and his willingness to share his story. We added all these other voices because even people who come in and out of Peter’s life. They maintain this enormous fondness for him, which sort of flies in the face of this image that he had in the 70s of this sort of arrogant filmmaker who thought he was better than everyone. His story is an amazing arc—this rise and this fall and then he had this wonderful comeback film, Saint Jack, and then right after that happens, he’s felled by this awful tragedy with the murder of the woman he loves. It makes for a compelling story, but again, because he is willing to be honest about telling it.

Was this before the virus happened or did it come about after the fact?

Ben Mankiewicz: Oh, no. This is been some time—some significant amount of. For us, this is a new form of storytelling. That’s what we think about what we are at TCM. We tell little stories before the movies—that’s our bread and butter. And then the movies themselves—of course, these are great storytellers themselves. We’re really fortunate to have established ourselves through 25-26 years of hard work led by Robert Osborne but this makes TCM this sort of destination. Those letters mean something. They tell people that this is sort of the authority on classic Hollywood. We want to be able to tell those stories consistently in new ways. Well, we know why we have that reputation—because we show these movies and we tell stories about these movies in historical context or curation and we form this community of the sort of diehard movie fan. So no, we don’t do anything quickly at TCM (Laughs). We’re very careful and always have been. It’s one of the great things—we don’t have commercials. We don’t follow the market. We have this sort of creative independence and it allows us to be deliberative, which means it allows us to only do things that are good. Right? We just don’t rush. You can see that in the whole look of the channel. This has been—if you count from the first discussion—certainly more than a year and an active production for a good six months but easily that much time spent in pre production before before Peter and I sat down and did about 15 hours worth of interviews.

Do you have a favorite film that Peter made?

Ben Mankiewicz: I do. I don’t draw a distinction between favorite film and best film but my favorite film is Saint Jack. It’s Peter’s comeback film and it’s really sensational. It just represents this key moment in his life in 1979 where he sort of figured it out and found his voice again after these three flops and comes in 1980 and it doesn’t happen. I think Peter spends the 1980s as an elite filmmaker but also one that maintains a degree of independence, sort of like Cassavetes. He even made, I think, really interesting movies in the 80 if what happened in 1980 hadn’t occurred?

Which films do you find yourself watching the most for comfort?

Ben Mankiewicz: As always, I wish I had this idea that I sort of grow and expand myself and watch all these new movies but of course, you go back to the thing that TCM thrives on—movies that make you feel a certain way. First of all, I have a seven year old daughter as you can tell from the teaching break that I had to take. My wife and I watched Casablanca. We watched Key Largo. I’ve watched Shawshank Redemption. I’ve watched Out of Sight. This was going to make me sound like the worst parent in the world: my seven year old daughter loves My Cousin Vinnie, which we’ve watched multiple times. Mr. Mom…but then when I’ve had a moment, I’ve gone back to Random Harvest. If you don’t cry at the end of Random Harvest, you have no soul—that’s a scientific fact. And then just the movies I love—1957 is three movies that are just perfect: Paths of Glory, A Face in the Crowd, and Sweet Smell of Success. These aren’t movies that make you happy. But again, you don’t have to take comfort and the story doesn’t have to be sappy. You take comfort in the way people take comfort in a painting or a book. You’re seeing art executed brilliantly. That unquestionably provides comfort. Of course, there are many more movies but those are all movies I’ve seen during this. I keep thinking I got to watch these movies that I know I would love that I haven’t seen and then I just don’t. I don’t know what that is—you’re provided all this content, and you’re like, I’m just gonna watch Shawshank Redemption for the 30th time.

I feel like I’ve been doing more recording on TCM lately than anything else.

Ben Mankiewicz: It’s great to hear that. That’s what we want to hear. I think it’s true of a lot of people. We are living in obviously in the surreal nature of the world right now. We’re seeing—daily—legitimate heroes and obviously, frontline medical workers, respiratory technicians, doctors, nurses, scientists, researchers—the leaders who are actually leading and I’m obviously leaving out the leaders who aren’t leading. And then the grocery store workers, G-d bless them. You see these lines—people running food banks. I just did some work for the Salvation Army. These people are risking their lives to help people who need assistance. Postal workers, Amazon—the delivery people that are actually working for Amazon out there. I’m constantly impressed and but during that time, we’re not there but places like TCM providing comfort—that question you asked—we knew that we were going to have a lot of people at home for whom TCM is important. We’ve learned that over 25 years. This channel is really the only channel on television that means something emotionally to people. Shows might matter, right? People might connect with the shows but they don’t connect with the letters of the network. Nobody is a diehard ABC fan, right? They might love some stuff on ABC. Nobody is a diehard Starz fan, right? A diehard Showtime fan. They might like a show but they don’t believe in the channel. I love Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men on AMC but I don’t like or love AMC. That’s crazy—an absurd thing to say. Right?

Yeah.

Ben Mankiewicz: But TCM matters to people. Literally, those letters matter. Robert Osborne did more than anybody to foster that connection and the connection between the audience and the channel and the host. It matters. That’s why we did the stay-at-home festival. When we had to cancel our festival—you got me right here, I am teaching my daughter and I’m setting up lights in my office because I shot yesterday here new intros—for movies that are going to start airing in May—from home. We’ve got to keep connecting with people. Our role is small but it matters to the people who care so we want to make sure we’re doing that.

I have to ask—how touched were you when you saw Steven Weber’s tweet?

Ben Mankiewicz: It was just beautiful. I only know him through Twitter. His kids have aged out so but he is a parent at our school as it turned out. I knew from others he was really decent guy. You just can tell—whether it’s Twitter. He was also was on one of my favorite current shows, which is a re-imagining of Get Shorty on Epix—which is such a great show.

We’ve connected on Twitter and he’d be a great guest on TCM love to have him on, and again, it just moved me. When you see people appreciating your work, it means something.  And I get—let me continue. Don’t just quote me on that, please, because I know what they’re getting is the work of these great artists from classic Hollywood—the bread and butter of our movies from the beginning of sound in the 1930s through the early 60s. We still have plenty from the 60s and 70s, too. We’ve figured out that it is a little different to just show those movies as it is to curate them. Right? You have to put them in context and that has formed this connection with the audience. It’s just really nice to be working in a place that matters to people. TCM, again, it matters to him, He reflected that. It’s great and such a nice thing to say in a time when you’re looking for nice things, that was particularly wonderful. He wasn’t saying that to get on the air but—definitely—if he has the time, I’d love to talk classic movies with Steven Weber.

It’s a sentiment that I agree with. I can’t tell you the number of classic films I’ve discovered thanks to TCM—31 Days of Oscar is one of my favorite times of the year.

Ben Mankiewicz: Yeah. Look, we hope we’re back in the studio shooting that but if we’re not; we’ll shoot it from here. We’ll shoot it from my house, Alicia’s house, Dave’s house, Eddie’s house, and Jacqueline’s house. We’ll it on the air for 31 Days of Oscar. Our programming will be there and it’ll be there as you expect it to be. It’s just the intros will be from people’s living rooms and home offices instead of a studio. But we’ll do it.

I imagine it’s going to be a while before theaters reopened but when business gets back to normal? Will it be the old normal or the new normal or will we ever see normal again?

Ben Mankiewicz: I think the normal will change. We’re humans and we go back to what we know and what we are comfortable with. And certainly, I think that once there’s a vaccine, which again—initially, I thought 18 months, how can it take that long? And then you realize that’s how long it takes to make a safe vaccine at the earliest. Once you have, you have to figure out a way to distribute it and get it to doctor’s offices and pharmacies around the country, and that could take years to get enough doses to provide every American with a dose because obviously, the rest of the world is going to want it, too. It might be years. I imagine if it’s under control viruses—I don’t want to say anything medical because I don’t really know. I read a ton but I’m not certain.

I imagine at some point, look, we like communities. We’ve got two dogs. I guess to some extent, we’re pack animals. I think what I miss most is just the daily connections you have with people. I want to see my friends. I want to have a meeting and afterwards having connected with someone, shake their hands or give them a quick hug. I like that. That matters. I think this notion that things won’t at all be the same is probably true in the short term. I think in the long term, we’re creatures of habit. That can work to our advantage and disadvantage but mostly it works to our advantage. I think you will see something. I think that people be might be hesitant to go to sporting events when they open up for a little bit. Then they’ll see that it’s okay, and then they’ll go. We’ll go. We want to feel things, we want to feel emotion, we want to connect with people, and we connect with common interests. Those common interests are movies, sporting events, stamp collecting, fashion, whatever the thing is that interests you that forges a bond with other people. We’re gonna want to return to that as quickly as possible. For you and a millions of others, there’s almost nothing outside of our family and people that is more important to us than talking about movies. It is not enough to see a movie and think to yourself that was great. Instantly when you see a great film, what you want to do is want to talk to somebody about it. You want to share that. It’s why our festival and crew has worked so well. We’ll have to reimagine how we’re going to do that in a bit but we’ll figure it out.

What do you think your grandfather, Herman Mankiewicz, and great-uncle, Joseph Mankiewicz, would think of the landscape today with the rise in digital and streaming?

Ben Mankiewicz: I mean, look, they were wrong. I love my grandfather and great-uncle. I didn’t know my grandfather. I didn’t know my great-uncle well. I was 26 when he died. They bore this notion that the movies weren’t really an artistic way to make a living, right? If you wanted to be in the arts, you were in theater. You wrote plays, produced plays—you were in that world. Or you wrote real literature or were a journalist, big believers in journalism as I am still about the importance of journalism—the fourth estate. But movies, they thought, were this popcorn to the masses. And they were wrong. Their own movies are evidence of that.

I would think they would have adapted. I think they get a huge kick out of the fact that their grand-nephew and grandson earns his living talking about other people’s movies. He’d be like, “Wait, so what you do is you talk about? That’s amazing. And they’re paying you? Wow, well done.” Right. I think they ultimately would be guys who thought in the end, it is not about the big screen because they didn’t have any love affair with the big screen itself. I think they would have grown to appreciate great storytelling. They did appreciate it even if they didn’t always talk that way. Joe was very proud of the movies that he made and Herman was really proud of Citizen Kane. I just think to some extent, they were putting on a show that they were theater guys trapped in Hollywood. Joe even left, of course, but I think they’d appreciate this landscape and I think this landscape is okay.

I still think we’re gonna go to theaters and experience that—the better, high quality storytelling for adults because that’s what I care about most. There’s always going to be great stuff for kids. It’s okay with me if we see it on a small screen. I mean, some movies are going to make more sense on the big screen. I don’t think theaters are going anywhere. Maybe we won’t have quite as many. There’s some tragedy in that but we’ve already lost it. I mean, the overwhelming majority of theaters in this country are multiplexes owned by big giant corporations, anyway. Some of the magic of the theater is already gone but we got used to it. It’s okay. I think we’ll continue to go to theaters. But I think overall, they’d appreciate it. They’d think this is a greater opportunity to tell a good story. They would certainly be impressed by the quality of storytelling on streaming. The fact that people could see their movies more, they’d love that—there’s no question. My grandfather would love that these people love Citizen Kane. He would love to be alive for that renaissance for Citizen Kane (inaudible) continues to exist today. Joe gets talked about talked about as well as one of the great directors of all time. They would love that. They should love it. It’s okay to love it. It doesn’t make you an egotistical person to love praise for your art. They would love the appreciation for the art more than praise

I know that you’re father, Frank, was a founding member of the Stan Musial Society. Did the love for the St. Louis Cardinals pass down to the next generation?

Ben Mankiewicz: The love of baseball did. As I’m doing this interview, I’ve been walking around with a baseball in my hands and throwing it up in the air. My dad made me a baseball fan. It’s just I became a baseball fan literally in attempt to connect with him at age eight after the 1975 World Series because my cousin connected with him during that. I didn’t like baseball and I watched that with horror—my dad’s bonding with my cousin. I wanted to bond with him like this. He was always great dad and we did bond. I saw baseball as another opportunity. I willed myself to be a fan and it became one of the most important things in my life—being a fan. I love baseball and talking about it. I became an A’s fan. He came and told me—I picked the A’s in 1976 because they had nice uniforms. In 1977, they have this player—Mitchell Page—a great rookie. Dad called me into his office—I was in his office. He’s like, “See this guy for the A’s. He’s had an amazing first week, Mitchell Page, the rookie.” That was it. It just stuck. I was like, Oh, that’s my favorite player. Here I am, 53 years old, still going on eBay, and buying Mitchell Page stuff that I don’t have. I protect my family with a game-used bat from Mitchell Page. That’s our weapon except I’d be afraid to use it because I can’t buy another one on eBay.

What are you doing in order to prevent yourself from going stir crazy?

Ben Mankiewicz: We’ve got two dogs so we get out and walk them. Again, I miss connecting with people but my family and I—we’re getting along really well. There’s no question that we’ve connected in some really nice ways. The upside—you make the best of it. I don’t know there’s really an upside but you make the best of it and connecting with the family and spending more time at home, that’s been lovely and wonderful. I don’t want that to come at the expense of 30 million people losing their jobs but you control the things you can control. That’s been nice but obviously, I’m eager to emerge in this. I’m eager for my daughter to have play dates and get back to playing with her friends. She’s a social kid and a wonderful kid. I want this to be a little blip in her life. I don’t want this to be a big thing. I look forward to it ending. (inaudible) I’m too pleased to be around my family and my daughter more.

The Plot Thickens is currently available on TCM.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.