May 12, 2016

TCM Classic Film Festival 2016: The Stars

While there are plenty of TCM Classic Film Festivalgoers who will camp out for three hours to ensure entry to a rare pre-code or film noir, there's no doubt that it's the special guests that really get our blood pumping. There's nothing like seeing a performer you have admired on the screen in the flesh. It's as if you are getting proof that these magical people are real. There's a good reason why it's the guest announcements that get the most chatter when news about TCMFF begins to trickle out each year.

So, even though it can be a bit awkward and repetitive, I'm sharing my star experiences in a separate post from my festival film viewing, so you can get the full impact of all that reflected glory. These are dynamic, charismatic people. Though most of them will claim otherwise, they really are different from the rest of us, and that's why we love watching them.

I approached this year's festival feeling that I'd seen so many amazing guests over the past two years, that maybe I wasn't as capable of being dazzled by them as in my first experiences. This was not the case though. In fact, in a couple of instances I don't think I was ever more star struck. Here are the people I saw, and what they said:

Ted Donaldson, Child Actor, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Interviewed by Jeremy Arnold

The first celebrity interview of the festival was in many ways the most compelling. Ted Donaldson played a supporting role in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but his performance is an indicator of just how much everyone was on their game in this film. There's not a bit of the precocious child actor air about him; he seems like a real, obnoxious, big-hearted kid.

The soft-spoken Donaldson was delighted to share his memories with the crowd. He was so quiet that the audience was collectively leaning forward in its seats to catch everything he said. Interviewer Jeremy Arnold gave him plenty of space to reminisce. 

In addition to making movies, Donaldson worked in commercials, soap operas, radio and on Broadway, most notably for a production of Life With Father. However, he focused his comments on the film to be played that night.

He praised director Elia Kazan for his ability to stage scenes well for the screen, despite the fact that it was his first time helming a film. The actor also said, "Dorothy McGuire's performance is one of the greatest given on film," a statement with which I somewhat agreed. Just like the hardworking mother she plays, it can be easy to not fully appreciate the craft that went into her understated performance, that is, until you realized how she has totally destroyed you.

Donaldson also told a sweet story about Joan Blondell. The actor said, "she had a great sense of embracement." When he confessed he had a crush on the actress, and even proposed to her at age ten, she was very sweet to him. She gave him a photo of herself on which she wrote, "From Joan 'I'm waiting for you' Blondell."

It was clear that Donaldson would have loved to stay longer, and it seemed many in the audience would have enjoyed that as well. The actor was generous with his time throughout the festival though. I hear he answered many questions about working with Cary Grant in Once Upon a Time (1944) while hanging out in Club TCM.

Illeana Douglas, TCM All-Star

The actress/author/director/producer Illeana Douglas is such a familiar face at TCMFF, that I think a lot of us TCMFF regulars are just used to seeing her around. She is clearly a star, but she's also friendly, accessible and a full-on classic movie nerd. I mean, I think some of my friends are even pals with her. It's always fun to see her film introductions and interviews, because she so thoroughly loves and understands movies.

That's why I was a bit stunned by my reaction to her at her book signing for I Blame Dennis Hopper. It's really by chance that I was even able to go; the Francis Ford Coppola hand/footprint  ended earlier than I expected, and I thought it would be fun to thank her for writing such an entertaining book. I'd also borrowed the book from the library and really wanted to buy my own copy.

Well my goodness, I tossed a crazy word salad for Ms. Douglas. Hope I didn't scare her. I can't remember what all I said, but it was not dignified. When I wondered later what had come over me, I realized that while I admired her as an actress and classic film fan, I was gob smacked by her ability to write a consistently funny book. Not many people can do that!

Anyway, I was not able to gracefully put into words how much I admired her achievement, but thank heaven she is a pro, and was very gracious, even patient? And I hear that was her boyfriend taking fan photos for her. How sweet.

Gina Lollobrigida, Trapeze (1956), Interviewed by Illeana Douglas

The announcement that Ms. Lollobrigida would be a guest at TCMFF was one of my first squeal-worthy moments leading up to the festival. I love this sexy, intelligent star. While Doris Day was Rock Hudson's best comic partner, I think La Lollo had the most sizzle with him. There's no film that her easy glamour and sensuality cannot improve.

As a festival guest, Lollobrigida was every bit as glamorous and fascinating as I expected. She looked gorgeous, and was still in many ways quite a bombshell. In a career highlight film that played before the movie, someone commented that "she makes Marilyn Monroe look like Shirley Temple" and that pretty much nails it.

The actress spoke at length about her enjoyment working on a circus set for Trapeze. As a woman more interested in travel, art, and photography, the skill of the real circus performers and the challenge of doing many of her own stunts appealed to her. She would even disguise herself as a clown when she wasn't needed on set so she could hang around incognito and soak up the atmosphere. When her stunt double broke her nose, she had to perform her own stunts, or as La Lollo put it, "I had to do the double of my double."

Lollobrigida also discussed other actors and films in a lengthy, if not nearly long enough discussion. She joked about producer David Selznick wanting to buy her out of her Beat the Devil (1953) contract because he feared she would outshine his wife, and her costar, Jennifer Jones. She also said that co-star Humphrey Bogart was much funnier than his screen persona, always laughing, joking and singing.

The actress became somber when she discussed the death of friend and costar Tyrone Power, which happened when she was starring with him in Solomon and Sheba (1959). She shared a sweet story of Power calling her in the middle of the night just to say he couldn't sleep because he wanted to tell her what pleasure it gave him to work with her. Lollobrigida initially did not like working with the actor's replacement on that film, Yul Brynner, but eventually passion changed her mind. It seems that once they started an onscreen kiss, they couldn't stop, no matter what the director did to get their attention.

It was a very entertaining interview. I have a feeling it would be fascinating to talk about just about anything with this brilliant lady. She's got an admirable lust for life.

Angela Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Interviewed by Alec Baldwin

I was so anxious to see Dame Angela that for the first time ever, I nabbed a spot in the short line gathered in the forecourt of the Chinese Theatre. To put that in perspective, my queue number was 40 and about 500 people lined up in the media/classic pass category. As expected, she was worth the wait.

Alec Baldwin conducted the interview, and while I think he's a smart, funny guy with a lot of classic film knowledge, sometimes he puts a bit too much of himself into his interviews. I guess that's an actor for you, grabbing the spotlight. That said, he did a great job, and it was actually pretty funny when he noticed he had a pillow on his lap and wondered aloud why.

Dame, Baldwin, lap pillow
Lansbury talked both about The Manchurian Candidate and her early career in Hollywood. She noted that the somber mood on the set was inspired by director John Frankenheimer, who set the tone and was all business. This was the last film the actress would make in Hollywood before she escaped to better roles on Broadway. It was a satisfying experience for her, though not without its drama.

Star Frank Sinatra proved to be a challenge because he was famously a one-take actor and the complex nature of the film required much more than one go at a scene. It was also interesting to hear that 'Ol Blue Eyes originally wanted Lucille Ball for the evil mother role Lansbury played. I think the right actress got the role, but that sure would have been interesting to see.

Lansbury went on to talk about her experiences as a young actress in Hollywood, which were for the most part a bit frustrating. She said "producers all saw me in a different way," which led to a great inconsistency of quality in the parts she played. Fortunately, she found satisfaction and huge success on the stage.

When Baldwin said to Lansbury, "you're never going to retire?" She replied, "no, I don't think so" and the audience responded with a huge cheer. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see this sharp-witted, charismatic actress. 

Eva Marie Saint, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), Interviewed by Leonard Maltin

Going to see this movie was a last minute decision for me, partially inspired by my desire to see a comedy, but firmly made once I realized I'd never seen Eva Marie Saint in person. I knew she was a charming, generous interview subject and that I should grab the chance to see her. I'm glad I did, because what she really did was give a performance, and a very entertaining one at that.

If I had a transcript I might have just posted the whole conversation here. It was so witty and amusing that it was difficult to believe the whole thing wasn't scripted. I adored Maltin's intro, where he said of the Egyptian, "I love this theater. I love this screen. Everything looks great on this screen." But the critic knew who we were there to see, so he hurried on to bringing out Saint.

What a lovely, energetic and life-affirming person she is. From the moment she appeared, it was like adding Pop Rocks to soda. She sparkles!

The actress was completely engaged with both Maltin and the audience. I never saw a star look out into the audience so much, as if she was attempting to have a conversation with hundreds of people. She made it look easy too.

Saint was sassy and sexy, talking about wearing hot pants in the sixties and flirting with Maltin. When he said he'd researched her on Google she responded, "you Googled me? I didn't even feel it!"

Everyone gasped when she announced that she is 92. She barely looked in her sixties. When she asked Maltin his age he said, "I'm 65, but I could play 64." Get these two in a road movie together!

Though The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is a fifty-year-old film, she had lots of vivid memories of working on what sounds like a happy production. She shared an amusing story about Alan Arkin's grimaces while digging through her character's purse in the film, and how her kids would tease her about it whenever she groped in a similarly desperate fashion for something in her handbag in real life.

Saint also talked about the declining enthusiasm of the extras, all of them locals, once they realized being in show business required hard work and tedious repetition. She shared a hilarious story of looking for a church at one of the the filming locations years after the production, only to be told by a local that it had been a fa├žade constructed for the film.

This interview was constant fun. It's one of the best schedule changes I made the entire festival.

Anna Karina, Band of Outsiders (1964), Interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz

Seeing Ms. Karina made me realize just how star struck I could get. My experience seeing her is probably worthy of its own post, but I don't know if I'd have the intestinal fortitude to carry through.

Anna Karina is one of my favorite actresses, not just for her great performances, but her style, wit, intelligence and indescribable joie de vivre. I have so much respect for this dignified and kind-hearted lady. For that reason this event was my must-see of the festival, and I approached her appearance with laser-eyed obsession.

As soon as the War of the Worlds screening let out, I started eyeing the line for Band of Outsiders, even though the audience for the next film in the theater had just been seated. Fortunately, artist/blogger Kate Gabrielle was even more obsessed than I was so we kept each other company and totally geeked out copying a few shots from another favorite Karina flick, A Woman is  Woman (1961). I'm Jean-Paul Belmondo:
Photo credit Kate Gabrielle

Though catching Karina on the red carpet gave me the shakes for a good half hour, seeing her up close was an entirely different experience. This is the first interview where I wanted a front row seat, and where I took a picture of the place where the actress of my admiration would be sitting (see pic at top of post. I will remember that crack in the floor forever). I'm talking crazy times. But once we were seated, I settled into a goofy state of bliss that stuck with me for hours.

The presence of Anna Karina is overwhelming. She so charming, bright and joyful. Even Ben Mankiewicz seemed to be in awe, nearly wordless when he tried to describe his admiration for her style and stopping to gush over the elegant way she said, "Palmolive". At a certain point, Karina picked up on his fanboy goofiness and said in the most affectionate way, "you're funny." I think she kind of made him melt.

As for me, I had to make an effort not to stare. My goal the entire conversation was not to be scary. What a magnetic force this woman emits though. It was almost impossible to look away.

Though it may be hard to believe, I did manage to hear some of the words that came out of Karina's mouth. A lot of the stories she told about working with Godard, the start of her career and how she feels about her films were familiar, but the style in which she told them was so offhand and amusing, so French.

She spoke about the beginning of her romance with Godard: how he would send her love notes requesting specific rendezvous locations and times, and the way he would film her while he asked her questions about her love affairs. Overall, she was really telling the story of how she came to be famous, and the director who was at her side through it all, which was appropriate given the film being shown.

It was an incredible experience. I loved how satisfied and grateful she seemed with the life she has had so far, and how touched she was by the love of the audience. It was also wonderful to feel the adulation of a twelve-year-old for this artist, because this is a time where the famous seem increasingly more likely to let us down. It was nice to believe in someone and upon seeing her, feel that my admiration had been deserved.

Yes! Finally settled down long enough to get a pic that isn't blurry!

To see more photos of the stars and read more about my experiences seeing celebrity guests of TCMFF, check out my Red Carpet coverage and my report on the Francis Ford Coppola hand and footprint ceremony.

Check out my full TCMFF 2016 coverage here.


  1. Aside from my classic film pals, Carl Reiner, Dame Angela Lansbury, and Rita Moreno are the reasons I hated not being able to go to TCMFF the most! Of course, I really want to meet Illeana in person one day. On Twitter she is so nice and approachable that I forget sometimes that she is Melvyn Douglas's granddaughter and a talented and famous actor in her own right. I think if I do get to meet her I will probably be really nervous!

  2. Hi Terry! It is really fascinating to see so many accomplished people in the space of four days, but you're right, seeing pals is the best part. I was sorry I didn't get around to seeing Rita Moreno, who I also love, partly because I wanted to report back to you!