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TCM daytime weekend host has ties to Hollywood royalty

| Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, 8:57 p.m.
Ben Mankiewicz at the Roosevelt Hotel during the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, Calif. 
Credit: Edward M. Pio Roda
Ben Mankiewicz at the Roosevelt Hotel during the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, Calif. Credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

There are some things in life that are just timeless by nature. For Turner Classic Movie daytime weekend host Ben Mankiewicz, nothing is more timeless than a good story. Hard to argue with someone who's got movies in his blood … literally. For the Mankiewicz clan, Hollywood hit close to home thanks to grandfather Herman, who shared an Academy Award with Orson Welles for the screenplay of “Citizen Kane” (1941) and great uncle, Joseph, the triple threat writer-producer-director who scored Oscars for “Letter to Three Wives” (1949) and “All About Eve” (1950).

Ironically, his own interest in classic films was cultivated as most things in life are — by gentle persuasion from mom. While he was a teen, a family viewing of “North by Northwest” proved to be more interesting than he thought it would be. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Tuesday, Mankiewicz will be coming to Pittsburgh to introduce “On the Waterfront” (1954) for a free screening at the Byham Theater as part of TCM's 10- city “Road to Hollywood” Tour. Even better? He'll be joined by Eva Marie Saint, who won an Oscar for her performance as Edie Doyle. Although the screening is free, a ticket must be presented for entry. Details:

Question: How are classic movies able to hold their own against films today that are constantly pushing the envelope in terms of special effects and shock value?

Answer: Let's eliminate shock value and talk about special effects. Special effects are a tool in making movies, but special effects all by itself doesn't make a movie. There are special effects in classic movies — they aren't as realistic as they are now, but that's only a small part of it. That leaves out the main weapon that a director and writer have before them when they make a movie, which is story — story, script, character development. If you have those things, you have a movie. A compelling story in 1936 is a compelling story in 2012.

Q: Is it the sentimental value of classic movies that captivates us?

A: No question. When we interact with fans, it's overwhelming. It's people who saw these movies when they came out, and it's movies people remember watching with their parents. So, there are plenty of people for whom those movies have sentimental value. I think sometimes we forget (that) before cable, when so many people grew up with five channels, when there was a big movie on television, that was a big deal. And you watched it with your folks, friends and brothers and sisters, and that's nice. I remember getting exposed to all sorts of movies for the first time in the 1970s, and those movies were 30 years old then.

Q: Do you worry that these films will be lost on the younger generations?

A: I don't think it's going to be lost. I don't think there's any more jeopardy of them being lost in 2012 as it was when TCM signed on the air in 1994. A quality product — there's always an audience for it. You need young people who are into these movies and making these movies. As influential as James Cameron and Steven Spielberg are, they could learn a little more about how to make movies based on (younger filmmakers).

Q: Your intros offer some great behind-the-scenes tidbits from each film. What's one tale in particular that you really enjoyed hearing?

A: I'm surprised to hear about a zillion of them — there are so many. In an intro, what I like best is to tell a compelling story about how a movie was made. Those stories aren't always compelling, but I like to put it in historical context.

Q: There was a certain mystique surrounding movie stars back in the day that seems obliterated by the accessibility we have to them today. Has technology ruined the idea of a film icon?

A: I don't think so. You look at a guy like George Clooney — he'd be a gigantic huge star in any era. And Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington. It's certainly made the directors bigger stars than they were. They were big stars in Hollywood and inside the business, but now, Spielberg and (George) Lucas and Cameron and (Ridley) Scott and (Martin) Scorsese — they're big stars all by themselves.

Q: Given your family ties with the film industry, did you always have an interest in classic flicks?

A: It grew on me. I grew up in a different world. My father was in politics, so I grew up in Washington, D.C., where George McGovern was a bigger star than Jack Nicholson. I was in my teens and thought, “These movies are in black and white and not interesting and in another era.” I have a very solid memory of my mother convincing me not go into my room and convincing me to watch “North by Northwest” with her on TV. So I watched that, and that made a difference. I got past it, and if I can get past it, others can get past it, too.

Q: Name your ultimate leading lady, living or dead.

A: Carole Lombard. Girls who make me laugh always get me going, and she was bawdy and (gutsy) and cursed and (was) both sexy and sexual while still being so freaking funny — and a fearless performer.

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