Dream Chasers

Mark Harris and Alicia Malone—two of the hosts of this month’s TCM Film Festival—tell Jack Moulton about Nichols and May, West Side Story, classic lockdown discoveries, and the films that make you feel like everything has changed when you walk out of that cinema.

For a second year in a row due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the TCM Classic Film Festival is being hosted virtually. Its program screens across TCM and HBO Max from May 6 to May 9. The festival, which began in 2010, was held at Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the nearby Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, a move designed to allow classic movie fans to retread the footsteps of glitzy premieres from the glamorous past.

Ahead of Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake, the festival opens with West Side Story’s 60th anniversary screening, featuring new and exclusive interviews by living legends Rita Moreno, George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn. The complete festival lineup includes classic programming and talent highlights, from Michael Douglas introducing his Best Picture-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Scorsese on Goodfellas, to a comedian-heavy table read of Edward D. Wood Jr.’s infamously bad Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Journalist and author Mark Harris, who published the biography Mike Nichols: A Life earlier this year, is presenting the 1996 American Masters documentary Nichols and May: Take Two, covering the Oscar-winning director’s legendary comic partnership with Elaine May. It features iconic sketches that will recontextualize the way you think about Nichols if you thought his career started with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate.

TCM host, feminist cinema expert, Australian expat and Letterboxd member Alicia Malone is also a presenter at this year’s festival. (She admits she’s slacking on her Letterboxd logging this year, but used it to track her viewings over lockdown, topping over 500 films.) Neither Harris nor Malone have been able to go to the cinema since they closed over a year ago, but both are eager to return to their local arthouses in Maine and the Upper West Side of Manhattan as soon as they’re ready.

We caught up with Harris and Malone shortly before the festival commenced for a classic edition of the Letterboxd Life in Film.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972).
The Poseidon Adventure (1972).

What’s your fondest memory of seeing a film in the cinema?
Mark Harris: This is embarrassing, but for me it’s The Poseidon Adventure. At the time, my parents were a bit stricter than other parents so the other kids were already getting to see so-called ‘adult’ movies. The Poseidon Adventure was the first ‘not-kids’ movie that I ever got to see in a theater and at the age of eight, I immediately thought ‘well, clearly this is the best movie of all-time’. Everything in it was new information to me, such as how adults talked to each other and Stella Stevens playing a prostitute—I had no idea what that was. I found it so scary, I believed everything I saw on the screen. The joy of taking in something I hadn’t seen before has never left me.

Alicia Malone: It would probably be seeing Amélie. I was living in Canberra but my older sister had moved to Sydney, which to me was the big smoke, I really wanted to live there when I grew up. I got to visit her by myself and stay in her flat which she was renting by herself and it seemed so cool. She took me to the local arthouse cinema where Amélie was playing and I was so swept away. I know that film gets a bad rap now for being overly sentimental and quirky, but I just felt like I was being seen. I had such a kinship with the character of Amélie because she’s a dreamer, always in her own head and that’s how I was. I was always comparing my life to movies and playing movie scenes in my head. I remember walking out of that cinema and it felt like everything had changed—the color was brighter, it was special.

MH: We have to talk Turner into an Amélie-Poseidon Adventure double-feature!

AM: What a double! That would be amazing.

John Garfield and Ida Lupino in The Sea Wolf (1941).
John Garfield and Ida Lupino in The Sea Wolf (1941).

Which classic films that you discovered during lockdown had a major impact on you?
MH: I wanted to dive into some directors that I really didn’t know well so I started watching all the Luchino Visconti movies, because Italian cinema is not my strongest area. That was an incredibly rewarding experience. I also saw the big seven-hour Russian War and Peace, which completely blew my mind. Those were probably my big pandemic discoveries.

AM: Something I really loved was getting to do the TCM Star of the Month for John Garfield because he’s such an interesting character and was a pre-cursor to Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and those types of method actors. I’d seen him in various films—such as The Postman Always Rings Twice—but I’d never sat down to watch a lot of his filmography and learn more about his personal story. To see films like The Sea Wolf and Body and Soul, I really gained a newfound respect for him as an actor. You can see some of the beginnings of that kind of tough-guy, everyday-man archetype with a brilliant actor putting his emotions right there on his sleeve.

MH: I should also say that the Women Make Movies Festival was huge for me. All those movies are on my DVR and I’m still going through them and discovering them. I recorded everything and that was and continues to be a gigantic education for me.

AM: Yes! Thanks for that reminder. That was such a fulfilling experience to get to be one of the hosts on that with Jacqueline Stewart. What was so brilliant about Mark Cousins’ documentary is that there are so many clips of films that you think how have we not seen this? How are we not studying this film? How do we not know about this particular filmmaker?

Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson in Heartburn (1986).
Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson in Heartburn (1986).

If you could only pick one, which is the most overlooked film by Mike Nichols?
MH: The most under-appreciated film to me is Heartburn. That was a real rediscovery when I was working on the book. I remember liking it, but I didn’t remember how sharp the performances were, how funny the comedy was, and the really acute social observations. I was so surprised when I was coming across the reviews—almost all of which were by men—and all of them said some version of “Why is he wasting his time with this? Why would he tell this woman’s story? Why doesn’t he tell the other half of the story?” Surely no-one would leave this character unless she gave him a good reason to leave! It was really shocking to me how dismissive and contemptuous a lot of the critical reaction was. I’m so happy that I’ve gotten to stick Heartburn under a lot of people’s noses because it’s a movie they seem to be really liking once they find it.

AM: I’m obviously not as deep into his filmography as Mark is, but I have to agree that Heartburn is a film that I can’t believe has been so overlooked. I came to that movie through Nora Ephron, who I just adore. [Heartburn is adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by Ephron.] I rewatched it recently and I was blown away by it. Of course, Meryl Streep is amazing, but just getting to be in those characters’ worlds again and watching it after I had listened to the audiobook—which features the voice of Meryl Streep—about a year ago added a whole new experience. I loved how in her book how she has all these recipes dotted through it that you see in the movie as well.

MH: That’s one of the great audiobook readings of all time. It’s great to listen to [Streep] do that.

John Cassavetes and Peter Falk in Mikey and Nicky (1976).
John Cassavetes and Peter Falk in Mikey and Nicky (1976).

Where do you recommend film lovers start with Elaine May?
MH: It’s only a four-movie body of work as a director so I think it’s perfectly fine to go in chronological order. A New Leaf is fantastic and feels 100 percent her. You really get a great deal of her sensibility in that movie. I would just start there and go to The Heartbreak Kid and then to Mikey and Nicky, which is not the place to start but is a fascinating movie, and then you’ll be ready for Ishtar.

AM: See, I would say Mikey and Nicky straight out of the gate.

MH: Really?

AM: I love subverting expectations of what a female director can do and that is such a masculine movie. It’s a film that you wouldn’t expect for a female director to make. I love the back and forth, the rapport between [Cassavetes and Falk]. I find it really compelling and exciting every time I see it. So I say, go hard, go in with Mikey and Nicky then, yeah, A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid, but maybe skip Ishtar.

Iconic comedy duo Elaine May and Mike Nichols.
Iconic comedy duo Elaine May and Mike Nichols.

Thinking of Nichols fleeing to New York City from Germany, and Alicia moving to Hollywood from Australia, which ‘American Dream’ film resonates with you the most?
AM: This answer is going to sound quite cheesy since it was a recent film: La La Land. I understand all the criticism about it, I agree with it, but I don’t care. I feel like it was made for me as a redhead in Hollywood, chasing her dream, and coming up against all the obstacles. I also love Singin’ in the Rain, which I know is not necessarily strictly about the American Dream but is about Hollywood in general. That is a film that really started the idea of moving to Hollywood as a young kid. It’s the idea of a magical place where you could do anything and make your dreams come true and have dignity—always dignity.

MH: This time I’m going to go hard and dark and say the first title that occurred to me, which is The Godfather: Part II. It’s a great immigrant story, though it’s a strange version of the American Dream. The whole saga is about coming to America, becoming an American, and deciding what American values are.

AM: I should say that during our TCM Film Festival on HBO Max, we have a section on immigrant stories. We have America, America, which is a great one by Elia Kazan, and Stranger Than Paradise, which I would recommend as well. It’s a warped view of the American Dream but I love the way they think they get rich and all their dreams can come true. Also Black Legion, which is a darker version of the immigrant story with Humphrey Bogart going to the darker side of ‘foreigners should not take American jobs’.

MH: I’ll just throw in a plug for another Mike Nichols movie, Working Girl. He really saw that as an immigrant story—the first shot is of the Statue of Liberty, even though they’re [emigrating] from Staten Island! I think Mike thought it was as distant of a land as the old country, I’m not sure he spent a lot of time on Staten Island.

Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year (1942).
Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year (1942).

What are some of your other problematic faves? The classics we acknowledge have not aged well, but you love anyway.
AM: I think My Fair Lady is one of those. I’m a sucker for make-over movies despite all of their problematic ways of showing how women need to change if you don’t fit into the mold and you should sand down all your edges. But I get worked up in the whole transformation myth and making your life better. Even though it’s got Audrey Hepburn and you want to see Julie Andrews in that role, My Fair Lady is still one that I enjoy and I can see all of the problems with it.

Another one, that we featured during our Reframed series on TCM, was Woman of the Year, which is a great example of one of those women’s pictures that, as Professor Jeanine Basinger has pointed out, is so empowering for most of the movie and then in the last five minutes it undoes everything. It’s still a great film to watch when you want to get ahead of feminism and see Katharine Hepburn in a wonderful role, but you just have to ignore the breakfast scene at the end.

MH: I was just talking the other day to some people about the movie Network, which is one of my all-time favorite movies, but if you look hard at Network, it’s very possible to read that as a story about a woman who can’t be a professional in a workplace without hollowing herself out and becoming sort of less-than-human. [Diana Christensen] is talked about terribly by the other characters and you’re supposed to learn a hard lesson about what a monster an ambitious woman can become and that does not hold up well. It’s also a movie that features some of the wittiest dialogue and some of the greatest performances of any movie of the 1970s and I’m always going to love it for that.

AM: That’s such a trope, isn’t it? The ice-cold career woman.

MH: Right, and whoever did it better than…

AM, MH: Faye Dunaway!

Alicia Malone, Mark Harris.
Alicia Malone, Mark Harris.
Alicia Malone, Mark Harris.

Which coming-of-age movie character did you find the most relatable?
AM: For me, it’s Velvet Brown played by Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet. I watched that over and over as a child when I was obsessed with horses. It was so inspiring as a young girl to see another young girl chasing her dreams—pretending she’s a boy that doesn’t speak English to win the Grand National—particularly at the time when I grew up in the 1980s, when so many of those films for kids were about young boys achieving their dreams.

MH: Haven’t seen it in a long time, but the Peter Yates movie Breaking Away meant a lot to me when I was a kid. The idea of chasing something that means something to you but trying to reconcile what your parents thought about it, and how to balance your own dreams with the expectations other people had for you. I think that’s a really lovely movie.

I still think about those performances by Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earl Haley, and of course Barbara Barrie and Paul Dooley as the parents. That movie landed right in my heart the first time I saw it. I’m almost afraid to go back now, I don’t want it to have turned into one of my problematic faves! I want it to be one of my faves.

If we could gift every Letterboxd member two hours of HBO Max to discover one film from this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival lineup, which film would you want it to be? (My pick is Bless Their Little Hearts.)
AM: A film that I just adore is Cléo From 5 to 7 by Agnès Varda. She was working in the French New Wave and arguably made the first movie ever in the French New Wave. It’s one of those great movies that is close to real time as possible—it should be Cléo From 5 to 6:30 really, because it’s an hour and a half. It’s so inventively shot and edited. I’ve done the walk that she did in Paris, I’ve tried to map that out and copy Cléo. I want more people to see it and discover it.

MH: My husband [playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner] recently finished writing a new version of West Side Story for Steven Spielberg that’s going to come out at the end of the year. I think I would like to gift everybody the first version of West Side Story, which opens the festival, because you have to start there. It’s a beautiful movie and I think it’s a really instructive thing to see how this story was told in 1961 versus how it’s going to be told in 2021. Also, it’s two-and-a-half hours so if we’re only gifting people two hours… they’re not going to see the ending and they’re going to have to go to the new one to find out what happens!

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