I have attended all of the TCM Classic Film Festivals since TCM premiered the festival in Hollywood in April 2010. It is my favorite classic movie event and many of us look forward to it all year long, talking about it on our Facebook group, speculating about the schedule and the special guests, and obsessing on our choices since many films at the festival run concurrently (the agony of choosing which screenings to attend is part of the fun!). When the in-person festival had to be cancelled last year because of the pandemic, we were devastated, but happy that TCM managed to put together a version of the festival online so we could still connect and see some special events.
This year, however, while things are finally looking up, the network knew that an in-person event would still not be possible this spring so they planned a much more elaborate and engaging four-day virtual festival that begins tonight, May 6, 2021, with a 60th anniversary screening of the brilliant Oscar-winning West Side Story (1961) that will include a cast reunion conversation with Rita Moreno (Anita), George Chakiris (Bernardo), and Russ Tamblyn (Riff). This year the virtual festival will take place both on TCM and HBO Max. Included in the more than 100 films and events are a conversation with actress Jacqueline Bissett who will be introducing a screening of Bullitt (1968) in which she co-starred with Steve McQueen, Debbie Allen introducing Fame (1980), Michel Douglas introducing the powerful One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, along with world premieres and a range of special guests including Barry Levinson, Rob Reiner, Barbara Kopple, Martin Short, and many others.
I was delighted to have a chance this week to chat (via Zoom) with the talented Jacqueline Bissett, the stars of West Side Story, and several beloved TCM hosts and executives. I went from room to room talking to these folks with four other journalists, getting more and more excited about this year’s festival. (And rest assured, festival fans, all of them said there was every intention to bring back the in-person festival next year!). Here are my parts of the conversation with this illustrious group.
First up was the gorgeous and talented Jacqueline Bissett who has attended the festival in person and this year will be introducing the action thriller Bullitt, one of her first films.
Danny Miller: Miss Bissett, since you were new to the industry and this was one of your first big roles, did you feel intimidated at all by working opposite such an icon like Steve McQueen on a big studio film?
Jacqueline Bissett: Oh, I had no sense of what a big studio film was! Everything looked big to me. I had made Cul-de-Sac with Roman Polanski but it was a tiny part so I didn’t really have a lot of reference. I came to the Bullitt set just looking for a friendly face, I was still fighting my shyness, trying get out there, but I didn’t want to be an annoying actress talking and asking too many questions. Over the years, I sort of figured out that you’ve got to get the questions out of the way before you start, if you can, and then you don’t annoy the director when they’re so worn out by everything.
I remember that Steve was very hyper during this time because it was his first movie with his own production company, Solar Productions, that he ran with Bob Relyea. Steve would come rushing up on his bike and sort of sputter a few words. And I was like, “Okay, when am I going to work?” I had to wait around nine or ten weeks before they finally got to my stuff!
I wouldn’t say that I was intimidated exactly, I just wanted to be better than what my body was telling me that I was! I can’t say I was very relaxed, but I wasn’t unhappy, I just wanted to learn. I was always very enthusiastic about learning but I was pretty quiet and just tried to stay out of the way, not making a big deal about anything. At that time, I did not dare call myself an “actor.” I would tell people that I was dong a little acting but I couldn’t say the word, it took me a long time to get over that! I remember doing some difficult scenes in Bullitt, like the scene by the water, and I was standing there thinking, “Oh my God, I have so much to learn!” Thank God the director, Peter Yates, and Steve were so patient and kind!
Danny Miller: You had already had a small part in Two for the Road with Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn, which is one of my all-time favorite films. Do you remember how you got that role?
Jacqueline Bissett: I just tested for it. I went to see Stanley Donen and got the part, it was pretty simple. It’s funny–I didn’t really know who Donen was, I had no idea what he had done. We were all in Saint-Tropez for the shoot and went out to a club one night. Stanley asked me to dance and I thought, “Oh, God, how will he manage that? He doesn’t look like someone who knows how to dance!” I was absolutely stunned when he got up and started moving around like the dancing genius that he is. I was like, “Wow, what an idiot I am. Never judge a book by its cover!”
Bissett went on to talk about how she wasn’t able to call herself an actor until she made Rich and Famous years later (George Cukor’s last film) with Candice Bergin. Other memorable Jacqueline Bissett films include François Truffaut’s Day for Night, Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express, John Huston’s Under the Volcano, and Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie.
I then got to talk to Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris about tonight’s West Side Story screening. I told Tamblyn that we’d been having a mini-Russ Tamblyn Film Festival in my house during the pandemic, showing my 11-year-old son his amazing work in West Side Story, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and other great classic films.
Danny Miller: The other day we watched the wonderful Father of the Bride. I had totally forgotten that you played Elizabeth Taylor’s little brother in that film. Taylor is so gorgeous in that film it almost hurts to look at her. What was it like being with her and Spencer Tracy on set?
Russ Tamblyn: That was an incredible experience. The thing that comes to mind about working with Spencer Tracy is this one time we were waiting for him on set. Vincente Minnelli was directing the scene and Tracy came out holding the script in his hand. They were walking around and Tracy was asking all these questions, “Where do I do this? When do I say that?” He had a big speech in the scene and I thought to myself, “Oh my God, we’re going to be here all day waiting for him to learn this.” Finally, Minnelli said, “Okay, do you want to run through it?” And Tracy said, “No, let’s just shoot it.” I thought, “Oh, boy, this is going to be awful.” Well, Minnelli called “Action” and Tracy just lit into it, he got every line, every moment perfect, the whole thing! Minnelli said “Cut! Print!” and that was it. That was really surprising!
I was in school with Elizabeth at the time at MGM and she was graduating that year. We all went to her graduation and I remember a photographer was there to take some pictures of her and asked her to go outside. Dean Stockwell and I were playing ping pong when all of a sudden we hear this scream. We all ran outside. The photographer had asked Elizabeth to throw all of her books up in the air for a photo and she had a fit! She grabbed his camera and actually tore the film out of it! She was so infuriated that he would have the nerve to ask her to throw her beloved school books up in the air like that!
Tamblyn went on to tell many great stories, including that the whole idea for turning Romeo and Juliet into West Side Story came from Montgomery Clift who he said was in a relationship with Jerome Robbins at the time. He and George Chakiris talked about other people who had auditioned for the parts of Maria and Anita who almost got the parts, such as Anna Maria Alberghetti and Barbara Luna. The whole discussion made me eager to read Russ Tamblyn’s new memoir, Dancing on the Edge and George Chakiris’s book, My West Side Story: A Memoir. I asked Chakiris about his own casting in the film.
Danny Miller: George, I think you might be one of the only people who has played both Bernardo and Riff in West Side Story. I know you were playing Riff on the stage when they first approached you about the film. Was there originally a question about which role you would have in the film?
George Chakiris: Yes, at first there was! I was doing the show in London, as you say, playing Riff. I got a letter from United Artists asking me to do a screen test for the movie. They asked me to prepare one scene as Riff and one as Bernardo so that’s exactly what I did. A few weeks went by and then one night some people from Jerry Robbins’ office came to the stage door after the show. They said Jerry liked what I had sent but wanted to test me further. So I got a week’s leave of absence from the show to fly to Los Angeles and do another test, this time specifically for Bernardo. I met director Robert Wise for the first time and I did the test with a wonderful young girl, Barbara Luna, who was a contender for the role of Anita at the time. They loved the test and I got the part!
Next up were two newer hosts to TCM who I always enjoy, film scholar Jacqueline Stewart and the always fun Dave Karger. I told them how much I enjoyed the recent “Reframed” series on TCM which screened unedited versions of certain problematic films which were then discussed and put into context.
Danny Miller: I’m wondering if “Reframed” may turn into an annual event on TCM — God knows there are many other films that would benefit from that type of treatment.
Jacqueline Stewart: First of all, thank you for the affirmation. We knew that this is something that many people would appreciate and something that other people might not appreciate!
Danny Miller: I saw some of that criticism and I would say that most of the people complaining about the series did not actually watch the discussions.
Jacqueline Stewart: No doubt. We were having these conversations at a time when many people were using phrases like “cancel culture.” Ugh, I hate to even repeat that term because I don’t think it characterized what we were doing at all. We were showing the films exactly as they were intended and then having dialogue about them. Our goal was to inspire more people to have meaningful conversations about these films, to talk about why they love or hate them, or why they’re ambivalent about them. And yes, we’ve been talking a lot about what the next steps in these conversations can be at TCM. Right, Dave?
Dave Karger: Yes, absolutely. I’m so glad we did that series because as our culture is changing and as the world is changing, I think TCM should change along with it. I have to admit that I was dismayed to see some of the negative reaction, even though I expected it, but it doesn’t change how I feel towards the series in general. Having said that, I think if we were to do something similar like that again, and I’ve mentioned this to the Powers That Be at TCM, I think one thing that we should consider is having a voice like Bill Maher, who clearly watches TCM and pays attention to what we’re doing and might not always agree with it. I think having someone like him join us for the series would be interesting, especially since the five of us who are hosts are fairly similar in our worldviews. I’d love to open it up to people with different points of view, whenever possible.
If we do something like that again, one topic that we didn’t really discuss very much is the age gap between a lot of the love interests in movies. We could talk about a movie like Love in the Afternoon, you know, with Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn. I don’t have a big problem with that as some people do, but I know it’s an issue that would be interesting to discuss. I’d also love to explore some films from the 1980s in “Reframed.” We focused mostly on TCM’s sweet spot of films from the 1930s to the 60s but there are a lot of films from my childhood that sit very differently with me now than they did when I was growing up. Take the John Hughes movies, for example. I loved them so much as a kid and I still do, but I feel a little bit differently about them now.
Danny Miller: Dr. Stewart, we in the classic film community are thrilled that the Academy Museum is finally opening this fall, and we’re especially thrilled to hear about your involvement there! Do you envision collaborations between the museum and TCM?
Jacqueline Stewart: Oh, yes, we definitely envision collaboration with TCM. We’re talking a lot about that now, there’s obviously tons of overlap and synergy there. I’m really happy that at this year’s festival we will already have a moment of connection because Alicia Malone and I are going to be introducing Lady Sings the Blues together. One of the reasons we settled on that film is because a costume that Diana Ross wears is featured in the opening exhibition at the Academy Museum. It was designed by Bob Mackie and Ray Aghayan. Bob actually found it in Paramount’s costume department and adapted it for the film. I love this costume, it’s a suit she wears when she’s having a business meeting and there’s a little bee on the pocket. You could probably find this costume in a bunch of classic Hollywood films and I love that it was reworked for Diana Ross to help bring this incredibly important artist to life. It’s not at all what you would think of when you think of a Bob Mackie costume, not extravagant in the same way that that comes to our minds, but it’s something that really shows the craft of costume design.
Danny Miller: I’ve been watching that amazing round theater that looks like the Death Star rise from the ground up on Fairfax and I can’t wait to see what kind of programming you have there.
Jacqueline Stewart: The museum will be screening films seven days a week in that thousand-seat theater and doing all kinds of programming that is very much in the same vein as TCM—conversations with filmmakers and so on. I’m thrilled to be able to invite my fellow TCM hosts to be a part of our programming. It’s going to be a real treat. I can’t wait.
Finally, we got a chance to chat with three TCM executives: TCM General Manager Pola Changnon, Senior Vice President of Programming Charlie Tabesh, and Festival Director Genevieve McGillicuddy.
Danny Miller: I’ve attended every festival and sometimes I just pinch myself at the people I’ve been able to see and hear from there who are no longer with us. People like Luise Rainer, Maureen O’Hara, Tony Curtis, Debbie Reynolds, Baby Peggy, Kirk Douglas, and so many others. I wonder as we go forward and return to in-person festivals next year if your strategy for special guests will evolve and include more family members or film experts.
Pola Chagnon: You’re right, it’s sort of the natural order of things that we’re not going to have access to some of those incredible stars over time. So we’re going to have to get creative and figure out ways to meaningfully pair people with films. And yes, sometimes it’s about family, sometimes it’s about different collaborators who worked on certain things over time with that talent. But we’re really eager to keep that chain of connection between those folks who made these movies and our audiences because we know what an impact that has. And, to your point, we all recognize how many remarkable people we’ve been fortunate enough to have at the festival who are no longer with us. In some cases, our festival event was the last big recognition and hug they got from their fans. And that feels really important to us that we were helpful in being that vehicle. But Charlie, please speak to that from a programming standpoint, too.
Charlie Tabesh: Yeah, you said it really well, but we’ve always had that challenge. We always show pre-Codes at the festival because people love them and we love them, but, for the most part, we’re not going to find talent who were in those films. But we’re still going to find a way to play them and find people to come talk about them. That’s always going to be true, but of course, as time goes on, the talent that we can get will be different and evolving. As you said, we’ve lost so many people from the earlier classic era. We’re still going to work with the entire range of time, we’re not going to de-emphasize the older stuff, but yeah, the kinds of guests we have will change. If we can get Jeff Bridges to come with The Big Lebowski, that’ll be great, but if we want to show Baby Face, we might get a film expert to come and help give context to it or have Bruce Goldstein come and talk about pre-Code movies. We’ll always do things like that, too!
Genevieve McGillicuddy: Yeah, we’ll always show that range of films. What’s also important to the DNA of the festival that can only be done when we’re meeting in person are things like screening films in Cinerama, or showing nitrate films, or having silent films screened with a live orchestra. Those are cinematic experiences that you can really only capture in a theater. We’re very proud of doing those kinds of presentations and we will continue doing that in the future.
Danny Miller: Because we all marked the wonderful Robert Osborne’s birthday this week, and I can tear up a bit just saying his name, can you talk a bit about the impact he had on you and how you view his legacy for the network going forward?
Pola Changnon: Everyone who watched the network knows what a unique person he was and his expertise was only exceeded by his generosity in sharing it. That came through in all personal interactions as well. Off camera, it was great just to sit around and chew the fat with him. He left such an impact on the team that worked with him day in and day out through production. For the network overall, everyone felt like it was the coolest uncle coming to visit when he would walk the floor and talk to people. He really cared about everyone who worked at this network. We are always having conversations about when is the right time to bring him into the conversation as far as what an audience is going to see. We certainly don’t ever want to forget him.
What he did for us was truly foundational. Every other host on TCM is going to be measured by Robert’s bar. It’s very sad to think about him not being with us. I think the way Charlie programs Robert’s intros is really lovely and that it’s an ongoing acknowledgment of one of our founding fathers, regardless of the platform. It’s funny, I don’t know if you remember, Charlie, when we were trying to explain “streaming” to Robert and he was like, “I don’t get it. I don’t want it. I have a TV and that’s all I need!” So I think he’d be really surprised that we’re moving into this space and that he’ll be part of it. I think that’s really cool.
Charlie Tabesh: One thing I remember so clearly was that he was exactly the same in person as he was on the network — always gracious and welcoming and kind and warm. The way he made you feel so welcome when you watched TCM was how he was in person as well. He was the star when I came in and he was always so welcoming to me and made me feel really special. And, of course, he obviously knew his stuff inside and out. It wasn’t just a host up there talking, he really knew it all, and I think that became part of the TCM brand and part of the TCM personality that could only have happened with somebody like Robert there to establish it.
Genevieve McGillicuddy: It was a lot of fun planning the festival with Robert every year. He’d certainly done many appearances before and I had worked with him on some of those, but this was a different animal. It was so great to hang out with him backstage during the festival and seeing him interact with talent and then seeing what would happen on stage. And, most importantly, I think he got such a big kick out of meeting people who came to the festival from all over the country and all over the world, getting that time to talk with them and take endless pictures. I remember at the closing night at Club TCM at the very first festival in 2010. Fans were gathering around Robert and suddenly we realized that there was this enormous line of people waiting to talk to him and get a photo taken. And Robert stood there until he talked to every single person. It was just so fun to work with him on this event.
–Danny Miller for Classic Movie Hub
Danny Miller is a freelance writer, book editor, and co-author of About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the Stars. You can read more of Danny’s articles at Cinephiled, or you can follow him on Twitter at @dannymmiller.