Early this month, Boca Raton received a rare visit from Ben Mankiewicz, scion of Hollywood royalty and prime-time host on Turner Classic Movies, film buffs’ cable channel of choice. The grandson of “Citizen Kane” scribe Herman J. Mankiewicz and the grand-nephew of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Ben was invited by the Boca Raton Museum of Art for two events on Dec. 10: At 1 p.m., he greeted fans at the Museum’s blockbuster “Art of the Hollywood Backdrop” exhibition (on view through Jan. 22), and at 4 p.m. the same day, he interviewed Thomas A. Walsh, one of the two co-curators of the exhibition, as part of an exclusive lecture series at The Boca Raton.
The following week, Mankiewicz carved out some time via phone to discuss his weekend in Boca, the “Backdrop” exhibition, life as the host of one cable’s premier networks, and more.
So how was your time in Boca Raton?
It was lovely. My mom lived for 20 years or so in Delray, and I did about three years in South Beach. I was up to see my mom often, and obviously spent some time in Boca. It was not new to me, but that part of Boca was new to me. The hotel is beautiful, and the museum—so impressive. I was blown away by both.
What was your takeaway from the “Art of the Hollywood Backdrop” exhibition?
Despite the fact that I know how movies are made, and how backdrops are used, it still blows me away. The hair still stands up on my arms when I see it. To be in the presence of that backdrop, the “North By Northwest” one that opens the exhibition … it’s such a seminal movie in my life. It’s the classic movie that … awoke me to the fact that dismissing old movies, like the dumb kid I was, was a huge mistake. My mom told me to watch “North by Northwest” when it was on TV. And I have this memory of watching it and being thrilled by it from the moment I saw it, and being really taken with Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant. But my memory of it was that it was in black-and-white. But it wasn’t. It’s crazy how the brain tricks you.
Anyway, the experience is jaw-dropping. And even though I know it, to see what these artists are capable of, while working with the cinematographer and director and art director, it’s a magic trick—a great magic trick. It still dazzles me even though I’m keenly aware that it is magic.
It’s ironic you were not into “old movies” when you were a kid, because your family legacy is steeped in old movies.
There is some mystery there. But my father was the smartest Mankiewicz who ever lived. And he was in politics, and he moved to D.C. just before I was born. When I was born, he was working for Sen. Bobby Kennedy as his press secretary in the Senate, and later on his presidential campaign. Politics was the thing I was, pretty early on, into and interested in. I grew up in D.C., a town that is many ways very similar to Hollywood.
While I knew that we had this Hollywood background … it was secondary. It’s a little embarrassing that I was not quite as keenly aware as I ought to have been about how important my family was in the history of Hollywood. I knew, but it played such second fiddle to politics.
Like Robert Osborne, you make the introductions on TCM have the illusion of effortlessness. What is the skill set, or maybe the special sauce, that makes you an ideal movie presenter?
I don’t know that I’m an ideal one. TCM came into something through trial and error; Robert Osborne, in 1994, was the first host and the only host until I showed up in 2003. He sort of figured it out. Some of those early lead-ins by Robert would run four minutes long. You figure out what works, and what worked was that after two or two and a half minutes, people were like, OK, this is great information, now you can start “Casablanca.” It’s a great job, because it’s a hard job to screw up, to be the person who talks for two minutes before “Citizen Kane” or “North By Northwest” or “Singin’ in the Rain.”
I spent a lot of years as a journalist, and if you ask me what I do, I’ll say I’m a host for TCM. But I’m a broadcaster. I’m proud of that. The people who influenced my life were David Letterman, Howard Stern, Walter Cronkite, Kelly Ripa—good communicators. Then you craft these lead-ins in a way that doesn’t seem like you’re reading something, but they all start the same way, basically: “Hello, I’m Ben Mankiewicz, welcome to TCM”—some version of that. But I always think that what I’m saying right before that, is, “oh, oh, you’re going to love this movie! I’ve got a great story to tell you.”
As a broadcaster you want to be conversational, but it’s not a conversation. Another person isn’t talking back; it’s a very one-sided conversation. But you want to keep the idea that you’re storytelling. That’s really what it is. You’re not reading a lead-in; you’re telling a story before they watch a better story: Here’s a very cool story that I hope will move you, anger you, maybe at times get you a little emotional, but mostly that will capture your imagination, that sets you up to watch a movie.
Is it ever your job to be film critic in this role, or are you always a champion of whatever film you’re presenting?
I don’t want to lie. That’s part of it. They’re seeing me. Basically there were years that I spent as a news anchor or reporter, trying to play the role of a person on TV. I knew the things you say, I knew how reporters talk. When I was anchoring, I’d have a fake laugh. And it’s all these signals that get sent out to viewers that this is not real; this is inauthentic—which is the main reason people don’t watch local news. It’s almost a parody of what newscasters should be. There are still some good ones, but they’re rare.
So some time during that second news job I had, I figured out I can’t do this. This is false. I know it’s false. Every instinct I have is false. I can only be myself. It’s the only role I can play. And the TCM job lets me do that.
I try and be moderately amusing, and I fail sometimes; it’s weird, without an audience there. You don’t really know if people are reacting to it. But it doesn’t matter—it’s true, it’s honest, and it’s me saying, “this is such a good story, let me tell it to you in two minutes.”
So you just hope it connects with people. And I’m so grateful I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not. So the answer to the critic question: I was also a critic for a while. And I felt like I was, for the most part, playing that role. I wasn’t good at it. I never felt authentic doing it. And I don’t like saying things are bad that people poured their heart into. I don’t want this taken as a knock on film criticism; I think it’s important, and art criticism has been around since the first time a guy drew something on a wall in a cave, and the next guy said, “Oh, that sucks.” I just never felt super-comfortable.
I’ll certainly say after the movie, “maybe that didn’t work as well as they’d intended.” But TCM is free; they’re already paying for cable. You can watch as many TCM movies as you want. And watching a 1942 movie that isn’t very good can still be a lot of fun. You’re not having a bad time. Sometimes we have some beach movies or some silly sci-fi movies with terrible special effects, and we’ll make fun of the whole thing, but those movies are fun in their own way. So our job is to talk about why they’re fun. I’ll definitely have a line for “Beach Blanket Bingo,” “this went on to win nine Oscars.” And then I’ll pause and say, “I read that wrong.”
The importance for me is just to put it in context, respect the curation that we do, and give people some more reasons to watch and understand this movie. And they’ll decide for themselves if they like it. The audience ultimately is the arbiter.
The definition of what constitutes a classic has changed over the decades, in terms of more and more recent films screening on TCM, or perhaps the term “classic” itself has taken a different meaning. What’s the consensus from the network on this?
We’ve always aspired to show a broader range of movies. The stumbling block has always been acquiring the rights to those movies. We have fewer than 50 people on staff. We’re a very small television network with a very rabid fan base, which makes us seem in many ways bigger than we are. So I don’t know the budget for programming off the top of my head, but we can’t get most modern movies, because they’re too expensive.
But we’re not, in general, going to show a movie from 2013 or 2021 without putting it in some context for the night. And every night on TCM is a little mini festival. So the programming department does that. The example that our head of programming has used often, and I think it’s really good, is we showed the 1994 version of “Love Story,” the remake of “An Affair to Remember,” which is a remake of the earlier “Love Story,” which was Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, in 1994. It’s not a great movie. And it’s pretty recent. But it is also Katharine Hepburn’s final big-screen role.
Obviously, we’d show it, and we’d show in prime time, if we showed all three movies. We’d also show it on a night when we’re showing Katharine Hepburn movies. Or a night where we’re showing classic stars in their late performances. All of those things, in context, would make a great deal of sense to show that movie. It probably wouldn’t just show up in the middle of the day without a lead-in, unconnected to anything else.
We’ve shown the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy during 31 Days of Oscar. I don’t think we’ve ever shown “The Godfather,” but that’s a rights issue. But I’m probably wrong—we probably had it at some point. We can’t, in general, get it, because it’s coveted and it’s expensive. It doesn’t mean we’ll never get it, but we’re constantly working with the studios so that they can cut us a break, so that maybe once a year we can show something of note.
We’ve been getting questions about why we’re showing more modern movies for a long time, and we’re really not. Our wheelhouse is the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, with some ‘60s and the ‘20s too. That’s the overwhelming majority. It was 20 years ago, and it still is.
Why does TCM continue to have such a devoted following in the streaming era when most—certainly not all, but many—of the titles you broadcast are accessible on demand through other providers?
I think it’s the context, the curation and the communication—those three ‘c’s. The relationship we have with the audience. I think that matters. Also, the channel doesn’t look like any other channel. Everything we put on the air we’re careful about—everything we show between movies. We hope that the experience of watching TCM means something that’s different.
Also, with all due respect to a zillion other channels that have shows that I love, you’ll go through your whole life covering entertainment, covering television, and no one will ever say, “oh my God, I love Showtime. I’ll watch anything on Showtime. I love Starz.” No one’s ever said that. “Oh my god, I love ABC.” No one talks that way. They will say they love TCM. It’s the only channel, with maybe the exception of a news channel that people are weirdly obsessed with. But when it comes to entertainment television, there’s one channel that means something.
HBO has, to me, arguably, the five best shows to ever air on television: “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Deadwood,” “Succession” and “Game of Thrones.” But I just like the shows. It’s not like I’m a dedicated HBO fan. And even if you don’t like some of the movies on TCM, the channel matters. You’ll see it on Twitter and Facebook. Our fans will say, “I’m proud to be a mom, and a nurse, and a dog owner, and a TCM fan.”
Do you get to see many 2022 movies, and if so, I’m sure our readers are curious what has topped your list for this year.
I haven’t seen as many, so with the significant caveat that my list is incomplete, I loved “Women Talking.” I saw it at Telluride. I just saw that Nicolas Cage movie, “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.” I loved, it was delightful. I loved “Confess, Fletch.” I’m a huge Fletch fan, and it felt like a movie from the ‘90s. I mean that as a compliment; it was a movie for grown-ups. I loved “The Banshees of Inisherin.” I liked “Armageddon Time” quite a bit.