Late last spring, through the auspices of a mutual friend, I spent an afternoon visiting with eighty-nine-year-old author Ray Bradbury. Walking upstairs to his den, I found the genial (and, for the record, fairly conservative) writer dressed in a rumpled shirt and boxer shorts, surrounded by a sea of awards and papers and memorabilia of every description, and happily watching Turner Classic Movies on a big-screen TV. “Isn’t this channel great?” he enthused, telling me how excited he had been to guest host there a year earlier. We spent the next hour talking about films — his early days as a local boy visiting the studios on roller skates and asking stars for autographs, his long friendship with special effects maven Ray Harryhausen, his experience writing the screenplay to Moby Dick (1956) for director John Huston.
And all the while TCM played in the background, like an old friend.
I’ve since reflected on how Turner Classic Movies has grown over the years into one of the most universally admired cultural forums in America. It’s a familiar presence in households of all political persuasions. If you like old movies, you like TCM, period.
That’s why the mini-uproar here at Big Hollywood last week was so disheartening. For those of you who missed it: during an on-air introduction to the 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz gave legions of conservative viewers a collective poke in the eye, by way of a not-so-veiled sneer at talk-show host Glenn Beck. You can see the sad spectacle for yourself by clicking over to the TCM website, but here are the money quotes:
My top pick this January, A Face in the Crowd, is admittedly a little cheap. . . But, in an era where the political commentators who shout the loudest — or (dramatic pause and sly smile) cry the most — generate the biggest ratings, the prophetic nature of this 1957 classic enhances its remarkable timeliness today. . . Fifty years later, there’s a new generation of men armed with the phony authenticity of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes.
Beck, of course, has long been mocked on liberal websites for shedding tears in the midst of emotional monologues. And comparing him to Crowd character “Lonesome” Rhodes is a favorite gag of MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann.
This is hardly the first time that Mankiewicz has overstepped the bounds of good taste to take a swipe at conservatives. Big Hollywood readers have called him onto the carpet before for inserting needless political commentary into his TCM introductions for films like The Fighting Seabees (1944) and Capricorn One (1977).
As a former co-host of the liberal radio talk show The Young Turks, he frequently unloaded on ideological enemies with stunning vitriol. In one episode, he scoffed at a video of conservative journalist Michelle Malkin pointing out that most terrorists are “young Muslim males” with a rejoinder about “dumb Asian bitches.” (his radio partner, Cenk Uygur, promptly dipped even further into rank misogyny, dismissing Malkin as a “racist whore.”) In another public appearance, the same duo graced their audience with the following banter:
Cenk Uygur: “This is non-partisan, so when I say that Republicans suck c***, I just mean that literally.”
Ben Mankiewicz (laughing): “Name a Republican who’s not gay. Can that be done?”
All of this is par for the course among Lexus liberals, who ever luxuriate in their reputation for tolerance in between rants filled with the worst sorts of racism, sexism, and class warfare. I still remember laughing out loud earlier this year when, in a Los Angeles Times article bemoaning the hardships of well-heeled, fashion-conscious women, Mankiewicz’s wife spoke of feeling
guilty about flashing her finds in front of the housekeeper who cleans the Westside town house she shares with her husband. “I have racks for shoes and boxes. I will turn around the boxes that are particularly expensive when she comes,” she said, explaining that she turns the side marked with the price toward the wall of the closet so it doesn’t show. “I know she’s having a tough time — she told me. You can’t have an $800 box of shoes showing.”
That is what passes for good manners, charitable action, and noble sacrifice in today’s Hollywood.
Mankiewicz was recently fired from a disastrous year-long stint co-helming the former Siskel & Ebert show At the Movies, and has since taken up blogging at The Huffington Post in addition to his TCM duties. “Growing up in Washington, D.C.,” he says, “politics and sports were always a lot more important than movies. They still are, for that matter.” When pressed to name a film that has changed his life, he answers, “Hey, I love movies, but let’s not get carried away! I don’t think one has changed my life.” These comments alone should have disqualified him from ever being hired as a featured host at TCM.
With every snide put-down and sneaky swipe against movie-loving conservatives, a universally admired television treasure becomes a little less so. Ben Mankiewicz seems destined to continue to alienate a full half of the channel’s audience, one needless insult at a time, until they quit the whole business in disgust and retreat to their Netflix queues. The TCM brass, presumably a bit more concerned with gauche ratings than the hired help, would be wise to heed the warning of the literary critic Francis Jeffrey, who wrote almost two centuries ago that, “Goodwill, like a good name, is got by many actions, and lost by one.”