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TCM host Ben Mankiewicz reveres movies the way they were meant to be seen

Ben Mankiewicz has been talking movies all day and the Turner Classic Movies TV host is happy to keep going.

Mankiewicz has spent hours recording 72 “intros and outtros,” the segments that bookend movies shown on TCM, and now he’s on the phone enthusiastically discussing classic movies, their fans and their place in history.

The impetus for the conversation is the Turner Big Screen Classic series that continues with “The Ten Commandments” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at theaters nationwide, including the Regal Elmwood and Transit. But Mankiewicz doesn’t seem to need a reason to talk movies as he flows from one subject to another without pausing.

A discussion of the epic nature of films like “The Ten Commandments” segues into the importance of seeing any film on the big screen instead of your television – or a smaller device. The topic of social media and classic movie fans has Mankiewicz sharing how this new connection with fans comes with great responsibility. And then there’s his bombshell at the end of the interview about his interest in the Buffalo Bills. But first, the movies.

If you go to Wednesday’s screening of “The Ten Commandments,” you will see Mankiewicz introduce the film giving the audience the full TCM experience, with the bonus of seeing the movie on the big screen – the way it was meant to be seen.

“We throw the word epic around too much, but ‘The Ten Commandments’ is epic. This was an era of Hollywood epics. ‘The Ten Commandments,’ ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ – these movies work on television but there is still something about seeing one of these on the big screen and ‘The Ten Commandments’ is perfect,” he said. “(Cecil B.) DeMille shot it to be seen on a big giant screen. Everybody does that. Quentin Tarantino shot ‘The Hateful Eight’ not to be watched on somebody’s phone, let alone someone’s television. He wanted it to be seen, as often as possible, in 70 millimeter.”

“The Ten Commandments” may be 60 years old, but Mankiewicz said the famous scene of the parting of the Red Sea holds its own today even against modern movies.

“It was jaw-dropping in 1956 to see that effect done on camera and it’s still impressive today,” he said. “Most of the special effects, especially in science-fiction movies that came out in the ’50s, don’t hold up today and everybody understands it. Certainly some of the effects in ‘Ten Commandments’ are a little bit hokey, although I must also say some of the effects in 2014’s ‘Gods and Exodus,’ were puzzling, too. I still think the parting of the Red Sea is impressive even with ‘Star Wars’ 2016 expectations of effects we have.”

His passion for movies is understandable. The Mankiewicz name is one of the greatest in Hollywood, including his grandfather, Herman J. Mankiewicz (who co-wrote a little film called “Citizen Kane,” among others), and his great-uncle Joseph L. Mankiewicz (“Cleopatra,” “All About Eve”). He grew up in Washington, D.C., where his father, Frank, worked in politics, including time as an aide to Sen. Robert Kennedy and George McGovern. A “political junkie,” it wasn’t until he took a college film course that he began to appreciate movies. He became a TCM host in 2003 after time as a TV news reporter and anchor (he graduated from Tufts University and the Columbia University journalism school).

It’s understandable, then, that he looks beyond the pure enjoyment of these movies to how they are a connection to the film community and a window to the past. Take one of his favorite films, director Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” starring Kirk Douglas, and its depiction of the media in 1951.

“You see a clear reflection of the horrible place that mainstream news is today,” Mankiewicz said. “You see its origins there in 1951 the way Wilder saw it. But you are also getting a history lesson … you get a look at America in 1951.”

On April 3, TCM is airing two movies from one of the most influential African-American directors of the early part of the 20th century, Oscar Micheaux, whose films show what life was like at the time for black Americans.

“That is a whole lost part of classic films. We take it for granted that movies from the ’80s and ’90s show life from the ’80s and ’90s,” Mankiewicz said. “Being able to see how Americans were living during the Depression in the 1930s and post-war America in the ’40s and the Eisenhower era in the ’50s – these movies are great windows to that. And if you care about this country and you care about its history, the movies provide that. That’s all secondary to the human connection, but I think it’s an important connection.”

That human connection comes via social media (including the hashtag TCMparty on Twitter) and at TCM events such as the national screenings with Fathom Entertainment, a film festival (April 28 to May 1 in Hollywood this year) and a cruise (Nov. 12-19 on the Disney Fantasy).

“There will be 2,500 film lovers on a boat. We bring in great stars. We show great movies and we eat cruise food and talk about movies,” he said.

“Social media and these events give us a chance to interact on a real human, face-to-face level,” he added. “You’ve probably felt that you were the only person in some group of friends or in your office that like classic movies. Now, here you are and you look at these people. They are interesting, they aren’t crazy. They love their kids, they have great families. They are white and black, Latino and Asian, and men and women, gay and straight and you think, wow, this is a real community of the world here in the U.S. who love these movies.”

He finds the close relationship between TCM and its fans is unique in television. “I feel no connection to Showtime because I like ‘Billions.’ I feel no connection to HBO because I think ‘Game of Thrones’ is a wonderful show or FX because of ‘The Americans’ or ‘The People V. O.J. Simpson.’ It doesn’t happen,” he said. “People don’t think, ‘I’ll do anything Amazon says because I love ‘Transparent’ or anything Netflix does because of ‘House of Cards.’ It doesn’t exist, but it does for us. People feel connected to us.”

And the network feels that same connection to its fans. “I work for TCM and I learn from these people. We all do. Everyone who works at TCM learns from these people. Classic movie fans are so passionate,” Mankiewicz said. “It’s a great responsibility, but also a thrilling responsibility, to have a genuine relationship with viewers.”

There’s a feeling Mankiewicz could keep talking for hours if a TCM publicist didn’t interrupt with the dreaded “one more question” – which leads to a surprising topic – the Buffalo Bills.

“I have in my right hand, I’m not kidding you – I will send you a picture – I am holding a Buffalo Bills hat,” Mankiewicz said.

Yes, he admits he has a lot of hats, but also that he likes Buffalo – the team and the city.

“As a former Washington fan, I’ve spent the last couple of years searching for a team. I’m literally trying on the Bills,” he said. “I like Rex Ryan. I like Buffalo. I like the city – it’s a beautiful city. My wife thinks it’s one of the most beautiful cities in America. And I like old-school teams like Buffalo. I like the city and root for it – and it’s a good hat.”


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