Meet the dynamic dame behind the book, ‘Dynamic Dames’

One of the film books I’ve been looking forward to the most this year is TCM’s Dynamic Dames, their latest book in collaboration with Running Press. Author and film historian Sloan Deforest, who previously wrote Must-See Sci Fi: 50 Films that are Out of this World, is back and delivers a loving tribute to the unforgettable actresses and female characters that have inspired countless generations of women and men. In Dynamic Dames, Deforest shows 50 heroic females spanning film history. We see precode bad girls, mothers, women of mystery, survivors and superheroines. I recently spoke to Deforest about the book and her process putting it together. Thank you to Running Press for giving me this opportunity. For the readers, I hope you find the dynamic dame within. 

1. This is a book I feel like I’ve personally been waiting for especially now when we continue to hear the phrase “strong female lead” even though strong females have been around since films have existed. What inspired you to delve into this topic?

Yes, the term “strong female lead” is bandied about a lot in Hollywood. As an actress, I would see the casting notices frequently use this description. But the actual number of films headed by heroic women is still pretty skimpy compared to the early days of film. From roughly 1910 to 1950, at least half of the top stars were female, and women were the target audience demographic. Those were such glorious days. I wanted to celebrate some of the most inspiring leading ladies of that bygone era, and also gather some more contemporary “strong female leads” for the book. I personally like all kinds of movies—including Sergio Leone westerns and action movies with nary a female to be found—but the ones with powerful women calling the shots are especially fulfilling to me. Maybe that’s why I was driven to write Dynamic Dames.

2. I really enjoyed how you broke it down into different eras and genres, is there a particular one that you yourself enjoy most?

I love comedy, so “Ladies Who Laugh” may be the most fun section for me. I think Roger Rabbit put it best: “A laugh can be a very powerful thing. Sometimes in life it’s the only weapon we have.” Audiences seem more willing to side with empowered women when they are funny, like one of my all-time favorites, the smart and sassy Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. I also grew up watching Melanie Griffith in Working Girl and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby and Adam’s Rib. I’ve probably taken a few pages from these ladies’ books in the way I deal with people.

3. In your research, what was one thing you discovered that you think will surprise viewers?

I think some readers will be surprised to learn how many behind-the-scenes women were responsible for these Dynamic Dames. The majority of characters in the book were either inspired by real women, written or produced by women, or the roles were largely shaped by the actresses who played them. Even when the screen credits don’t reflect it, the actresses had more of a creative hand than is apparent at first glance. Today Greta Garbo would be called a producer on Queen Christina. She had so much power she was basically a silent producer. Then there are the actresses who lobbied to be cast in roles that they weren’t initially wanted in, and triumphed: Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones, Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs, Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. The list goes on. Making these discoveries in the research process was one of the most thrilling aspects of writing the book.

4. Who is your favorite dynamic dame?

I feel a little like a mother with fifty daughters! It’s difficult to play favorites. I genuinely enjoy and respect all of these women, plus the long list of others who didn’t make the cut. That being said, the comedy ladies I mentioned previously are among my favorites. There’s also Clarice Starling, Ida Lupino as Lily Stevens in Road House, Mary Poppins, Hermione Granger, Ellen Ripley, and Thelma and Louise too. As for my favorite classic-era actress, I would place Greta Garbo and Barbara Stanwyck in a tie for first place. Their artistry, emotion, outer beauty and inner fire leap right off the screen. They never fail to inspire me.

5. What do you hope readers will walk away with after they read the book?

I hope readers are reminded of some great movies they forgot about, and are inspired to seek out those they never saw. It would be great if readers develop a new appreciation for movies about women who are the hero of their journey. These stories used to be commonplace in Hollywood, but since the 1960s, they have been fewer. Yet they are still here. Dynamic Dames have never gone away because they are fascinating, and because women keep going to the movies. We always will, and we want to see ourselves reflected on the screen . . . or the selves we wish we could be.

Dynamic Dames is out now. It is available at your local bookstore or on TCM’s official website here.

Dim the house lights: My picks for the 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival

I am ecstatic to be returning to California for my third TCM Classic Film Festival. Can you believe it’s my third? I can’t either!

This year, I will be covering the festival here on my blog and also serving as ambassador for the network. I can’t wait to bring you coverage from multiple social media channels. I’m truly honored to be a part of this and look forward to what’s in store!

This year’s theme is “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies” and while there are romantic films, you’ll find plenty of other offerings as well. The nitrate series is coming back for the third year and there’s a mix of new classics, too. Looking at you, Star Wars.

To the schedule!

THURSDAY, APRIL 11TH
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I will be starting my TCMFF with an old favorite: Ocean’s 11 with Angie Dickinson in attendance. In the humble beginnings of my classic movie fandom I went through a Rat Pack phase. I loved listening to old Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin records and I vividly remember a Rat Pack week on A&E that featured each of their biographies and a rare tv special from the ’60s. Ocean’s 11 is a fun film that I enjoy a great deal. Dickinson is a candid and vivacious storyteller. It’s also a poolside screening. This will be a treat and a great way to kick off the fest.

It’ll be cutting it close but I hope to make it to the screening of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg across the street at House Multiplex 1. I saw this for the first time late last year on the final night of FilmStruck and kept thinking that I really need to see it on the big screen. The colors are so rich and vibrant. TCM answered the call. I have no doubt that on the big screen it will take my breath away.

FRIDAY, APRIL 12TH

This will be the most packed day of the festival for me. I will start bright and early with the 9:30 a.m. screening of Dorothy Arzner’s Merrily We Go To Hell. I’ve never seen this film so I’m going into it blind but I make it a point to see at least one precode at every fest. This will follow my tradition. Fredric March and Sylvia Sydney? SIGN. ME. UP.

I debated on this block between Sleeping Beauty and The Descendants: Growing up in Hollywood panel at Club TCM. I strongly recommend the panels at Club TCM. They are engaging, candid and always a good time but because Disney is so protective of its library and the film’s animators will be on hand to discuss the film, I have to go with Sleeping Beauty.

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After that screening, I will hope back in line at the Egyptian for My Favorite WifeI’m a big fan of Mario Cantone having seen him on Broadway and of course in Sex and the City. If you follow him on Twitter or have seen him as a guest programmer on TCM, you’ll know his love for the classics is deep. Cary Grant’s daughter Jennifer Grant will discuss the film with Cantone before it screens. I’ve been watching a lot of 90210 since the passing of Luke Perry and she was on the show which is a funny tidbit. She’s a great storyteller and I strongly recommend her book about her dad, Good Stuff.

Although I swore I would never watch Steel Magnolias again after it broke me, it’s screening at TCMFF with Shirley MacLaine. I can’t not go to a theater where I have the chance to be in the same room as Shirley MacLaine! Who needs food? Shirley will feed my soul.

The marathon of a day will come to a close with Do the Right Thing featuring Ruth E. Carter who just won the Oscar for costume design for her gorgeous work on Black Panther.

SATURDAY, APRIL 13

I’ll be sleeping in during the first block of offerings Saturday and then make it to Fox: An Appreciation. I’ve long talked about how much Fox and their films mean to me and now that the studio has been gobbled up by Disney, I am intrigued to see what this presentation will offer.

After this I will book it to House Multiplex 1 to get in line for…JEFF GOLDBLUM. I’m a huge fan like the rest of the internet so I plan to go in ahead of time as he will be a big draw. I want to get a good seat to see Dr. Ian Malcolm.

I’ll round out the day with my first nitrate screening of the fest: Samson and Delilah. Truthfully, I’m not big on biblical epics but this is a Cecil B. DeMille fan and it’s bound to look gorgeous on nitrate.

SUNDAY, APRIL 14

And just like that, it’s the final day! The one film I’m looking forward to the most is the final film being shown at the festival. It’s… THE DOLLY SISTERS.

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You all know how much I love Betty Grable and this will be the first time I see a movie of hers on the big screen. And…it’s on nitrate.

I will cry.

Well, there you have it! The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival.

What films do you plan on seeing this year? Let me know in the comments and see you in Hollywood!

 

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A visit to TCM that I’ll always remember

tcm_techwood.jpgIt was a dreary southern afternoon last month when I visited the home of Turner ClassicMovies. Driving along I-85, you can easily spot Turner’s Techwood Campus. There’s a giant building featuring the logos of their anchor networks including the beloved TCM logo in its classic retro font. I had been itching to visit TCM ever since I moved to Atlanta about a year ago. I was thrilled when I received an email from TCM Backlot informing me that I had won a visit to the set last month. I figured it would be the usual visit of chatting with Ben Manckeiwicz and staff who I have come to know after last year’s TCM Classic Film Festival but NOTHING could have prepared me for the surprise that awaited inside the studio.

The day before the set visit, Ben tweeted a photo of him and Stefanie Powers. She was in the studio recording intros and outros for William Holden’s Star of the Month celebration in April. As you know from this blog, this year is Holden’s centennial. My heart sank with disappointment! THE Stefanie Powers was in my town virtually a mile away from where I was at the time I saw Ben’s tweet. I was working and my office is very close to TCM. I was bummed but I realized if I had met Stefanie Powers, I probably would have been a blubbering mess and I doubt I would have kept it together because of how much I adore Mr. Holden. I made peace with the situation and remembered that the Backlot website will probably have extended footage of their conversation when April rolls around anyway.

When I arrived at the visitor’s lobby, I met with my fellow Backlot members, many of which were from out of town. I didn’t realize this. That’s the power of TCM. It is so beloved that fans are willing to fly out for a short time just to visit the studio for such a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Everyone was so lovely and excited for what the day would bring. When Yacov from Backlot led us down to the studio, I asked him if he had met Stefanie Powers the day before and he told me that she was still there and we would be meeting her.

RECORD SCRATCH

WHOA.

I could not believe it! All of a sudden I got extremely jittery and my heart started beating rapidly. As a journalist, I’ve met many famous people from politicians to actors including some of my favorites and icons of my childhood. I’m usually pretty relaxed about this because over the years it’s become a part of my job. It’s a cool perk but it’s my job. THIS WAS DIFFERENT. First of all, I was in a setting where I could be a fan and that was a nice adjustment. Second, Holden has never been alive in my lifetime. He’s all but a memory and meeting people who actually knew him is extremely rare because they’re aging or have already passed.

When we arrived at the studio, she and Ben were still wrapping up the taping so we stood by waiting. In my mind, I kept reminding myself to stay calm and relaxed but I was freaking out. William Holden means a lot to me in a way that is much different from being “just a fan” but not in a way that’s obsessive. His story has always touched me because he suffered from such a terrible disease most of his life but was able to be a productive member of society despite all of that. Even though as a man, he was an enigma, he changed the way we think of actors and masculinity and he also was an influential force in wildlife conservation. Because of his programs, communities have been enriched and animals have been saved.

I’ve met Ben before at the TCM Classic Film Festival. At my last job, I did the digital campaign for a show that was to include him but due to scheduling conflicts it didn’t work out. Ben is a very nice and professional gentleman. When we went inside the studio, he remembered me and we chatted for a bit…until I saw Stefanie Powers. I don’t know what came over me but when she showed up behind him I just blurted out “Hi Stefanie” as if I knew her. Ben introduced her to all of us and I told her that William Holden is my favorite actor and tried very hard to not let nerves get the best of me. This exact moment was captured on camera and as you can see in this photo, I did a terrible job:

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Stefanie was as nice and gracious as I had hoped. She laughed and said “You have great taste,” in such a beautiful and classy way. You know how some people just radiate with charm and beauty? She has that kind of presence. She followed that up with, let’s talk at lunch. I thought “Oh, how nice that she’s being so nice but we’ll probably not see her later on during this trip.” Oh, how naive and wrong I was!

At lunch, the Backlot members and I sat with Yacov and Ben met us later. Because he had just wrapped up shooting the William Holden segments, I asked him about his research and what stood out to him during his binge watch. TCM will air 34 William Holden films during the month of April. Ben said he watched all the films that would be airing on primetime except for Network and The Moon is Blue. He chose not to watch Network because he has seen it countless times but he could not get a copy of The Moon is Blue in time. Of his rewatch, he walked away with a deeper appreciation for Sunset Boulevard commenting on how good the script is and he added that he was glad the film version of Our Town changed the ending so it wasn’t as sad as the play. What stood out to him as he watch these films was how much Holden’s face had changed due to his alcoholism point out that Holden was in his 50s when he made Network but looks like he’s 100. He said that while he was watching these films, sometimes his wife would walk into the room and not even realize it was a William Holden movie because she couldn’t recognize him. Ben added that even in those parts, Holden was as charming as ever.

As Ben went to throw away his lunch, I walked up to him and asked him if he could introduce me to Stefanie as I am such a big fan of William Holden and he said, “Of course” and asked if I wanted a picture and said he’s make it happen. He took my phone and told me to sit next to her and when I did he called out her name and introduced us. It was at this moment that something happen that I was not prepared for. For some reason my eyes welled up. I wasn’t flat out crying but my emotions did take hold of me as she said hello gave me a hug and posed for our picture. After it was taken, I used the moment to tell her just how much he means to me explaining just how moved I am by his story. She was so sweet and kind. I could tell she was visibly touched by this. I went on to comment about how much I loved her book and how I thought it painted a beautiful picture of their relationship despite its ending and also went told her about how her struggle in Hollywood and her relationship with her mother reminded me of my own also touched me. She asked me about my mom and other questions. I was so moved by this whole exchange. Not only did I get to tell her these deep thoughts and feelings, she took an interest in me. And that meant a great deal. When I asked her what favorite movie of Bill’s is her favorite, without a beat she said Picnic. Someone from TCM came up behind me and said they were getting ready to take the Backlot tour group back, Stefanie told him she’d take me down so she took me and her escort back to the studio and chatted with us on the way back. It was the most surreal thing. I honestly can’t believe it happened.

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Back at the studio, the Backlot producer asked me to film a segment with Ben to be used on social media. I tried to get back on track and be composed but I was a mess. When I sat with Ben as the crew was getting the set and lighting ready, I was visibly frazzled still on the high of speaking with Stefanie that I kept apologizing. It was the most bizarre thing. Ben told me to relax and was so gracious. He is a really nice man and understands what it means to be a TCM fan. He understands that this network means so much to many people because of the connection we have to these movies. It was hard for audiences to accept Ben when he first started as the second host to Robert Osborne but I hope that audiences appreciate him. Watching him film his intros also gave me a deeper appreciation for how hard it is. As an on-camera reporter, I can tell you first hand how difficult it is to be in front of a camera doing a live report but it’s much different to narrate and host. It’s a skill that you can learn but the best ones are the ones who make it look easy and have the “it” factor. Ben has it, and his predecessor Robert excelled in it. What struck me when watching the intros being filmed is the crew. Everyone from the women who brings water to the dolly camera operator is the utmost professional yet they still have fun. Many of them have worked there since the network started which is a testament to the type of community TCM has cultivated. It’s nice to see that a network of such talented people not only feels like a family but is one.

I’d like to thank Ben, Yacov, Turner Classic Movies and the TCM Backlot for such a delightful afternoon that I will never forget. You truly made another dream come true in my life and I’m so grateful.

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TCM Backlot Guest Programmer Humberto Martinez gets ready for his closeup

Earlier this year, the TCM Backlot hosted its first ever TCM Backlot Guest Programmer contest where the winner would be flown to Turner Studios in Atlanta, Georgia to present a night of films alongside host Ben Mankiewicz. The lucky winner is a radiologist in South Florida whose warm personality and love of films makes you instantly feel like family. His name is Humberto Martinez.

TCM Backlot Guest Programmer winner Humberto at his home theater

As a fellow Backlot member, I entered the contest and in doing so, you can see each of the entries. I must admit that when I saw Humberto’s I immediately said, “that’s the guy who’s going to win.” I said that because Humberto is what makes and what we all love about TCM. Humberto is a classic movie fan with a passion and friendliness that radiates off the screen. I felt like I already knew him in that 90 second clip. He has this wonderful energy that made the clip so fun to watch. It turns out that Humberto is my neighbor. He doesn’t exactly live next door, but lives about ten minutes away from me so we were able to connect before his big TCM debut.

Humberto invited me to his home theater that he opens up to residents and his students every Friday. It’s his haven for his classic movie memorabilia but also the place for him to share his passion. When I arrived, he was standing at his door proudly wearing his TCM Backlot shirt and he told me quietly that whoever comes into his home must know that his home is their home and that hosting and talking about film is what he loves. That man in the Backlot video giddy discussing film is just as infectious in real life. Humberto took me to his home theater which is adorned with both classic and contemporary movie posters. Memorabilia including plates from Gone with the Wind and Casablanca are adorned throughout as well as a lot of Disney posters, pictures and figurines. Humberto was right, I felt at home.

Humberto filmed his TCM intros with Ben Mankiewicz on March 24th. He received a call from Yacov Freedman, the manager of the TCM Backlot club, that he had been a finalist. Shortly after Robert Osborne passed and Humberto believed the offer was over that there was no way TCM would be able to pull off the contest. This speaks to the professionalism of TCM. They knew they had a job to do and worked through their grief to select the winner of the contest. When Humberto found out he won, he couldn’t believe it.

He was flown to Atlanta, Georgia like a star. The morning he arrived at TCM, he was handled like a VIP getting wardrobe and makeup treatment. He tells me he got goosebumps sitting in the chair when his makeup was getting done because he was in the same room used by Robert Osborne during his tenure. When he arrived on set, he felt the warmth of the studio lights and there it was, the TCM set right in front of him. Everyone on the set was as lovely and friendly as he imagined. But what he didn’t imagine was that he would be assigned a person who would fill his cup for him with whatever drink he wanted during the duration of the shoot. So that’s what life is like on the other side of showbiz?

Humberto called the shoot an “out of body experience.” The day after he thought he dreamed the whole thing because it was an experience that exceeded his expectations. It almost didn’t happen as smoothly. The night before he had an allergy attack due to the feather pillows in his hotel room. He says you’ll notice he has a coarse to his voice during his introductions and promises he sounds much better in real life. And I can attest to that too. He considers himself very lucky to have been given this opportunity and wishes every fan can have the chance.

Catch Humberto Martinez’s Guest Programmer night Wednesday, May 24th on TCM beginning with Pal Joey at 8:00 PM followed by The Eddie Duchin Story and Bye, Bye Birdie.

 

How a screening of ‘Born Yesterday’ at TCMFF restored my faith in humanity


It had been a while since I’ve seen Born Yesterday but it’s a film I enjoy for a variety of reasons. It’s a very smart comedy, Judy Holliday is irresistible, and William Holden! When I saw that it was one of the banner films for this year’s Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival I was very excited. Initially I thought what a great pick for a comedy theme since this it features the first ever comedic performance by an actress to be recognized with an Academy Award for Best Actress. But then I realized this film is just as important today as it was when it was released.

Playwright Garson Kanin wrote Born Yesterday during WWII. Kanin was serving in the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor to the CIA) making propaganda and war effort films. Having observed corruption in Washington, DC firsthand, Kanin was inspired to tell a serious expose about the influence of special interest groups on politics.

Born Yesterday is about a ruthless, loud mouthed, scrap metal tycoon (Broderick Crawford as Harry Brock) who arrives in Washington to buy a Congressman or two in hopes of boosting his business. His entourage includes his former showgirl girlfriend who he believes is nothing more than a dumb blonde (Judy Holliday in the role of Billie Dawn). To make her more presentable in high society, he hires a reporter (Paul Varrell played by William Holden) to educate her. Immersing herself in American history with Paul as her guide, Billie (and the audience) comes to realize the power of manipulation at the hands of those who take advantage of vulnerable people for their own personal gain.

Before it was put on film, Born Yesterday was a hit on Broadway, with Holliday originating the role of Billie Dawn. Holliday was practically an unknown at the time and the studio wanted Rita Hayworth to star in the film version. Hayworth was unavailable. Holliday got the part and an Oscar.

Born Yesterday is one of the most important comedies to come out of the studio system. It shows us how creatives were unafraid to stand up to the greed they saw in the world with their art. Los Angeles-based movie critic Tara McNamara introduced the film at the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival. She did an excellent job explaining the film’s relevance and enduring appeal. The film’s subtle take on corruption, lobbyists and outside influence in Washington is seen through its main characters. Harry Brock represents corrupt lobbyists while Billie Dawn is essentially the American people. The message: if we don’t educate ourselves on what’s happening, we’ll end up being the ones taken advantage of.

The film was widely referenced during the 2016 presidential election with many pundits comparing Harry Brock to President Donald Trump. When I saw that Born Yesterday was one of the banner films for the festival, I was excited but a part of me wasn’t so sure I wanted to see it. The film features some very real themes and also a moment that is truly horrific. Born Yesterday plays like a tragedy compared to today’s current events as we continue to see the Harry Brocks of the world manipulate and rise to power. And yet, I’m glad I watched it with this audience. During some of the film’s more serious moments, you could feel the audience’s empathy for Billie Dawn. When William Holden’s Paul says the line, “A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in,” the audience cheered and clapped loudly. It was a beautiful moment that reminded me there are still good in this world and people who believe the government is for and of the people.

This isn’t to say that the makeup of the crowd were people who voted against Mr. Trump or to make any sort of political statement. I didn’t take some poll here and can not make that assumption. The fact that I don’t know the political leanings of the people in the audience is what makes TCMFF unique. Here things like race, gender, or social status—things meant to divide us—are ignored and we are all brought together by our shared love of classic film. No one judges or disrespects, everyone is there to celebrate the films we love so dearly. That’s the real beauty of film and the community TCM has fostered.

The film version of Born Yesterday was released in 1950—67 years ago—with a prescient message we should have paid attention to. As long as the Billie Dawns and Paul Verralls of the world continue to stand up for what’s right, we’ll finally see the progress we so desperately crave.

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