Friday, February 01, 2008

The Leonard Maltin Interview

Noted film critic and TV personality Leonard Maltin, has been a part of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival for the last 15 years, but he has never made it to opening night of the festival.

The Film Fest always opens on a Thursday and Thursday nights you will find Maltin teaching a class on film at USC.

Perhaps it's that scholarly approach to film and a passion for the movies that allows Maltin to interview subjects like actors Julie Christie, Cate Blanchett and director Norman Jewison with such ease. At times it's as if he's more familiar with with their filmographies than they are.

Leonard Maltin, Photo Courtesy of Edhat

I had a chance to visit with Maltin last weekend and asked him how he prepares for an interview so as to not spoil the spontaneity of it.

“It’s tricky, I don’t want to know too much. I find it more interesting for myself if I’m surprised." While he studies the interviewee's filmography he makes it a point not to read existing interviews of the subject.

Although he is not involved in the selection of the film clips that are shown during the tributes and then discussed with the interviewees, he does get to see them beforehand as part of his preparation.

One might argue that Maltin is a walking encyclopedia of film history, which is his first love. Maltin, who is 57, wrote his first film review when he was 13 and had it accepted for publication by a movie "fanzine." He started his own movie "fanzine" with a friend shortly thereafter. Maltin described his own first effort in that regard as some mimeographed sheets of paper. "If we were starting it today we would do a website."

The fanzine ultimately led to Maltin to being hired, at age 17 no less, to write his first book on film. For the last 26 years, Maltin has been a fixture on "Entertainment Tonight" the syndicated TV show devoted to news about Hollywood, celebrities and of course, the movies.

Maltin became interested in the big screen through the little screen. He described television in the days he was growing up as a "living museum of film." After his interest in movies was kindled Maltin started going to the library to read books about films. From reading about them he moved on to collecting them including old movies starring Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy.

Of the countless interviews he's done with figures in the film industry, his all time favorite is the one he did with the legendary Katherine Hepburn at her brownstone on the east side of Manhattan. "We hit it off and had just a great conversation," Maltin said.

I asked him how he managed to land an interview with the reclusive star. "I had little to do with it," he confessed. "She had done a movie for television that she was promoting so Entertainment Tonight was one of the outlets that was offered the opportunity to sit down with her. It was determined that I was probably the person best suited to do the interview so I got the assignment. She was doing other interviews with other outlets that same day. I recall waiting my turn behind the Today show to talk to her."

Maltin got to speak to her again when her autobiography came out.

Maltin described the time when he got to work with the late Jimmy Stewart as being "another red letter day" in his life. The occasion for spending a day with Stewart was when Entertainment Tonight did a tribute to legendary director Frank Capra.

On an average Maltin sees about five or six movies a week which works out to over 200 movies a year. He pointed out that the number includes both new films as well as classic old movies.

And Maltin sees most of those movies in a theater. He's not big on viewing films on DVDs.

With the advent of DVDs, home theaters and the ability to download movies for viewing directly from the Internet, I asked Maltin if he ever foresaw the experience of seeing a movie in a theater becoming obsolete?

"For every generation (movie going) is a social activity. On a Friday or Saturday night they will go to the movies and when something big comes out people will race out to see it." Maltin cited Cloverfield, a movie that recently opened with big box office numbers, as an example.

"Where movies are suffering are with middle age customers who don't identify with that zeitgeist." Maltin went on to observe that "Hollywood has become expert in brainwashing the public that they have to go see something."

He said that in the current atmosphere of Hollywood it's harder for the smart film or the modest film to get attention.

Maltin and his wife Alice first attended our local Film Fest back in the days when Phyllis dePicciotto was the artistic director. He recalls that one of the events that year was a tribute to actress Ann Southern.

But Maltin has been a frequent visitor to Santa Barbara long before the Film Fest started. He and his wife have has been coming here for 25 years. He described Santa Barbara as their favorite getaway spot since moving from New York to Los Angeles. Their 21 year old daughter Jessie accompanied them here last weekend.

One of their favorite restaurants in town is The Palace, where they had dinner last Saturday night.

And since the Film Fest moved to the last week of January, Maltin and his wife have been regular visitors to the annual CALM Antiques Show held every year at Earl Warren Showgrounds. Maltin said they seldom return from the show empty handed and this year was no exception.

When they come to Santa Barbara, and their visits here aren't confined to the Film Fest, they have frequently stayed at the Biltmore. In fact there first visit there pre-dates the time it was a Four Seasons Hotel.

Other favorite activities when the Maltins visit here are strolling State Street and visiting the Sunday art show on Cabrillo Boulevard.

Maltin told me, "I feel very lucky to get to do something I love for a living and very lucky to get to meet so many people that I admire and I get to interview."

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My viewing suggestions for today.

For a complete listing of today's film fest schedule go to Edhat

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