TCM Fest's Unfunny Oversight Of Women

TCM host Robert Osborne, Mitzi Gaynor 2014
TCM host Robert Osborne, Mitzi Gaynor 2014

In our writing about TCM Classic Film Festival four years ago, we gushed in print, "We love the women of TCM Classic Film Festival 2013."

That year, the annual festival (we have covered TCM Fest since its inception in 2010) honored Barbra Streisand's tour-de-force film debut in “Funny Girl.” Tippi Hedren, Eva Marie Saint, Mitzi Gaynor, Ann Blyth, Barrie Chase, Lulu(!), and a very big fish, Jane Fonda, basked in old-fashioned Hollywood glamour -- much imparted by TCM’s chivalrous host, Robert Osborne, known to have been a dear friend and supporter of the women of High Hollywood.

Four short years later, with Osborne no longer present, is it being overly sensitive that female fans notice the festival's alarming shift away from our cinematic achievement -- both before and behind the camera?

The biggest female star to be recognized at TCM Fest 2017 is Debbie Reynolds, of course in absentia. Reynolds's costumes from Singin’ in the Rain and The Unsinkable Molly Brown will hang on display. Her ghostly presence in an empty dress feels symbolic, alas.

For six years TCM Fest commenced with a red-carpet gala night at the TCL Chinese Theater and the screening a big movie musical. To screen a musical meant, de facto, showcasing a stellar performance by a woman: Liza Minnelli (Cabaret), Shirley Jones (Oklahoma!), Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music) were featured.

Last year that changed. The opening-night film of TCM Fest 2016, All the President’s Men, was culturally timely. But it also featured all the president’s men, get it? Not his women. Another buddy picture, In the Heat of the Night, will open this year’s festival in observance of the film’s 50th anniversary. Star Sidney Poitier, a Hollywood legend (that is not in question), will be feted, along with director Norman Jewison and producer Walter Mirisch.

Perceive a pattern? That’s just opening night — and TCM Fest is already raining men on Hollywood Boulevard.

A major celebrity interview traditionally figures as a festival highlight. This year’s honoree, Michael Douglas, will enjoy the honor of an interview by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz at the legendary Ricardo Montalbán Theatre. That’s a tripling down of female marginalization: a male actor interviewed by a male host in a theater named for a man.

Just curious … could a woman not parry with Douglas in interview? I find the prospect of Mankiewicz and Douglas in an exercise of male bonding not very exciting. Having a woman on this beat would inject a different dynamic; it augurs the possibility of engaging with Douglas for the many aggressively male-chauvinist roles that are his brand (no one does it better). For this assignment, we could imagine the great film critic Molly Haskell.

It seems ironic that TCM’s specialized series, “Trailblazing Women,” which focuses on the historic travails of women in Hollywood, seems to have been ghetto’ized with minimal impact on the very culture of the channel hosting the series. Both series producer Illeana Douglas and her collaborator, writer Cari Beauchamp, will participate in the Festival, but they belong to the crushing minority of women on the Festival talent roster, where men outnumber women by a startling ratio of three to one.

(Two of the female participants are famous daughters, Suzanne Lloyd and Sara Karloff. Both have become experts.)

With comedy as the festival theme, Make ‘Em Laugh: Comedy In The Movies will plummet the depths of what men find funny -- and boy can that be shallow. Present in-person will be the well-circulated King of Comedy, Mel Brooks, lording over the 40th anniversary screening of High Anxiety (1977). Peter Bogdanovich will appear at screenings of The Last Picture Show (1971), not a comedy, and What’s Up, Doc? (1972), a problematic one.

The TCM Fest talent being promoted by the channel reflects not just male domination; every single name called out in a press release is that of a man.

  • Carl Reiner and Rob Reiner, honored with a hand and footprint ceremony at the TCL Chinese Theater.
  • Fred Willard, John Michael Higgins, Jim Piddock and Bob Balaban discussing Christopher Guest’s Best in Show (2000)
  • Bob Newhart introducing Hell Is For Heroes (1962)
  • John Landis, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker in a 40th Anniversary screening of The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977)
  • Dick Cavett introducing screenings of Monkey Business (1931) and Way Out West (1937). This interviewer of celebrities will himself be interviewed at Club TCM.

A cursory glance at the film schedule misses movies of important comediennes Mae West, Jean Arthur, Miriam Hopkins, Barbara Stanwyck, or what about a Tracy-Hepburn film? Where is Goldie Hawn? Roz Russell? What about Julia Roberts? Didn’t Drew Barrymore make a few successful comedies?

Instead, Lee Grant, a character actress and not a major movie star, and herself a feminist filmmaker, will introduce Detective Story (1951) and The Landlord (1970). French actress Geneviève Bujold is also being honored. These are strange decisions. And to quite a few women, not terribly funny.

A request for comment from TCM was not responded to.

Los Angeles-based arts journalist Debra Levine blogs on artsmeme, where this story first appeared. She appeared on TCM: Turner Classic Movies in September 2012.

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