By Tom Shales
Sunday, March 7, 2010; E01
Robert Osborne either has the best job in the world, or comes very close. As millions of viewers know, Osborne is the resident host of the great Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel, the most reliable source of pure enchantment in the cable universe. He appears before and after each prime-time movie, an avatar (yes!) of erudition who introduces the films and provides a few closing thoughts before going on to the next one.
So it goes, movie after movie, "Ben-Hur" after "Herbie Rides Again"; "Brute Force" after "Baby Face"; "Dead of Night" after "The Life of the Party"; "A Night to Remember" after "The Remains of the Day"; "Miss Pinkerton" after "Mr. Skeffington"; "Kagemusha" after "Yojimbo"; "The Man Who Came to Dinner" after "The Monster That Challenged the World."
It's not just a channel, it's a place to spend one's retirement. It's a history of pop culture. It's a respite from reality and from reality television. It's a place in the sun and a nightmare alley and dark at the top of the stairs and the stuff that dreams are made of. Robert Osborne would be a fool not to love his work, especially at this time of year, when he's wrapping up the channel's annual "31 Days of Oscar."
"I do love it," he says, "and the feedback we get from viewers is part of it, from young and old -- viewers who say they never knew this or that film existed, or talk about what they had missed until they discovered TCM. We show movies from all different eras, not just 'old movies,' but I've often quoted something that Lauren Bacall said years ago: 'If you've never seen 'Brief Encounter,' then it's not an old movie to you.' " But introducing the movies is only part of Osborne's work. On Saturday nights, he co-hosts TCM's "The Essentials," an anthology of "must-see classics," with actor and movie buff -- and this year's co-host of the Oscars -- Alec Baldwin. Osborne has a special relationship with the Academy Awards, having covered the ritual for the Hollywood Reporter, serving as Oscar's official greeter for the past four years (replacing the late Army Archerd) and authoring a massive, 430-page picture-and-text whopper "80 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards," in addition to other Oscar-related books.
Next month, Osborne will extend his hosting chores to the first annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles, a four-day intense immersion in the world of movies that will include appearances by 100-year-old actress Luise Rainer and that antic icon, director and star Jerry Lewis, as well as screenings of classics ("Casablanca," "A Star is Born") that too rarely get shown on the big screen for which they were made.
"You'd need to be five different people to see all the films in the festival," Osborne says. Mel Brooks will come by to host a screening of his original riot "The Producers" (before it became a Broadway musical and, later, a dreary movie version of that musical), Jon Voight will discuss "Midnight Cowboy," and Tony Curtis will host a screening of the hard-boiled cult classic "The Sweet Smell of Success," probably his best dramatic film.
First, though, come the Oscars, and naturally Oscar-watcher Osborne has his opinions. He likes, for instance, the newly reinstated practice of nominating 10, rather than five movies as Best Picture.
"I was kind of against it at first, but then when I saw the list, I thought it made the year seem much better than when I was going to the movies and watching those films," he says. "And it did allow films like 'An Education' and 'Precious' to be nominated, which I'm not sure would have been on the list otherwise."
Naturally, he's an Oscar booster. "I'm very enthusiastic about the Academy Awards because if there were no Oscars, we wouldn't have as many good movies as we do have." Yet he concurs that in recent years, the trend toward grim seriousness has made the Oscars less fun than they used to be. The vast mass audience doesn't know or care that "Slumdog Millionaire" was named best picture winner in 2009 or even remember that "No Country for Old Men" won in 2008 and "The Departed," in 2007.
"I agree, and I do think that's perhaps one of the reasons they've tried to extend the Best Picture category so that some of the more popular films might get on the list," Osborne says. "But it also brings attention to films like 'A Serious Man' and 'An Education' that might not even get booked into theaters otherwise."
James Cameron's "Avatar" seems a natural to win Best Picture, but as nearly everyone knows, its competition includes "The Hurt Locker," a film directed by Cameron's ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow. Watching those two compete will be tantalizing: "My dream thing would be if either one of them won for Best Picture, 'cause they're both very worthy, but I'd really love it if this were the year for a tie in the Best Director category. You'd have Cameron and Bigelow, who were once married, sharing the prize. And that would be such a great Oscar story for my books."
He thinks Jeff Bridges is "a shoo-in" for Best Actor and says, "I would be surprised if they gave Meryl Streep her third Oscar for a film as light as 'Julie and Julia,' although of course Katharine Hepburn's third Oscar came with a very light performance from her in 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.' " Didn't she win because people suspected she was soon to die?
"Exactly," Osborne says. "And the same with many other actors. It's the Academy Death Award."
Once a month, Osborne flies to Atlanta from Los Angeles and videotapes 120 "intro's and outro's" to be shown on TCM in the month ahead. That's 20 or 30 tapings a day, he says. "I had to learn how to rein myself in," he says, "so I could talk for five days straight." For decades, Osborne's name has figured prominently in the life and lore of Hollywood. He came to Hollywood with a degree in journalism from the University of Washington, but ended up as a contract actor for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz at their Desilu Studios.
Ball became a close friend. "She entered my life at a great moment, because she had a husband who was never home and a lot of free time." She took Osborne and two other students of the film industry under her wing.
"I really got a master-class education in show business," he says. "I remember her taking us to Las Vegas to see Sinatra and the Rat Pack, and to a play with Bette Davis, whom we got to talk to afterwards backstage. She would screen her old TV shows at home for us and explain what worked and what didn't work; she showed me how to play the cello to make it funny.
"I was a would-be actor at the time, but she encouraged me not to try to be an actor. She told me, 'It's not going to make you happy,' and 'We have enough actors. You have other options.' I knew she had nothing to gain by telling me these things. I knew it was for my own good."
In her very last years, Lucy became notoriously cranky and Osborne saw less of her, but "she stayed in my life until she died," he says. "She'd call to ask, 'Are you eating right?' and things like that. Lucy had no interest really in doing anything but working in front of a camera, the same as Bette Davis, and so she sometimes accepted roles she was too old to be playing."
Talk about Lucy's later years prompts a question about Osborne's own age, if only because his firsthand knowledge of Hollywood goes back so far, and yet he seems youthful and energetic on the air.
"I'm 77," he says without a gulp. "The only reason I'm ever shy about it is that people tend to think of you in terms of what they think that age is. I certainly don't feel any different than I did when I was 35, and my energy seems to be more than it was then."
He takes "keeping busy" to an extreme, but he's enjoying himself, having found -- after age 50 (TCM is in its 15th year) -- a great new life. His affair with the Oscars, of course, goes back even farther than his relationship with TCM, and he says he's as enthusiastic about the Oscar show, and process, as he ever was.
"When Jeff Bridges gets up to get his prize for 'Crazy Heart,' people will probably have seen him do that four or five times on other award shows," Osborne says. "But I still think the Oscars have the final say."