“Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide” has been the home companion for amateur and budding film buffs for five decades, going so far as to inspire the much-loved Leonard Maltin Game on Doug Benson’s podcast “Doug Loves Movies.” Maltin made an appearance on a different podcast last night, “WTF with Marc Maron,” where the host asked the critic and historian about his start, his experiences writing about long-undocumented film history, and the state of film history today. The full episode is here, but here are some of the highlights.
1. Leonard Maltin is Terrible at The Leonard Maltin Game.
I’m the world’s worst player of that game! Ask anybody, including Doug. My mind doesn’t sort information that way.
2. An Unconventional First Director. Today, plenty of cinephiles first learn the value of a good director through their first Kubrick, Scorsese or Spielberg movie. In Maltin’s era, they might learn it from watching John Ford or Orson Welles. Maltin learned it when he was 15 at a tribute to early film pioneer Rouben Mamoulian (“Love Me Tonight,” “Queen Christina”).
I heard Mamoulian speak. He was the original director of “Porgy and Bess” and “Oklahoma!” on stage. He directed the first film in Technicolor, the earliest musicals. He was so enchanting and so articulate and so amusing and interesting, I went, “Oh, there’s somebody behind the camera.”
3. A Story About “Trading Places.” Of the many people Maltin has talked to, one of his best stories came from John Landis on the set of “Trading Places.”
Eddie Murphy is in a makeup trailer one morning. Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, two long-working actors, are there getting made up. Don Ameche says, “You know, this is my 98th movie. How many have you made?” And Ralph says, “Gee, I think I’ve made about 50.” Eddie Murphy goes, “Hey, between us we’ve made 150 movies!”
4. He Adores Charlie Chaplin.
Chaplin is my god…If you’ve ever seen Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s great documentary “Unknown Chaplin,” they found all of his raw footage from a certain period in his career. He shot everything, he rehearsed and worked out his ideas while the camera was rolling. They figured this out, organized all of this footage, collated it to a documentary that is just mesmerizing. You see him develop an idea and work on it and get it better until it’s perfect. He was unique, he was a genius. He was perfect.
He was the first real superstar…There’s not only no internet or cable, there isn’t even radio yet. All there is is newspapers and magazines. Within months of his screen debut, he was a star. By the end of 1914, he was a worldwide phenomenon. These standees outside the theaters said “He’s here today!” There were Chaplin imitators, there were Charlie Chaplin costume contests, comic strips and animated films within another year or so. Truly a phenomenon, and it all happened before modern communication. That’s how potent he was.
5. Movies Today Are Taught Without Context — and That’s a Huge Loss. Maron, who minored in film criticism in college, spoke about the benefit of having teachers who contextualized movie history, and the loss of that. Maltin agreed and related a story of one of the worst film courses he ever saw.
When my daughter was in middle school, maybe high school, one of her teachers was doing a film course and asked if I could come by and speak to the kids, because they were watching “Citizen Kane.” So I stopped by one morning. It’s high school, so they can’t watch a 2-hour movie during a class period. They’re watching it in 20-minute chunks. They’re sitting at desks in a room where the light is spilling in through the so-called blackout curtains, and they’re kids. And he hasn’t told them anything about what was going on in the world in 1941. They haven’t seen what other films looked like in 1941. They have no context.
This is like the world’s worst way to watch a great movie. Maybe on an airplane, doing all of that that way, that would be worse. And then you’re saying to them, “OK, here’s the world’s greatest movie. Watch it. Appreciate it.” I tried. I tried to give them a little background. A little context to say how revolutionary it was for its time. I think it’s a compelling movie no matter what, but the only way to appreciate it fully is to get what he was doing that was so different.
6. Comedy Teams That Don’t Play Together Stay Together. Maltin’s first book as an author rather than an editor, 1970’s “Movie Comedy Teams,” was the first book on the subject, and Maltin learned that teams that weren’t close friends were often better off because of it.
A lot of the ones who didn’t socialize offscreen lasted longer. Laurel and Hardy led separate lives. They liked each other fine, but they were entirely different men who respected each other completely as performers. That’s why they worked together so harmoniously. And Oliver Hardy was a consummate comedian. For him, it was a job. When the job was over he wanted to play golf. Stan Laurel lived and breathed comedy when he wasn’t marrying a lot of women.
7. He Doesn’t Consider Himself a Critic. Rather than calling himself a film critic, Maltin calls himself “a film historian who makes a living as a film critic.” (That’ a pretty good gig, dude).
A critic is somebody who can write a somewhat lengthy, thoughtful, provocative essay about a film. You still read those in The New Yorker and the Times, both The New York Times and the L.A. Times. A critic tries to hold films to a standard, takes the reader to task sometimes if they’re falling down and supporting sloppy, crummy movies. I’m not a deep thinker. I’m the last person to claim that. I’m a middlebrow critic. But I have my opinions, and they’re formed from a lot of experience, and I try to write from the heart. I post my reviews on my website every Friday, and I hope somebody reads them and gets something out of them.
8. He’s Not Crazy About Rating Movies. One of the big challenges for Maltin as a critic is having to rate movies, be it on a 1-10 scale on “Entertainment Tonight” or the four-star system.
I hated doing that in my book, too. People would argue with the ratings but that’s what the editor said they would do. They like that shorthand. On ET I’d rate 1-10. I never enjoyed doing it. But people would come up to me on the street and say, “I can tell from your review whether you can give it a 6, a 7 or an 8.” Well, I guess that’s a good thing. I’m communicating clearly.
9. On Roger Ebert. Maltin was never close to Roger Ebert, but they were friendly, and they talked often (he didn’t know Gene Siskel as well).
Problem is that so many people who knew them only knew them from the TV show. Now with the internet, where you have the opportunity to read his reviews, you see what a wonderful writer he was, a terrific writer with a highly individual voice. He has all the attributes of a great critic, but on top of that he integrates his life, his view, his experiences. That’s a very tough thing to do, but you know who’s writing that review. You know who that guy is.
10. Movies as More Than Escapism. Maltin spoke about how audiences have always used the movies primarily for escapism, and that Hollywood is having trouble getting audiences interested in films that are more than that.
It’s hard to sell them a serious movie, which is why so many writers and directors and performers are being drawn to cable TV, where they can do some serious work. They’re stealing movies’ thunder, because movies have allowed them to steal their thunder. You have to turn to the indie films and foreign language and even documentaries to get stimulating entertainment in the theater.
11. On Recent Films He’s Loved and Admired. Maltin spoke about some of his favorite films, citing “Casablanca” as his favorite while also mentioning “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Citizen Kane” and “The Graduate.” When recent films came up, he spoke favorably about “Fading Gigolo” and “The Great Beauty.” He was more mixed on Spike Jonze’s “Her,” but praised “Adaptation” and, to a lesser extent, “Where the Wild Things Are.” Other directors that came up:
David O. Russell: I like a lot of his stuff. Didn’t like “American Hustle” so much. It was like seeing a band with a lot of great soloists. “Silver Linings Playbook,” wonderful. “The Fighter” too. I like a lot of his early stuff, too: “Spanking the Monkey,” “Three Kings.”
Paul Thomas Anderson: At times mind-blowingly brilliant. “Boogie Nights” is one of the great American films, right up there with “Pulp Fiction”. I didn’t love everything about “The Master,” but boy I couldn’t take my eyes of the screen. Even if a film isn’t 100% perfect, If it holds me and grabs me and shows me things I haven’t seen before, I’m there.
The Coens: I liked everything about “Inside Llewyn Davis” except the movie. I love the look of the movie, the feel of the movie, the casting of the movie, the performances in the movie. Oscar Isaac was just extraordinary. And they love faces, they cast their bit parts…not since Fellini has somebody had that fondness for oddball faces, and they put them all in the right parts. But it just didn’t do it for me. I admired it. I can admire it without liking it.
Alexander Payne: Love him. He’s a humanist. He’s a satirist and a humanist. THat’s a rare combination. And some people have criticized him for being too harsh on the people he celebrates. He ridicules them. He ridicules the very people he supposedly venerates. But that’s what makes him so interesting!
13. Criticism Shouldn’t Just Be a Consumer Guide.
I don’t want to say to somebody, “Don’t go to see this movie.” I want to say, “Here’s what the movie is, here’s what I thought of it. If you like Johnny Depp and you find him interesting as an actor, you should go see this movie.” Don’t let me stop you from seeing it. That’s not my job. Make your own choice, but make an informed choice. Make a choice on your own.