Robert Osborne may not recall the name of the first movie he saw, but the images from it nevertheless stir in his memory. “I remember it had to do with a horse race and gangsters,” Osborne reminisces. “I remember covering my face with my hand most of the time, because I was watching the race and felt so badly for the horses who were trying to win and were losing. I was fascinated by films: I thought somehow they were papers dolls, like the ones my sister had, being maneuvered, and I couldn’t imagine how they could make them look round like people, instead of flat.”
Osborne has been the host of Turner Classic Movies since it launched in 1994, a job which perfectly fit a man who knew he wanted to be in the movie business, but didn’t know quite what to do in it. “I wanted to be apart of it; I just didn’t know where I fit in. I knew I couldn’t sing, I knew I couldn’t dance. I just lived in a small farm town in the Northwest. I didn’t know where I fit in. I was happy that Ted Turner started a channel and I got to be the guy. That was my great luck.”
He’s busy this weekend hosting TCM’s Classic Film Festival, now in its fourth year. “We recognize the fact that we’re really pleased to bring all these films that for years were in a vault, hidden away, to people through television,” says Osborne. “But the only way to really see a movie is on a big screen, with an audience. There’s no lack of that in Los Angeles, or in Chicago, New York, or San Francisco with revival houses. But there’s a lot of people who don’t have access to these movies on a big screen.”
“To see ‘Casablanca’ (1942) on a big screen with an audience of 2,500 other people, with Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart three stories tall, is a totally different experience than watching it on a television screen in a room on a couch by yourself,” he continues. “It’s very important because that’s the way they were made to be seen.”
The festival kicked off Thurday with a restoration of “Funny Girl” (1968) at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The festival will include tributes to Max von Sydow, Jane Fonda, Eva Marie Saint, Ann Blyth and Albert Maysles, as well as discussions with Mel Brooks, Norman Lloyd and Jane Withers.
“There’s something for everybody,” raves Osborne. “Musicals, film noir, spectacles, dramas. The whole shebang.” With so many great films to choose from, is a weekend really enough? “I wouldn’t want it to go on any longer, because when you’re offering five theatres from 9 am to midnight, and you’re trying to see as many as you can, I think four or five days is the limit. Then you’re exhausted.”