Friday, March 7, 2008

The Rose buds on Turner Classic Movies' 'The Essentials'

Posted By on Fri, Mar 7, 2008 at 6:40 PM

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(Photo courtesy Turner Classic Movies)

One of the more intriguing (and much-discussed) decisions under the new Turner Classic Movies' management covered in my recent cover story was the recruiting of actress Rose McGowan to join Robert Osborne as the co-host of "The Essentials," which seeks to educate viewers on some of the most classic of TCM's classics. (The no-brainers, if you will.) If ever there were an indication that the reconfigured TCM management structure, led by Turner Entertainment Group President Steve Koonin, wanted to "young up" the viewership, it would be the hiring of the star of the recent Grindhouse double feature as well as oft-syndicated "Charmed" TV series.

McGowan reportedly wowed the TCM people with her preparation for her appearance on last November's "Guest Programmer" series, as well as her enthusiasm for classic movies. Who knew? But before we get into the selection of McGowan to host, some back story to "The Essentials" …

"I think that when we launched this franchise several years ago, there was lots of internal discussion about which way to go," says Charlie Tabesh, TCM's senior VP for programming, who presented the key question as, "Do we give an academic perspective or introduce people to classic movies? We could show 'The Essentials' and have a more academic discussion, and we did that for several years."

This meant recruiting veteran Hollywood director, sometime actor and general raconteur Sydney Pollack, my personal favorite, who offered a pitch-perfect blend of Film Appreciation 101, Hollywood history and an instinctive, accessible love of movies. He was followed by director and film scholar (and "Sopranos" co-star) Peter Bogdanovich, whose Texas-sized ego and talent for mimicry added up to its own peculiar charm. Then came the decision to bring in TCM host Robert Osborne to strengthen the TCM presence, and to add film critic/historian Molly Haskell, which was to kill two birds with one stone: add a second person to make the intros feel more like a conversation and to "balance the ticket," so to speak, by having a woman. The problem is, Haskell only provided the latter; her reticence forced Osborne to carry the conversation, and she was far from passionate the few times she did engage in the banter. Actress and author Carrie Fisher (daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher) was up next, and while she met the challenge of getting a conversation going, she seemed a bit … what's the word? … wacky?

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(Courtesy Dimension Films)

Which brings us to McGowan, who reportedly did tons of homework in advance of her "Guest Programmer" spot last fall and brought her own unique perspective to movies, having grown up in a commune in Italy. "It was a bunch of hippies and no money,” McGowan said during her appearance, according to a TCM press release. Because there was no TV around, movies provided the entertainment. "I’m sure we went to one that would show three in a row for 25 cents, probably. They tended to be all old films.”

In my TCM profile, Tabesh talked about the advantages of having McGown — who, at 34, is 17 years younger than Fisher — as the co-host …

Rose McGowan ... is young and pretty, which doesn't hurt. But she's such a fan. We wanted to use somebody who legitimately loves the movies, not just putting on a pretty face that doesn't fit. She was so good [with 'Guest Programmer'], she talked about movies with such knowledge and passion, and she was such a great contrast to Robert.

A quick glance at McGowan and Osborne discussing the first film of the series, The Apartment (Saturday, March 8, 8 p.m.), as well as The Bad and the Beautiful, shows McGowan holding her own — if not much more. She almost always seems comfortable in her own skin in her TV-interview appearances, and this is no different. And she gets credit for her observation about The Apartment director Billy Wilder: "He hit the perfect note of alienated humor." (She does seem to lean on the adjective "great" quite a bit.)

But a more cynical person might wonder how big the difference is in a co-host who brings with them not only a passion for movies but also an encyclopedic knowledge culled from years of experience and study, as opposed to, say, someone cramming for an exam. McGowan suggests the latter, and even though you have to appreciate the effort, she seems at first glance to be a more natural fit for the hipper "Underground" series. (It should be noted, by the way, that Molly Haskell apparently discussed one film while admitting she hadn't seen it.)

TCM is smart to try to broaden its viewership; the whole point of "The Essentials" is to explain the "classic" element of these classic movies, so there's a bit of hand-holding implied. Which is what made Sydney Pollack such a fitting choice as host. But with McGowan, one can't help but sense a bit of over-compensation at play here — not egregiously so, but it's obvious enough. It'll be fun to see how she does over the long haul. Just one question: Does she have braces on or something? She has this weird near-lisp that I hadn't heard before, or maybe I've not been playing close enough attention.

Then there's the more fun question: Who else would be better suited as Osborne's co-host? I'll offer mine after the weekend, but would love to know what you think ...

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