HISTORIAN, CRITIC LEONARD MALTIN THE FACE OF FILM
Critic, historian and author Leonard Maltin is still low-key about his legacy
There are plenty of talented film critics in the media, and brilliant, passionate film scholars at work in academia.
But in the popular consciousness, Leonard Maltin has no peer. The busy critic, historian, author and, recently, podcaster has been the face of film for many Americans for the better part of four decades — first on “Entertainment Tonight,” then on Turner Classic Movies, the Reelz Channel and elsewhere.
But the 66-year-old doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think I’m pre-eminent,” Maltin said over the phone from Los Angeles in advance of his keynote speech at Denver’s 10th Neustadt JAAMM Fest. “I’m just available.”
JAAMM Fest — which stands for Jewish Arts, Authors, Movies and Music — kicks off Oct. 26 and includes live music and dance, film screenings, author lectures, awards, parties and more at the Staenberg-Loup Jewish Community Center, 350 S. Dahlia St.
But Maltin’s 7 p.m. appearance at the Elaine Wolf Theatre on Nov. 7 lends star power to the proceedings, given his near-constant media presence and the enduring popularity of his dozen-plus books on film history dating back to 1970.
We asked the characteristically upbeat, easygoing New York native about this fraught moment in Jewish-American culture, his history in Colorado and why he won’t be updating his all-time favorite movie when the American Film Institute comes calling.
A: It was wonderful. My family and I have been going there for decades. Not years, but decades. Our daughter was 2½ the first time she went and so she’s grown up there. It’s also the only film festival I’ve ever been at where I have to use sunscreen.
A: I don’t go to Cannes. The nice thing about Telluride is that it presents the latest in world cinema — a lot of the films that are going to be buzzed about all during the fall season and Oscar time. But at the same time, I saw two rare silent films there. And that’s one of the things that makes the festival so special, is that it really casts a wide net.
A: Oh, yeah, although I will admit that my energy level is not what it used to be. I used to power through films from early morning until late at night. I pick my shots a little more carefully now.
A: Obviously I’ve done this more than once, and more than once at Jewish film festivals, so I kind of know the areas I’m going to cover and how I’m going to do it. But I like to be as spontaneous as I can. I like to think after all this time I can kind of scope out an audience and tell when they’re attentive and interested, and conversely when they’re not. A: Not really, because I stay away from all that.
A: I don’t know, quite honestly. I suspect we’ll have more of a sense of that in retrospect than we do right now. In terms of movies, they have a long gestation period — sometimes many, many years. I teach a weekly class at USC (University of Southern California) in L.A. and we have filmmaker guests every week. One of the first things I ask is, “How long have you been working on this?” And you would just be astonished at the answers — five years, seven years, 11 years. “Dallas Buyer’s Club” was 22 years. Even with a green light and financing, it takes a long time to get a film up and running, so it’s hard for movies to be terribly current. And certainly with tumultuous events changing on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis, you don’t necessarily look to movies for answers or guideposts.
A: There’s people, and then there’s people.
Q : I saw that you recently interviewed Mel Brooks for your podcast “Maltin on Movies.” That must have been a thrill.
A: We’ve chatted before, and I even hosted a long tribute to him at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But we recorded (the podcast) at his office, and when I left I was hyperventilating. I grew up at a time when he and Carl Reiner were still doing their 2,000 Year Old Man on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Hollywood Palace.” And he made a short called “The Critic” in 1963 that played at my local theater in Manhattan with “Dr. Strangelove.” In those days, they didn’t clear the auditorium at the end of every movie because there were continuous screenings. I loved that short so much that I sat through “Dr. Stranglove” a second time so I could see it again. Not that I minded sitting through “Dr. Strangelove” again.
Q: Yes it is. I don’t have to revisit that decision. And talk about lucky: I got to see that for the first time on the theater screen, larger than life, in the dark with a simpatico audience. It was the late ’60s and the counter-culture generation had embraced Humphrey Bogart as their antihero, which he certainly is in “Casablanca” as Rick. So my parents took me to a theater in New York that was showing that and “High Sierra,” and I’ve never fallen out of love with it.
A: I read years later that it was taught in some courses as the perfect screenplay, and it is! It has romance, suspense, humor, topicality, a point of view. What more could you ask? It also has an extraordinary cast and not just the stars, but every single person who appears on camera — even if it’s only in one scene — is colorful and interesting. That doesn’t happen very often.
A: Well, everybody needs talking heads and so-called experts. A: You’re right, I’m schmo.
New York native Leonard Maltin, 66, doesn’t like to prepare remarks before giving speeches in order to read the room — and “to be as spontaneous as I can.”