The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Is Ben Mankiewicz turning TCM into a worker's paradise?

January 5, 2010 |  1:05 pm

Benmankiewicz Yesterday, we found ourselves trying to puzzle out why so many conservatives were losing their minds over the progressive politics of the amazing "Avatar." Today, the battle front moves to Turner Classic Movies, the cable TV oasis for movie lovers, which is under attack from Big Hollywood's John Nolte.

The outspoken conservative blogger is up in arms over TCM weekend host Ben Mankiewicz, whom he claims took a pot shot at Fox News' Glenn Beck in the course of his recent presentation of Elia Kazan's strikingly prophetic 1957 film, "A Face in the Crowd." 

Nolte's post offers a textbook example of the conservative movement's hysterical paranoia over modern-day cultural issues. In a post titled "Will Ben Mankiewicz Be Allowed to Destroy Turner Classic Movies?" Nolte contends that the weekend host interjected his liberal politics into a network that until now has been "first, last and always a place for movie lovers of all political stripes."

Claiming that Mankiewicz made various snide comments about Beck and other conservative talk-show hosts, Nolte complained: 

"I felt sucker punched. Not only was Mankiewicz clearly referring to right-wing talk radio, it was just as obvious with his snide 'cry on cue' comment that he was specifically targeting Glenn Beck. Why is this one comment worth complaining about? Because we all know that this is how it always starts. Once the dam springs a leak, the dam always ends up bursting.... The Goatee'd One can interpret the meaning of Elia Kazan's masterpiece in today's world all he wants, but he needs to keep that interpretation to himself and show his viewers the respect of allowing us to interpret it for our own selves."  

I'm hardly a knee-jerk defender of Mankiewicz. In fact, I was one of his many detractors when he and Ben Lyons were briefly co-hosts of the syndicated movie review program "At the Movies." But I dug up a transcript of the host's appreciation of "A Face in the Crowd," which appears here on the TCM website -- and I have to say that not only does Mankiewicz do a nice job of capturing the enduring appeal of Kazan's film, but it's really a stretch to claim that anything he said would possibly destroy the experience of watching the classic film.

Faceinthecrowd What Mankiewicz said was this: "In an era when the political commentators who shout the loudest or 'cry' the most generate the ratings, the prophetic nature of this 1957 classic enhances its remarkable timeliness today .... Did [director Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg] drive to 2009 and see a world where television celebrity trumps wisdom, thoughtfulness and reason?" 

Not only does that feel like fair comment, but the last sentence -- about celebrity trumping wisdom and reason -- actually echoes a long-held conservative belief in upholding the standards of cultural civilization, even if it may be the conservatism of H.L. Mencken, William F. Buckley and David Brooks, not the conservatism of Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. It's true that the "cry" reference seems clearly aimed at Beck, but Mankiewicz's other comment -- about commentators who "shout the loudest" could just as easily be directed at Chris Matthews as anyone on Fox News. 

If anyone is trying to make sense of the meaning of "A Face in the Crowd," it's almost impossible not to draw comparisons to today. When I interviewed Schulberg a few years ago, he went out of his way to insist that the film should be viewed in the light of today's loudmouth culture, which he said drowned out all of the subtlety and nuance of more considered commentary. To talk about "A Face in the Crowd" without remarking on its remarkable prescience would be doing the movie a disservice.

Nolte and I agree that TCM is a wonderful resource for movie lovers, but when it comes to what Mankiewicz had to say about "A Face in the Crowd," Nolte is letting his own politics get in the way of enjoying a thoughtful appreciation of a remarkable film. If you've never seen it, make sure you watch "A Face in the Crowd" right away. It offers an unerring glimpse of our modern media culture -- on both the left and on the right -- and it's not a pretty picture.

Photo: Ben Mankiewicz. Credit: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press.