One of the joys of watching TCM – outside of the content they provide – are the interviews with classic film stars inserted via their “Word of Mouth” segment or their Private Screenings series. With so many stars of the Golden Age visiting the big studio in the sky, these glimpses are often the only time we hear stars being candid. That is until you read James Bawden and Ron Miller’s book Conversations with Classic Film Stars, itself a compendium of interviews Robert Osborne couldn’t finagle, but with all the intrigue of an Osborne interview.
A pair of Canadian film and television reporters, Bawden and Miller found themselves with a mass of interviews with classic film stars at their nadir. By the ’70s and ’80s many of the 34 stars interviewed were on their last legs or had found a second life in television and the litany of emotions they present is high. Many recall their golden age with fondness, while others bemoan how much Hollywood has changed and are cynical about their careers and the lack of respect for them, but there’s no denying how fantastically frank and candid everyone is.
Each interview is presented with background on the actor or actress, as well as how our authors met them with the various sections focused on leading men and ladies, singing cowboys, Queen of the B-movies, and four interview subjects the authors felt merited inclusion. It’s utterly amazing how two men were able to sit down with so many legends, from Gloria Swanson to Cary Grant and Luise Rainier. Some actors, like Irene Dunne, didn’t necessarily plan on discussing “the good old days” but the authors balance the past with the present.
The various interviews all have high and low points. Some actors, like Anna Lee, embraced the now as Lee did with her success on soap operas. Others just couldn’t get over how the past was no longer glittering. Glenn Ford’s interview presented a dark, gruff man who couldn’t understand his success from the past, and was a taste bitter about the future. His heartfelt fears about Rita Hayworth – herself falling into the dementia that would eventually take her life – is just one of several moments in the book where the stars should their humanity; Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s reveal that Mary Pickford was a sad drunk who barely spoke will also bring tears to the eyes. Their passion for acting and Hollywood is there, but it’s left in a bizarre limbo with the changing times.
But the stars understood that audiences wanted to know about the parties and the films. Bawden and Miller’s interview style extends towards naming films and/or looking at the star’s careers chronologically, and some of the answers were obviously polished in the writing process. But it’s great hearing Rosalind Russell refuse to name names about people who didn’t like her, or Van Johnson coyly allude that he wouldn’t be commenting on his sexuality. Their four special interviews, two of which include Margaret Hamilton, Harold Russell and Keye Luke, are amazing in that neither actor necessarily warranted many interviews. What ultimately stands out is the accessibility; that these writers were able to have such intimate discussions with these Hollywood titans.
Conversations with Classic Film Stars is the de facto book for classic film fans. It’s the closest many of us will ever come to sitting down with such legends and picking their brain. Bawden and Miller present a wide range of stars, big and small, but treats each subject with the magnanimity we’d expect to see.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.