TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz on the Best American Movies for New Fans

Nobody you know has seen more movies than TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. Since 2003, he’s been presenting films and leading discussions on the premier source for classic cinema and has been on of the most trusted names by film fans the world over. So when you want to ask someone to share their classic film recommendations for people who maybe haven’t seen too many, you can find no one better. Mr. Mankiewicz was kind enough to sit down with me to talk about movies and politics for a good long while, and though the conversation went all sorts of places, we kept coming back to movies from a particular period: 1967 to 1976, a decade which Mankiewicz called the “best decade of American movies.”

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“There was the French New Wave, and the Italian New Wave—that decade was ours,” Mankiewicz explained. “When we let the directors run the show. The studio system created so many great films. I mean, you don’t get Singin’ in the Rain without the studio system. You don’t get Casablanca, you don’t get Random Harvest. Everything about them is perfect. Every single craftsman and artist is just doing the thing they do and crushing, right? But it was unbelievably restrictive. It was clearly, brutally unfair—to say nothing of minorities, that’s too obvious—but to women. Like, oh, you’re 40. We’re not gonna write any parts for you anymore. You can be this person’s mom in a role that will remind everyone that you were once a starlet. Now, you’re not.”

“We shook the bottle and the genie came out.”

As the studio system in Hollywood—which lasted roughly from the 1920s to the 1960s—began to dwindle, artists became the driving force in movies. Mankiewicz continued, “These directors who were then influenced by the French and the Italians, who’ve been influenced by the great American studio directors, just started having their day and created such wonderful films. They still have to raise money and deal with the heads of production. Anybody who could make great movies while dealing with Robert Evans deserves a hug, even though Robert Evans clearly helped shape those movies also.”

He also equated that decade as something close to magic. “We took the bottle, the genie came out. I think that’s obviously what it was. You see these young directors, like Coppola and Scorsese and Bogdanovich and Mazursky and all of these great, great directors having the freedom to create their films, and they created just this one beautiful decade of movies, and with more complicated characters, too.”

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But in order to fully appreciate New American Cinema of 1967-1976, you have to go back and watch earlier movies. For Mankiewicz, any list of movie recommendations begins and ends with the Michael Curtiz-directed Casablanca. “No question,” he began. “If I could curate a list, I’d talk about how this is what the studio system did incredibly well. Talk about every immigrant involved in making that movie at this time, when there was this giant migrant crisis in Europe and all these Jews coming over here and making movies and raising the level of our art form in the process.”

From there, Mankiewicz recommended a movie by a filmmaker whose skill and craftsmanship speak for themselves. “I’m going with Kubrick,” Mankiewicz said, “because he can change the way you feel about war movies, and how you look at a war movie. I would say, Paths Of Glory.” Kubrick’s 1957 anti-war film took place in WWI, among French soldiers and officers. It finds Kirk Douglas as a lieutenant who has to defend three men charged with cowardice after not following a suicidal order from an incompetent commanding officer. “Everybody concerned about the world we live in today and the ease with which drone strike [can kill people] should see this movie,” Mankiewicz said. “We don’t even have to send Americans into harm’s way, so we anesthetize war and combat, so that we’re super comfortable with it. Well, it’s awful, right?” That’s what Paths of Glory shows us, right at the beginning of the Vietnam War.

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Shifting gears entirely, Mankiewicz recommended a musical, which he confesses is not his genre. “Royal Wedding,” he recommended. “Astaire is unbelievable, and with Jane Powell in their number ‘How Can You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been A Liar All My Life.’ It’s just sort of the infectious fun of an MGM studio musical.”

And get your pencils and pens out, because Mankiewicz then went on a tare, recommending all sorts of movies from the ’70s (we did just say it was the greatest decade in American cinema, right?). “I’d obviously recommend some from the ’70s,” he said. “Because these kids, if they don’t know Casablanca, they might not know Jaws, and they probably don’t know Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And they probably don’t know One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And they probably don’t know All the President’s Men.”

I’m fairly certain most of you out there have seen Jaws, but if you haven’t seen Butch Cassidy, it’s just one of the best Westerns ever made, and Cuckoo’s Nest has an Oscar-winning Jack Nicholson performance, not to mention Louise Fletcher’s terrifying (and also Oscar-winning) portrayal of Nurse Ratched. As for All the President’s Men, it may just be the investigative journalism movie the world needs at the moment, highly recommended for people who liked Spotlight.

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But Mankiewicz wasn’t done! “There’s some chance people don’t know The Godfather, 1 or 2,” he continued (watch The Godfather if you haven’t right this second). “They definitely don’t know The Conversation,” another Coppola masterpiece, “and they definitely don’t know Three Days of the Condor,” the conspiracy thriller that heavily influenced Captain America: The Winter Soldier. “They definitely don’t know Chinatown,” maybe the best detective movie of all time. “They don’t know The Thomas Crown Affair. They don’t know Bonnie and Clyde. They almost certainly don’t know The Graduate, which is crazy. Everybody should know The Graduate.”

As with so many things, I agree with Ben Mankiewicz. Go watch The Graduate, bathe in Simon & Garfunkel music, get hip to plastics, and then go watch everything else he suggested. Why? ‘Cause he’s Ben Mankiewicz for God’s sake!

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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