Leonard Maltin discusses his autobiography Starstruck

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Leonard Maltin really needs no introduction. If you’ve ever read a film review, or listened to a film podcast or watched Entertainment Tonight then you will have probably have seen or heard Leonard Maltin. His career in film criticism is legendary.

Now, he has written a book about his life. Starstruck takes us through Maltin’s years as a young film critic who recognised a way to break into the industry onto his friendships with many actors/writers/directors through the decades and his appearances at Entertainment Tonight and Disney. Maltin has had a career, and life, that many of us can only dream of. Thankfully he has put much of it down in his new book and I was lucky enough to speak to Leonard about it:

Why choose now to release your autobiography?

Well, I guess the question to me is: Why not? I didn’t have any other pressing subjects on my mind and quite frankly it came about because of the pandemic and it gave me something to do. It gave me something to occupy myself. It was a reason to get up in the morning and head to the computer straight away. So in that sense the timing was perfect.

Did you always have it at the back of your mind that you would eventually release an autobiography?

I can’t say… it was probably in my mind, floating around in my brain somewhere. But I never really considered it a goal. I’m not a journal keeper by nature. But I was smart enough to make journal entries about special days, special events in my life. If I had not done that then I could not have written the chapters on Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart and a couple of others as thoroughly or as accurately as I did.

What I found interesting about this book is that it isn’t a “How to” about film criticism. It is actually about your life. Was there ever a point where you thought about going towards a more critical analysis book? Or did you just want to tell your stories?

I just wanted to tell my stories. I don’t know that I could write more than a perfunctory essay on how to be a film critic. The very thought sends shivers down my spine [laughs]. The things I learnt are mostly mundane but practical. Things like, always have a good lead, always know the audience you are writing for. That is key. Also, know the format favoured by the publication or website for whom you are writing. I used to tell young people who would ask me for advice – find any place to be published. Every community had a weekly shopper or throw away magazine that was mostly comprised of advertising. Papers like that were desperate for copy to legitimize themselves as a publication. So that’s where I recommended people go to get a by-line. The experience you can get for writing for these undistinguished journals is having a deadline to meet, knowing your audience, knowing your editor and being subjected to the same problems and challenges as someone working for a top newspaper. They would give you a word count and you couldn’t exceed the word count. Sometimes they would give you the headline and sometimes not. All of these things, and I still believe this, are good experience for anyone wanting to pursue this as a possible vocation.

Great advice. Going back to your book. After reading it I feel that you are, after all this time working in the film and TV industry, still are a fan who has managed to make a living out of it. Is that correct?

That is my own description of it, yes.

Do you ever get bored of it?

I can’t remember the last time I was bored. It rarely happens. Sometimes it happens during movies, which is very unfortunate [laughs]. I teach a weekly class at University of Southern California and we show films and have filmmakers there. We have question and answer sessions afterwards. I tell my students on the first night of the semester that you can learn as much from someone who’s just made a bad movie as someone who has made a good one. The first thing you learn is: They don’t know it’s bad. We try not to book bad movies but sometimes it happens. But I’m never bored. I’m always curious. After viewing a movie there are still valid and interesting questions to be asked.

Speaking of questions. I’d like to ask you about The Little Rascals. This show clearly had a bit impact on yourself as a kid and continued through life. You have even written a book about them. But for those of us who don’t know The Little Rascals how would you describe them?

It is a series of short comedies bearing the hallmarks of other Hal Roach studio comedies that you may well know, like Laurel & Hardy or Charlie Chase. They used the same stock company of players [actors] and background music and having the same kind of low-key charm. Except it is populated by kids.

So how do we view these short films nowadays? As they don’t appear to be on any streaming sites.

There is a company here in The States called Classic Flix that has just begun releasing them on Blu Ray and doing the most extraordinary restoration work. The first two volumes are for sale now. If you go to their website you can see a before and after comparison of quality that is really rather remarkable. I don’t know how someone would react watching them as an adult, for the first time as an adult because here in The States they were a staple of daily television for many, many years. You couldn’t not know them. They were inescapable.

Speaking of inescapable, I have to ask you about your appearance on the original Star Wars VHS tapes.

Ah well, that’s a fluke. A lucky happenstance that came about through no doing of my own. I got a call from 20th Century Fox Home Video asking if I would be interested in interviewing George Lucas for the intros to the original trilogy. Why on Earth would I say No to that? [laughs] It ended up being not one shoot but two. The second one at Skywalker Ranch. To this day when I see people approaching me, people of a certain age, I can almost guarantee they are going to say to me “I used to watch you when I ran the George Lucas trilogy.” They had an enormous impact. People either say “I used to watch you all the time whenever I watched Stars Wars” or “I used to fast forward through you” [laughs]. Because those tapes, I think, remain the only legal way of watching the original trilogy uncut and intact as they played in theatres upon their original release, many people still keep those VHS tapes on their shelves.

I still have them on my shelf. Were you aware, at the time of release, that they were being put onto the tapes sold around the world?

I didn’t give a lot of thought to… I wasn’t thinking globally yet [laughs]. I didn’t think about the audience. I just thought about what a shame it was I didn’t get a penny of residuals [laughs] They sold 25 million copies. You know, the very first edition of The Movie Guide was aimed at the movie lover who was at home to watch the early morning movies or the later afternoon movies or the primetime movies or the late-night movies or the late late night movies. Movies were ubiquitous in the early days of late-night television especially on independent TV stations. In the New York Metropolitan area there were seven television stations, which was a lot. Smaller cities had maybe four. The whole idea back then was that the daily newspaper had daily listings for the television and a little one-line description for each show, and that included the movies. So the concept of that book [The Movie Guide] was to give you more information. As well as opinions, but mainly information about the film to help decide whether you wanted to see it or not. I never dreamt it would be used by programmers for film festivals and archives and even television stations.

It was a very accessible guide and you broke down all the information needed, and this was before the age of the internet.

That’s right. Long before [laughs]. I was seen as a fingertip guy. A sort of handy companion piece to the inevitable encyclopaedia that was going to be produced by someone. But never was. There were several such attempts but they were out of the price range of the average person. Only libraries could really afford them. That was the AFI catalogue and the multi-volume Film Encyclopaedia by Richard Baer. The first volume was $125. It was out of range of the average citizen.

So did that help you when looking at who your Movie Guide should be aimed towards?

I had nothing to do with that. It was handed to me on a platter. I was introduced at age seventeen to an editor of Signet Books, a leading paperback publisher, and he had in his hand at the time Steven Scheuer’s book Movies On T.V. and he was determined to produce a rival book. We knew our target audience was the smarter-than-average home film buff who wanted more than they could get in the one-line listings in the daily newspapers. As the book went on, and I started getting mail from readers, I learnt that we had a much smarter, much savvier audience than I ever envisioned.

I know the book ceased publication several years ago. However, do you think there is still a market for a physical book like The Movie Guide?

Well, theoretically yes. But in practical terms, no. One of the reasons it expired was the plummeting sales. In fact, that was the main reason it expired. It was costing money to do because by that time a staff. A very loyal and tenacious staff of people. None of whom worked full-time. But all of whom contributed their particular expertise to the project. We just couldn’t afford to keep it running.

There is a section in your book about conventions. You had been going to conventions before they became these huge global events. What is it about going to these events that you love so much?

Well, everything. Making friends and maintaining those friendships over a span of years. It was literally living out your life with these friends that you would only see once a year. Also it meant you met new people as well. There is the ability to see rare films. Seeing them with a sympatico audience.

About ten years the pop culture conventions exploded. I’m taking about places like San Diego Comic-Con and New York Comic-Con amongst others. Were you surprised at the eruption of these? Or did you see it building up to it?

Had I given it a serious thought I would have guessed it would build to that. The first time I went to one in Los Angeles I felt like my whole life was passing before my eyes, decade by decade. Hollywood movies of the 1940s and TV shows of the 1950s and memorable shows of the 1960s, all in one room. It was… I don’t want to say overwhelming because I don’t want to exaggerate, but it was daunting. Most of them were there selling their autograph photos. There was Gordon Scott, he was the first movie Tarzan I ever saw, and I wanted to go over and say “You were my first Tarzan.” But I wasn’t sure that he would care at all [laughs]. And I would have felt funny doing that and not paying the required $10 or $15 for an 8 x 10 [laughs].

You and your daughter Jessie host “Leonard Maltin, You’re Wrong!” panels at conventions where people can tell you that you got a review completely wrong and actually the film is really good or vice versa. I’ve been to these panels and they are enormous amounts of fun. Where did the idea come from?

It came straight from Jessie. It came straight from her and I recognised a promising idea when I heard it.

It’s always nice to tell a critic “You are completely wrong about this film”. Has anyone really taken you to task over a film? Maybe got quite angry about it? I guessing nobody has but you just never know.

You haven’t read my mail [laughs]. In the early days of The Movie Guide people could only communicate by what we call now snail mail. Oh, I heard from people. I heard from people about Blade Runner. About Taxi Driver. There are a couple of somewhat notorious reviews in the book and nobody was shy about expressing their opinions. Fortunately at that panel everyone has gotten into the proper spirit of it. They can take jabs at me, but this is not a blood sport.

Going back to you saying you saw actors you loved at conventions through the years and also inviting filmmakers to come to your USC film night, do you still get starstruck these days?

Well that is the title of my book and I think it is an accurate description of my state of mind. Yes, I still get starstruck. Something would be amiss if I didn’t. There are many levels of admiration. From having had a crush on a beautiful actress to worshipping at the feet of a great writer/director. The trick is, not to let it show.

But that is difficult when you have been a fan for many years.

I’m not sure I get tongue tied, but…. The most recent one I can give you is when I interviewed Brad Pitt at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in 2020. My nervousness was caused by the fact that I didn’t really know how he would be. Only at the last minute, after he had won several awards and made amusing speeches, did I learn that he has a great sense of humour. Including about himself. Had I known that early on I wouldn’t have worried so much before the event.

In your book you talk about many people in the film world that you admire. So I’m going to put you on the spot and ask: Which actors/actresses do you think changed acting?

Oh Boy! All my answers will be fairly obvious. Spencer Tracy, so many people cite him as the first to adopt the naturalistic style of acting. As everyone will cite, Brando, for taking it to the next level. I have nothing original to offer [laughs]. I will say that when the [Humphrey] Bogart revival took place in the late 1960s/early 1970s, I thought the next person to be adopted by that audience would be John Garfield. It did not come to pass.

Why do you think that didn’t happen?

I guess because he didn’t have a signature film as great as Casablanca and/or The Maltese Falcon. He had some very good movies. None of them had the enduring appeal though. I still find them appealing though. They never quite made that turn though. It’s also a reminder that very little in showbusiness can be predicted or contrived. It either happens or it doesn’t. If you or I have the secret formulae behind that then we can make a lot of money.

I’m more than happy to split the profits with you [laughs].

Starstruck: My Unlikely Road To Hollywood is now available from all good book providers.

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