Summer 2010: Features

Portrait of McGillicuddy

Genevieve McGillicuddy 96G

Jeremy Freeman/TCM

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Classic Act

Genevieve McGillicuddy 96G stars in the first-ever Turner Classic Movies Film Festival

By Paige P. Parvin 96G

Hollywood actor Mel Brooks is about to get his star on the Walk of Fame, and Genevieve McGillicuddy 96G needs to be there.

“I’m just going to run down the street to this Mel Brooks event,” she tells me, cracking open a Coke as we head out of the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel. “Sure,” I say casually, sauntering along after her.

“No, really,” she says, “I’m going to run.” And with that, she takes off, sprinting down Hollywood Boulevard in well-worn leather sandals, not even spilling her Coke. I am supposed to be shadowing McGillicuddy as she works this morning, so I make a brief, startled attempt to keep up, but soon abandon the effort; the sidewalk is crowded and she has a head start.

By the time McGillicuddy’s husband, Scott Henry, and I arrive at the site of Brooks’s star outside the Pig and Whistle restaurant, the area is swarming with media and onlookers and McGillicuddy has joined the VIP group near the podium. Aging funnyman Brooks is relishing the occasion, making offbeat jokes from behind gigantic sunglasses and playing to the crowd as his star is presented, memorializing him on the legendary Walk of Fame.

Afterward, as the assembly thins out and the new star is endlessly photographed, we look for McGillicuddy, but a text message reveals that she is long gone to her next commitment. Later that afternoon, Brooks will introduce The Producers, the 1968 breakthrough comedy that earned him an Oscar for best original screenplay, when it is shown to a full house at the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

Atlanta’s Turner Classic Movies (TCM) partnered with the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce to sponsor Brooks’s star as part of the premier TCM Classic Film Festival, held in April in the heart of Tinseltown. The presentation was just one of dozens of celebrity appearances and special events that studded the four-day schedule, and as managing director of the first-ever festival, McGillicuddy was forever trying to be several places at once.

When I find her a little later in the lobby of Grauman’s, she is briefing TCM’s senior vice president of programming, Charlie Tabesh, on that night’s appearance by French star Jean-Paul Belmondo, who will be interviewed before the screening of his 1960 New Wave film Breathless. McGillicuddy’s BlackBerry buzzes. “I have to take this,” she says quickly, setting off again for the Roosevelt, home base for the festival.

This is not McGillicuddy’s first film festival, but in terms of size and scope, it far eclipses anything she has organized before. It is also the biggest and most ambitious public event TCM has mounted in its fifteen years of broadcasting classic film. For the network’s fans, it’s like their favorite television channel has come to life—in Technicolor, surround sound, and 3-D.

The staff at TCM, which McGillicuddy joined in 2004, had long suspected that the network had no shortage of fans willing to get up off the couch and come to a real-life event. They had held movie screenings at Telluride and other festivals and met with warm response. As part of TCM’s brand development team, McGillicuddy worked with consumer marketing and found that there was also an impressive appetite among the TCM audience for branded merchandise such as books and DVDs.

“A couple of years ago, we began to realize that TCM had turned into a cult brand, in the same sense as Apple or Oprah,” McGillicuddy says. “Our fans are people who live a particular lifestyle and TCM is really interwoven into their everyday lives. We started to believe that maybe it was time for TCM to be more than a TV network.”

“More” became McGillicuddy’s mission for the next year and a half. She did some exploring and found that although there are festivals in Europe devoted to classic film, there was no true equivalent in the U.S., only smaller events for die-hard followers of a particular genre or director. TCM, she knew, could fill that void better than anyone else.

“We position ourselves as the authority on classic film,” she says. “In terms of presenting the scope of the various eras and genres, what TCM brings to the table is the context. Having special guests and speakers is a differentiating factor for us. The festival is about not just watching movies, but creating a mecca for the fans to gather.”

As the primary organizer of the first TCM Classic Film Festival, McGillicuddy was obliged to dust off some prior experience. After completing her master’s degree in film studies at Emory, she worked for five years at IMAGE Film and Video Center, heading educational programming and then becoming director of the center’s two major film festivals, the Atlanta Film and Video Festival and Out on Film.

McGillicuddy went on to serve as a PR and marketing director for an independent theater chain, Madstone Theaters, before landing at TCM. When network executives began to consider the idea of a major film festival, she emerged as a natural leader, guided and supported by a small, close-knit team including Tabesh, vice president of talent Darcy Hettrich, and Gina McKenzie of public relations. Three other Emory graduates played key roles—senior photographer Ted Pio Roda 94C, who helped capture the festival in pictures; Scott McGee 00G, a senior writer and producer for TCM; and Christian Pierce 01G, editor and cataloger in Turner’s image management department. The latter two, like McGillicuddy, are film studies grads.

Early on, the team also began consulting closely with Bill and Stella Pence, who cofounded the Telluride Film Festival; Bill Pence is director of film at the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College.

When it came to location, Hollywood “was always at the top of the list,” says McGillicuddy, who began scouting spots a year before the festival. “The main reason is that it just feels right. We are Hollywood, that’s our brand and the history we are associated with.”

Tabesh headed up the programming side, using an approach not so different from that he takes for the network—spotlighting a range of genres, directors, actors, and eras. And Hettrich was largely responsible for booking talent, which helped shape the movie choices, and vice versa.

“Some people are such an important part of Hollywood history that they had to be celebrated if at all possible. A perfect example is Luise Rainer, a two-time Best Actress Oscar winner who just turned one hundred this year and deserves to be rediscovered by American audiences,” Tabesh said in an interview, describing how films were selected for the festival. “That led us to The Good Earth, which was her second Oscar win and a film rarely seen on the big screen these days.”

On opening night, Grauman’s was packed for the new, digitally restored version of A Star Is Born, introduced by actor and TCM host Robert Osborne and movie star Alec Baldwin. Meanwhile, back at the Roosevelt, the legendary Esther Williams and Betty Garrett made a guest appearance beside the pool, where their 1949 movie Neptune’s Daughter was shown outdoors and the water ballet group the Aqualilies performed a tribute to Williams’s famous aquatic antics.

“We expected about a hundred people for that event, but there were more than four hundred,” McGillicuddy says. “That was the first indication that we might have higher response than we thought.”

All told, TCM estimates attendance (meaning every seat filled at every event, including repeat guests) at about twenty thousand, far outstripping expectations. While organizers were pleased with the two thousand festival passes distributed—which ranged from $500 to $1,200 and mostly went to serious fans who traveled from around the country—they could not have anticipated the additional three thousand individual ticket sales that helped fill the theaters and create the energy that infused the festival.

More than seventy celebrities appeared at the event, including Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, Eva Marie Saint, Martin Landau, Norman Lloyd, Peter Bogdanovich, and Jon Voight. TCM created special film tributes to Luise Rainer, Eli Wallach, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and the Huston dynasty—Walter, John, Tony, Anjelica, and Danny. The latter two were on hand for family films The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Rainer’s visit, in particular, was a showstopper. It began dramatically when volcanic ash from Iceland caused major airport closings in Europe and threatened to keep her grounded in England, where she now lives. That set the stage for a series of minor behind-the-scenes challenges that finally culminated in the tiny Rainer creeping slowly, but triumphantly, to the front of the Egyptian Theatre amidst deafening applause by a standing-room crowd.

When TCM’s Osborne began to interview Rainer, though, she literally wrung her wizened hands, saying she had broken her hearing aid that very day. She could not hear his questions—even when he shouted. The situation was on the verge of unraveling when an audience member handed Osborne a pad and pen. He wrote down a question, and Rainer promptly began to recount what it was like to play a Chinese peasant in The Good Earth in 1937.

“I don’t believe in acting. I believe in being,” Rainer said. “We are all alike. We need to eat, and we need to sleep, and we need each other.” Later, describing the actress Greta Garbo, Rainer turned mischievous: “She was so beautiful—everything to her feet. She had big feet.”

Helping Hettrich to orchestrate the one-hundred-year-old Rainer’s appearance was just one of the complexities McGillicuddy grappled with during the festival. Yet she was consistently cool, described by colleagues as “a machine” and “unflappable.” (“It’s actually kind of starting to tick me off,” Tabesh complained at one point.)

“Genevieve is incredibly smart, imaginative, articulate, passionate, and persistent,” says Matthew Bernstein, chair of Emory’s Department of Film Studies, who taught McGillicuddy in a number of classes. “She remains calm in the midst of chaos, and that’s an invaluable quality.”

Classic films were the main draw of the festival, but passholders also had a gathering place in Club TCM at the Roosevelt—fittingly, in the Blossom Room, the original home of the Academy Awards. Filled with plush chairs and couches, the area held guest appearances including a dialogue between critic Leonard Maltin and director Peter Bogdanovich and a screening of Joan Crawford’s home movies hosted by her grandson, Casey LaLonde.

“Club TCM was about creating the opportunity for festival guests to meet in a more relaxed setting,” McGillicuddy says. “We knew people who traveled from far away would want the chance to talk with each other, to build on the experience.”

But even eighteen months of planning couldn’t prepare the organizers for the excitement and emotion that seemed to permeate the festival audience—such as the woman who brought sixteen suitcases so that she could don vintage dress for nearly every event. At a panel discussion featuring several TCM staff members, people lined up at a microphone to express a genuine attachment for the TCM network, in between asking film-geek questions about aspect ratio and obscure actors.

“I have never wasted one minute that I’ve spent with you guys,” said one. “I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

John Gardiner, a tall gentleman in a green blazer who chatted with me at the Pig and Whistle, had come from Columbus, Ohio. “I watch movies on TCM continuously,” he said. “I grew up on old movies. I’m something of an aficionado.”

Candice Miller and husband, Kevin Markey, from Boulder, Colorado, didn’t even get a color TV for their solar-powered house until they were in their forties. When they started watching TCM, “it was like somebody plugged in a circuit,” Miller said. “This has really deepened the experience, hearing from people who know about movies. This is a very scholarly gathering where people over four or five generations have truly connected through a common interest.”

The enthusiasm didn’t stop with festival guests. “It was a joy for all of us to see so many people coming together, sharing their passion for films and enjoying behind-the-scenes stories from so many legendary stars and filmmakers who made those movies,” says Osborne. “I was particularly touched by the people, young and old, who told me that watching TCM has helped them through tough times—from unemployment and divorces to cancer treatments and pregnancies. All of that made the festival, to me, a truly extraordinary event.”

The closing night highlight was Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent science-fiction epic. The screening was the North American premiere of a new restoration, including some thirty minutes of new footage that had been lost for more than eighty years, and the film was accompanied by silent-film specialists the Alloy Orchestra.

The mood was electric as McGillicuddy stepped into the spotlight—in a rare moment of public attention—to introduce Osborne for the final time. As she thanked the audience, she hinted at the “first annual” TCM Classic Film Festival, which was all the crowd needed to hear to erupt into cheers. Osborne confirmed plans for a second festival in 2011.

“The pleasure of working on this is that it’s not just a job,” McGillicuddy says. “I have a real affinity for the network, and I love film. That’s the thrill for me—seeing a full house for a film like Metropolis and knowing I played a role.”