When film critic-historian Leonard Maltin was in junior high school, he would set his alarm to catch a rare movie on television as the rest of New Jersey slumbered.
Now 66, his professional status emblazoned on all fronts, he recalls those days with the enthusiasm of a teenager.
“I forced myself to go to bed early, woke up at 2:15 a.m. and turned on the TV — not too loud, so I wouldn’t wake up the household,” says Maltin, who appears Nov. 7 at the JAAMM Fest at the JCC.
“I’d watch some movie I couldn’t see any other way. I did that for Howard Hawks’ ‘20th Century’ with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. They never showed it at the revival theaters, and I was desperate to see it.
“Then I tried to go back to sleep so I could get up for school in the morning,” Maltin laughs. “These are the lengths I’d go to. Now we have access to almost everything.”
He was 18 when he first wrote Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, a bestseller from 1969 to 2014. An indispensable resource for film addicts, it provides over 16,000 film reviews and ratings.
“When I was doing the guide, with four stars being the highest, I was known for being stingy with those stars,” he says. “I thought that was appropriate, because if you say everything is great, nothing has any meaning.
“I reserved that four-star accolade for the best of the best of the best.”
For the last 19 years, Maltin’s taught the renowned film appreciation course at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in California. “Ron Howard took this class,” he says. “George Lucas took this class. It has a long history. I’m just the latest custodian.”
Prohibited from inserting a historical focus — “That’s not what I was hired to do” — Maltin presents old short subject clips, cartoons, serial chapters or comedy shorts to 350 students each week.
“We discuss it, and that’s how I get in my licks for film history.”
Students screen films in advance of their release, followed by Maltin’s lively interviews with actors, editors, cinematographers, writers — a star-studded universe of Oscar-winners and innovators.
Host of “Maltin on Movies” on ReelzChannel, he contributes cinematic dissections to news and entertainment venues and has authored many books, including The Best 151 Movies You’ve Never Seen, The Disney Films and Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons.
“How many movies do I watch in a year?” he reflects. “Oh gosh, I don’t know. A couple of hundred. I used to keep track but I don’t anymore.
“Very few leave me breathless. As for bad movies, in my current stage of life I’ve gotten choosier. I don’t see a lot of junk. Sometimes I do, unintentionally.”
Maltin defines an ideal film as one that is original, engaging and surprising in a positive way. In turn, he judges each movie on its own terms.
“If I’m going to see a teen comedy — which I try not to — I’d like it to be a good one,” he says. “And I’m not going to compare it to ‘King Lear.’
“I always ask myself implicitly, ‘What is this film trying to be, what is it trying to do, and does it succeed?’”
One of Maltin’s 2017 gems is “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s directorial debut. While matching his ideal film criteria, it’s galaxies removed from his perennial favorite, “Casablanca.”
In “Get Out,” an American horror film, an interracial couple visits the mysterious estate of the woman’s parents and uncovers a conspiracy concocted by older white people to steal the lives of young black adults.
“It’s wonderful,” he enthuses. “Peele wrote and directed a really ingenious film: a social satire in the guise of a creepy thriller a la ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’
“It has all the ingredients I said before. It goes in such unexpected directions, makes you laugh and think — a rare combination these days.”
Maltin says the majority of current cinematic output fails to live up to films of the 1930s and 1940s.
“But that’s a generalization. They made a lot of crummy films in the ‘30s and ‘40s. For every ‘Maltese Falcon’ and ‘Casablanca,’ there were at least a dozen mediocre films, or worse.
“But they had a better grip on storytelling in the studio era. In those days, a lot more fiction was being written. Also, hundreds of great plays appeared on Broadway every season, instead of 30.
“Hollywood was able to draw upon a huge writing pool that is no longer in existence.”
Maltin, a great fan of character actors, regrets their diminishment in the age of stark realism.
“Hollywood was overstocked with character actors and supporting players in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” he says. “Studios counted on these people to add life and color to a scene or movie. And that category of actor has all but disappeared.
“Today’s films on the whole are trying to be more realistic. They don’t want character types. Something is gained, because the result is more believable. But you lose some of the pure entertainment value.”
Of all the films Maltin’s seen from boyhood to the present, “Casablanca” rings his approval bells the loudest — even though the writers didn’t have an ending until the last minute.
“There is always an exception that proves the rule,” he concedes.
“I tend to admire films that are directed by the same person who wrote them, whether it’s in the past — Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder — or the present — Alexander Payne, Mike Nichols.
“But ‘Casablanca’ broke that mold too, because it’s not a one-person film. It’s a studio film; a collaborative effort.
“Sometimes the stars align, right? In this case, they aligned perfectly.”
Most of the young filmmakers Maltin interviews point to American cinema of the 1970s as their touchstone: Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg.
“Think of the success of ‘Easy Rider,’” the low-budget phenomenon starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson. “It was made way off the grid. The studio bosses said, ‘Well, if these are the kinds of movies kids want to see, we don’t know how to make ‘em. Let’s hire other young people who do.’
“The counter culture changed the fore and opened the door to all this extraordinary talent. By the end of the 1970s, Hollywood had regrouped and co-opted a lot of these talented people.”
A raconteur of details, back stories and the raison d’être of any given film, Maltin is less certain about the genesis of his own fascination with the art form.
“I can’t explain why films grabbed me,” he admits. “I can only tell you that I’m a child of the first television generation. When I was growing up, television was a living museum of the movies.
“I saw Laurel and Hardy every day of my life. I watched ‘The Little Rascals,’ originally called ‘Our Gang,’ every day of my life. I watched cartoons from the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s every single day.
“They just mesmerized me.”
After school he rushed home to catch “The Mickey Mouse Club.” He also idolized Walt Disney’s show — magical Sunday evening fare that inspired him to buy a Davy Crockett cap.
And don’t forget those late-night movie classics that deprived him of sleep but transformed wonder into a masterful career.
Leonard Maltin was born Friday, Dec. 18, 1950, in Manhattan, a glittering nexus for film lovers “and makes me a native New Yorker, a lifetime credential.”
Raised in idyllic Teaneck, NJ, by parents Jacqueline and Aaron Isaac Maltin, he walked to elementary school, rode this bike to junior high and spent hours at the library three or four blocks away.
“The best part was I could hop on a bus and be in Manhattan in a half hour,” he says. “When I was 12, my parents started letting me do this with a buddy.
“I had the advantage of being in the greatest city in the world and a mecca for cinema. It had revival theaters, MOMA — one of the best film archives that showed movies every day.
“I benefited from all of that.”
Maltin describes his family’s Judaism as “not terribly religious. I was a Bar Mitzvah. We never had any ham or bacon in the house. I guess I am what is commonly referred to as a cultural Jew.”
By 15, the prodigious cinephile wrote for “Classic Images” and edited and published his own fanzine Film Fan Monthly, a tribute to Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Maltin graduated NYU with a journalism degree and penned articles for film publications, newspapers and magazines.
He met fellow film buff and producer Alice Tlusty at university. “She was 30 and I was 23. Back then you called them cradle robbers,” he laughs. “Now you call them cougars.”
Their marriage, now in its 42nd year, is a genuine union of mind, heart and movies.
When the Maltins moved to Los Angeles over three decades ago, they immediately went shul-hopping.
“We were looking for a synagogue, primarily for the High Holidays,” he says. “A friend recommended a service at the auditorium of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,” the grandiose host of the Oscar ceremonies.
(The congregation borrowing the facilities was aptly named the Synagogue of the Performing Arts.)
“The night we went to services, Theodor Bikel sat right behind us,” Maltin says. “Hearing him chant the prayers sent goose bumps up and down our necks.”
By this time, a schism had ruptured in the congregation following the hiring of new rabbi David Baron.
“The congregation split and we went with David. He did our daughter’s baby naming ceremony 31 years ago and officiated at her Bat Mitzvah.”
Now named the Temple of the Arts, the synagogue convenes at the Wilshire Theater on Wilshire Blvd., a former movie palace designed by renowned theater architect S. Charles Lee.
“It turns out that he used to be S. Charles Levy,” Maltin adds. “In those days, architecture was not a wide open field for Jews, so he anglicized his name.”
The Maltins are still very much in love.
“We hold hands when we go to the movies,” he says. “We love watching movies together. We love doing everything together. We like being in the same room together!
“Like any good marriage, it requires work, communication. Sometimes you have your ups and downs. But we have prevailed — and we love each other.”
Traditionally, savoring films entailed sitting in front of gigantic screen with an audience of strangers. Today we DVD, live stream or squeeze “larger-than-life” into a smartphone.
What once was a communal act has assumed a solo feel for many.
“The best way to see a movie is the traditional way, with a simpatico audience in the dark,” Maltin says. “People avoid theaters now because they don’t readily find that experience.
“I go to movies on off hours so I don’t encounter people who won’t stop talking — those pesky intrusions. And if somebody’s talking, I change seats.
“My wife persuaded me to buy an 80-inch TV screen. I thought that was excessive, but she insisted. And she was right. It makes watching a film at home that much more enjoyable.”
Maltin, the indomitable purveyor of other artists’ work, confesses that he too had the filmmaking bug.
“As a kid I made 8-millimeter films,” he says. “The problem was that the films I envisioned in my head were the Hollywood variety. You can’t do that with your buddies and an 8-millimeter silent camera.
“I could never scale down my thinking to fit our capabilities. It was too frustrating, so I stopped.”
Years later, a screenwriting friend in New York suggested they should write films together. Maltin agreed.
“We came up with a couple of film treatments,” he says, “and since we both traveled to Los Angeles periodically, we had conversations with executives.
“They weren’t the kind of guys you saw in film satires like Robert Altman’s ‘The Player.’ They were intelligent, thoughtful; they actually read our material.
“They would make suggestions: ‘Well, what if we change this?’ And I naively thought that if we made those changes, they’d want to make our movie.”
For Maltin, this ostensible good will turned out to be a fantasy akin to Walt Disney’s “Fantasia.”
“I didn’t realize these people were just filling an hour on their calendar,” he says. “It wasn’t about producing a movie. After the fourth meeting, I said to myself, ‘I can’t do this.’”
Maltin’s background is in New York-based freelance writing, an exciting and outcome-oriented arena. “You’d pitch an article to a magazine editor, and at the end of the pitch he says, ‘Yeah, give me a thousand words by next Friday and we’ll pay you $500,’or ‘No, it’s not for us,’” he recalls.
“There was a conclusion. Out in Los Angeles, it’s just spinning wheels!
“I told my friend that I didn’t have the stomach for this. But it gave me a much deeper appreciation for those who do endure that process.
“They are so passionate about getting their movie made — and my hat is off to them.”
Maltin had the enviable task of hosting the 60th reunion of the original Mickey Mouse Club in 2015.
“They were all there,” he exclaims, rattling off names that appeared on iconic white T-shirts in the 1950s, “except poor Annette” Funicello, who died of MS in 2013.
Leonard Maltin’s journey, like the title of one of Frank Capra’s masterpieces, epitomizes a wonderful life.
“I’ve been able to realize so many childhood dreams and meet so many of my boyhood idols,” he says.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky — incredibly lucky.”
Andrea Jacobs may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2017 by the Intermountain Jewish News