As the face, voice and soul of Turner Classic Movies, Robert Osborne did more for classic film than anyone since Hollywood’s Golden Era. When he passed away this spring, devotees consoled themselves with assurances that Joan and Bette were waiting to welcome their beloved ambassador to the great green room in the sky. Now TCM is celebrating Osborne’s legacy with one of the most appropriate of all film tropes—the comeback—and applying it to one of the cornerstones of their schedule, Summer Under the Stars.
Summer Under the Stars is TCM’s august (and August) tradition of devoting one day exclusively to one legendary movie star. It was genius marketing, as it allowed for lazy vacation days to be broken up or completely taken over by classic film, programmed with as much scrutiny and focus as Edith Head used when deducing which star had cheated on their diet. When it launched in 2003, it gave classic film fans one fabulous reason after another to avoid the outdoors during the dog days. But eventually, SUTS became rote: It quit being a vacation-within-a-vacation and became just one more thing to check out and then check off as being disinteresting, poorly executed and baffling—who wants 24 hours of Walter Pidgeon?
But this year’s Summer Under the Stars has been rejuvenated with stars you’d gladly spend a whole week with. Here are our choices from among the reliable classics, underseen gems, hidden delights and occasional misfires. Plan your sick days accordingly.
Marilyn Monroe (August 1) The season starts with no less of a throw down than Marilyn Monroe, va-vooming through such classics as How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot. If you’ve never seen Marilyn access her dark side, her turn as an unhappy wife in the rarely screened melodrama Niagara reveals how much more there was to Norma Jean than a wiggle and a giggle. In Bus Stop, Monroe delivers both the veneer and depth of a floozy in a performance that should have earned Oscars recognition.
Lon Chaney (August 3) Modern audiences sometimes hesitate at silent film, but no movie lover’s education is complete without The Man of a Thousand Faces. The Phantom of the Opera and Laugh, Clown, Laugh showcase the legend who, in many ways, invented screen acting. Chaney performed under makeup so complex it was a mask, manipulating the distances created by disguise and lens to intensify intimacy with the audience. In the way of the day, some of those performances are unfortunately cross-racial, but that dishonorable aspect of Hollywood history is as important to acknowledge as the contributions of film’s first great horror star.
Gene Kelly (August 5) Gene Kelly parlayed signature athleticism to one of the most impressive resumes—and asses—in film musicals. He charms Judy Garland in Summer Stock as a warm-up to fetishizing sailors on both coasts and for all genders with Sinatra in Anchors Aweigh and On the Town. Singin’ in the Rain is widely regarded as the best American musical from the dream factory, but don’t discount Kelly in the ponderous courtroom drama Inherit the Wind, where his quality as an actor, fairly described as musical, leavens the film against Spencer Tracy’s gravitas.
Robert Mitchum (August 6) Forget about getting anything accomplished when Robert Mitchum takes over the day. He sips his morning coffee alongside swooning Janet Leigh in the sentimental Christmas flick Holiday Affair, moves on to parry with Jane Russell in His Kind of Woman and rounds out the day with some mental hopscotch with Jane Greer in the noir classic, Out of the Past. Mitchum’s iconic evil preacher rules The Night of the Hunter, but the discovery here is Thunder Road, a borderline-exploitation flick that places Mitchum in the driver’s seat of a jalopy running moonshine in a downtrodden world of inept revenuers, sniveling punks and Keely Smith.
Sandra Dee (August 9) Hardly any movie star is more ingratiating than Sandra Dee. With her blonde bubble cut and personality by turns twinkly and steely, Dee bridged the transition between the clean-cut ’50s and the sex-kitten ’60s by being a little bit of both. Gidget ushered an entire genre of beach flicks for which every drive-in moviegoer owes Dee a bonfire. In Imitation of Life she held her own against no less a triumvirate of divas than Lana Turner, Juanita Moore and Douglas Sirk. As with A Summer Place, Dee anchored serious melodramas with an approachability that allowed the shattering of taboos.
Elvis Presley (August 16) If anything says summer, it’s go-go dancing with The King. Whether he’s thrusting pelvises with his second-greatest leading lady Shelley Fabares (Clambake, Spinout) or his greatest, Mighty Ann-Margret (Viva Las Vegas), it is impossible not to smile when a schlocky Elvis flick is playing. Still, in Jailhouse Rock, a serious actor waiting to happen is evident, even as the legend is clear, present and ready—almost—to overshadow the talent. If he’d been cast, as originally intended, in Thunder Road (see above), Elvis may well have died an Oscar nominee.
Rosalind Russell (August 17) You may not want or need to be Gay For A Day, but Roz has no other plans for you. Both The Women and Auntie Mame are cornerstones of camp. Russell’s Mame is a boundless spirit, an ur-faghag teaching us all about the profound worldview of fabulousness; in The Women, Roz dons one outlandish drag after another while launching a two-hour avalanche of cutting one-liners at every bitch in Hollywood from Joan Crawford to George Cukor to Adrian to a brace of vicious Yorkshire terriers. It just proves that style and smarts were the true source of Russell’s star power, from the brutal perfectionist of Craig’s Wife to the skilled, determined writers in His Girl Friday and My Sister Eileen.
Elizabeth Taylor (August 31) The greatest movie star wraps the month because Elizabeth Taylor knew that, after herself, there is nothing left for an audience except to leave them wanting more. Taylor delivered signature roles of passion’s illusion and aftermath in Butterfield 8 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but, beyond the white satin slip, she created one of filmdom’s most astute self-portraits in The VIPs. Taylor’s free-spirited artist is the perfect guide into fading summer, as she presides over breathtaking Monterey scenery in Vincent Minnelli’s drama The Sandpiper.
Want more? Set the DVR, order a pizza and don’t forget some legal:
Noir classics Murder My Sweet and Key Largo: Claire Trevor, August 4
The women-in-prison drama, Caged: Eleanor Parker, August 7
Dance through art deco with Top Hat: Ginger Rogers, August 11
Bending the rules in Ladies They Talk About, Baby Face and Ball of Fire (but somehow not Double Indemnity): Barbara Stanwyck, August 13
Swinging 60s London in Blow Up: Vanessa Redgrave, August 14
Jessica Fletcher shows her wicked side in The Harvey Girls and The Manchurian Candidate: Angela Lansbury, August 19
Dramas and thrillers en Francais with La Ronde and Diabolique: Simone Signoret, August 25
From song-and-dance man to original gangster in Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Roaring Twenties: James Cagney, August 26
Dig comedic turns in Blazing Saddles, 1941: Slim Pickens, August 28
Finally, are you thirsty?
In interviews, Robert Osborne shared that his cocktail of choice was a vodka martini or iced vodka, with his favorite snack being blue cheese on a cracker. In his honor, here is our original tribute cocktail, created by your author, Eric Diesel. Build a brace of these and salute Robert Osborne’s legacy. We are not responsible for Bette Davis’s wrath if you don’t.
Vodka martinis should be balanced and velvety—hence, despite James Bond’s edict, stir them. Appropriately, this martini is Nick-and-Nora ratio: 3:1.
3 shots quality vodka
1 shot quality dry vermouth
2 blue-cheese stuffed olives
–Place two coupe glasses in the freezer.
–Place six ice cubes into a cocktail shaker or martini pitcher.
–Measure the vodka and the vermouth into the shaker/pitcher in that order.
–Stir the martini vigorously without shaking, until the vessel is too cold to touch.
–Remove the glasses from the freezer and divide the martini between them.
–Garnish each martini with a blue-cheese olive on a cocktail pick. Serve immediately.