“Is this about you or me?”
That one question changed how then 13-year-old Leonard Maltin conducted interviews with people. And for more than 50 years, it has led him to landing conversations with many of the biggest names in Hollywood. In fact, he’s become so famous that two-time Oscar nominee Will Smith introduced himself to Maltin.
Maltin’s new book, Starstruck: My Unlikely Road to Hollywood, is his own personal memoir that chronicles his journey from when he met his first movie star, Buster Keaton, to where he is now. Everything from the long-tenured run he had with publishing his annual Movie Guide, his 30-year stint with Entertainment Tonight, as well as some personal stories such as how he and his wife met are all talked about in the book. You can read my review of it here.
I recently had the opportunity to conduct a 30-minute, over-the-phone interview with Mr. Maltin. We discussed the book, who he thinks will be the next batch of film critics to inspire the next generation, and, aside from Walt Disney, which other person he wishes he could interview. Check out the full transcript below.
When did you decide to write your memoir, and what made you decide that now was the time to release it?
I was noodling around for a new project, what to do next. I had toyed with doing this before, but it seemed like the right moment for a number of reasons. One is I had gotten diagnosed with Parkinson’s seven years ago. That makes you somewhat reflective. It seemed like a good moment to look backward. And there was this pandemic, and what to do to fill the time. This was really an opportune timing for me because I work at home normally. But this gave me something specific to get up and go to my desk and work on every day.
I love how every single word is written like you’re so excited to tell your story. When you talk about meeting people, you do it in an elegant tone. A lot of people I know, or a lot of journalists I’ve watched, will do it in more of a bragging fashion. When it comes to talking elegantly about meeting people, does it come naturally to you, or did you have to mentally prepare yourself to be more elegant about it?
I can’t give you an objective answer. I take it as a nice compliment with what you are saying. I hate braggarts [laughs], and I hate people who think they are the story. I hate journalists who think they are the story.
I can agree with you on that. And I do love that part in your book where you do talk about the person who asked, “Is this about you or me?” How long did it take you after that interview to make it to where you made it less about you and more about them when it came to preparing for interviews?
That afternoon [laughs]. Truly. But when that radio host said that to me, he stopped me in my tracks. I was mortified. I’m 13 years old [at the time]. I got nailed. But he did me a lifelong favor.
That is true. He gave you some lifelong lessons in that interview.
It’s paid me dividends.
You’ve done this for so many years, and you’ve met so many people. How long does it usually take you to prepare an interview with people you admire or people who have an iconic background?
Well, it all depends. When I had to interview Charles M. Schulz, I did virtually no research. I spent my whole life reading Peanuts and reading about him. So it was all in my head. When the phone rings at an unusual hour, my wife answers – we still have a landline, believe it or not – and she answers and sometimes she just says, “Who died?” Because CBS Radio News in New York had me on speed dial. I have woken up from a deep sleep and rattled off a series of facts and opinions about Lauren Bacall, for instance, without having to check a book. Some of this stuff is so ingrained in me that it happens almost organically. Most times, though, it requires at least a little bit of refreshing the brain.
A lot of it just comes naturally to you when someone calls you to talk about an actor who just passed or if someone wants to do a research project on someone.
Many people in my generation look up to people like you and looked up to people like Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel as the icons of film criticism and the people that we aspire to be in terms of pursuing film criticism careers. Who do you think will be the critics that inspire the next generation?
Oh, well, there are a lot of talented writers and critics out there. And I don’t have time to read too many of them on a regular basis. But I’m very impressed with Justin Chang of the [Los Angeles] Times, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, Glenn Kenny (RogerEbert.com, The New York Times), and my longtime favorite Todd McCarthy (The Hollywood Reporter) just to name a few.
In the book, you mention that you only got 10 minutes with Paul Newman, and so you had to make an impression on him. In those 10 minutes, you did impress him, but it’s still an incredibly short amount of time to speak to someone. Which other actors or people do you wish you had more time to interview with?
Oh, well, he’s the obvious choice. Any time I was on a junket for Entertainment Tonight (E.T.), time was of the essence. And you never don’t want more time. [laughs] There are times when you are on a junket and you are told you have to interview certain people, and I’m looking at my watch. [laughs] Anybody with… I don’t really have a good answer.
OK, and that’s fine. With the junkets, you only get about five minutes or so with each person, correct? I’ve seen some junkets where they only go about that long.
Well, with E.T. having the clout that I presume they still have, but they had especially when I was there, Good Morning, Des Moines got four minutes, E.T. got 10. We did better than the smaller outlets, but never time enough. And sometimes, there would be a nice occasion where the star or interviewee would say, “No, let’s talk a little bit more.” And they upset the apple cart by intruding on the schedule.
You mentioned how you wrote this book because of the pandemic and you had more time. During this time, a lot has changed in the movie industry. One of those things is now, theaters have a limited window between being released [in theaters] and hitting home video or streaming services. Or some movies get released to streaming the same day they get released to theaters. Where do you see the movie industry going from here? Do you think it’ll stay the same or will it change in the years to come?
I think change is already here. The question is whether there will be further change and how drastic those changes will be and whether it’s a cyclical phenomenon where the pendulum will swing back again. I know that my wife and I, I’ll confess, have gotten lazy on several recent Warner Bros. releases and watched them at home on HBO Max. We didn’t feel like getting dressed, going out, driving, and parking to see Cry Macho, for example. These films didn’t seem to demand the big screen experience.
Yeah, you have to pick and choose which ones deserve more of a bigger screen setting as opposed to those that can be seen on the small screen and still have the same experience.
Ever since movies have been made, there are always a few every year that can be considered overlooked. It’s really based on objective opinion and everything like that. But now with the domination of streaming like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, and others that have their own movie titles, do you think there are more movies that can be considered overlooked now than there were in the past?
Oh, sure. Last year, for instance, Universal wasn’t sure where it was going to land in the debate of how to release a movie. They released what was one of their biggest attractions of the year, News of the World, in kind of an indecisive and hesitant manner. I think it opened in theaters on Christmas Day, except for, virtually, there were no theaters open.
That’s true, except for drive-ins.
Then it went fairly soon to video-on-demand, so it never really got a proper release. It was a major film based on a bestselling book starring Tom Hanks and directed by Paul Greengrass, and that film deserved a better break. As did Let Him Go, a film with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane – another good movie. So, yes, there’s still, even with the spotlight on the situation and with the overall slate of releases, some films get lost in the shuffle.
And it’s rather unfortunate because there are so many great movies I tell my friends about and a lot of them will say they’ve never heard of it before. And then it ends up being on a streaming service and I tell them, “Get that streaming service, get that move right away!”
I think the issues are largely the same. Some films attract a lot of attention, some films get major media play, and some films get that all-important word of mouth, which is still the most important form of advertising ever invented. And there are just as it was a decade ago, some films break through the barriers because of people telling their friends, “You gotta see this.” And other films don’t, because people aren’t talking about them.
A lot of that starts at film festivals and then it gets to people hearing about it at those festivals and then going to other places. Do you think social media has helped improve word-of-mouth recognition and getting more movies recognized if social media wasn’t around?
It’s not an opinion, it’s a fact.
[laughs] That is true. Now last night, I was trying to go through your book again and calculate how many people you mention that you’ve interviewed in the book and then counting how many Oscars that they’ve won in the past. I got to about page 55 and totaled about 24 Oscars. I was wondering if you’ve ever gone through the list of people you’ve interviewed and calculated where it equals to this many Oscars, this many Grammys, this many Tonys, and so on?
No, I haven’t. I have not. That wasn’t my motivating factor. That wasn’t my motivating factor in getting the interview; that was just icing on the cake. [laughs]
I think that would be interesting though to just kind of look back at your career and see what that calculates to. Now, I listened to the interview that you did with Henry Winkler for Maltin on Movies, your podcast, which was a great interview. This was back in 2019, and he said, at that time, he only now feels like he has hit where he expected himself to be when he first started out. You started out at 13 with your career. When did you feel like you hit the peak of your career, or do you still feel like you’re going for that moment in your life?
Well, I don’t feel like I’m finished up. I still enjoy what I do, and I have just enough of a competitive streak in me to want to keep up with my colleagues and want to remain relevant.
What was your greatest motivating factor to start interviewing people?
Well, originally, the excitement of doing it. I waited at a stage door to interview an actor I watched on Broadway. It was cool, and it still is cool.
Would you say that is still your motivating factor now to continue interviewing?
Well, yes. Doing a weekly podcast with my daughter now gives us another impetus, which is filling empty time-slots and making our deadline.
Since you have been in the industry for so long, compare the film criticism industry…
Ah, sorry, I stumbled there.
I’m teasing you; it’s barely an industry. [laughs]
[laughs] Do you think it’s more competitive or less competitive now to get into the film criticism world, and what advice would you give to those that are looking to enter film criticism?
Well, the advice I’ve given for years needs somewhat of a revision because of the internet and the access people have now when it comes to reaching an audience. For years, I’ve told people to look around and, I think this is still true, in many or most communities, there’s a weekly giveaway newspaper that is mostly advertising but sometimes has local news as well. They need copy; they need to justify their existence as a publication and not just be a series of ads. They need some content, and if you’re willing to work for free or for a coupon for a Happy Meal or something, they’d be happy to accept your copy, and then you can wind up in print. And not only do you wind up in print; you have to deal with certain, practical realities like word count, making a deadline, pleasing your editor, sometimes crafting a headline, or making sure they don’t write an embarrassing headline. In principle, that remains as it always was. But now, of course, there’s the internet, where you can create your own blog, create your own website, and be your own editor – which isn’t necessarily a good thing. I mean, everybody needs a good editor. Nobody needs a bad editor, but everybody needs a good one. My daughter is now my editor, and she’s good.
Side note: Congratulations on becoming a grandfather soon.
Oh, thank you, thank you.
When I and a lot of other people grew up, they read your Movie Guide. You mentioned before that you didn’t review direct-to-video releases, because there were so many of them being released at that time. You phased out reviews of TV movies by the mid-2000s or so. If the Movie Guide had continued today with all the [viewing] options available, how would you determine what goes in the Movie Guide and what does not?
Fortunately, I don’t have to make that decision, because it would be difficult to do so. With every new outlet, there’s the opportunity and incentive to make a movie “for that medium.” And whether you like it or not, it’s some sort of filmed entertainment. Therefore, it’s subject to review. But that’s not an imperative; it’s still an editorial choice. So, I don’t know. I don’t know how we would handle the latest influx of films. Steven Spielberg said a few years ago, “If it’s not on the big screen, it’s not a movie.” And I wonder if he still feels that way.
I think he just signed a contract with Netflix recently, too.
Yes, he did. You don’t want to bite the hand that’s feeding you.
That is true. So, it’s safe to say his opinion changed.
You mention it in the book, and I think you mentioned it online recently, your USC class, you’re holding it via Zoom.
Oh, not anymore?
When I wrote those words, it was true. But as of this current fall semester, I am back in person talking to living people in an auditorium, which I am very glad to be doing.
Wonderful! Yeah, definitely can’t beat that in-person experience.
What was the experience for you having to hold it via Zoom? Tell me about how you had to adapt to it and what you learned from that format and trying to replicate it to the best that you could to having it in person.
I don’t think the students got cheated out of much. If I was interviewing a filmmaker, if they had asked a question, they would go full screen. So, the other students see exactly who they are, and when the filmmaker answers, he or she goes full screen. Then there may be some residual back and forth. That’s even more intimate than even doing it in an auditorium.
I think the students didn’t suffer very much. I did, during my opening lecture, because I didn’t feel connected to them as individuals. A friend of mine who had done some teaching on Zoom said, “Refer to their name. It’s in the lower corner of each box.” And I said, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” I tried to personalize it. “Well, Gerald…” you know. And it was just a little something to make it more personal.
But you were able to accomplish everything you could with the options available to you.
Yeah, we got through it. The guy who books the films I get for my class is very agile and very tenacious came through with good bookings. We showed actually quite a few Netflix movies. Netflix was very cooperative, very helpful.
I know we’re running out of time. I’ve got one last question. You mention in the book that the person you wish you interviewed the most is Walt Disney. Who is number two on that list?
Well, that’s so hard. The one that I should be pursuing right now is Jack Nicholson.
You’ve never talked to him?
I’ve chatted with him but I’ve never done a formal interview.
Well, Mr. Maltin. Thank you for taking the time. It was a pleasure speaking with you, and I hope you have a good rest of the day.
Thank you very much and good luck with the piece.
On behalf of Cinema Sentries, I would like to thank Leonard Maltin for taking the time to speak to me about his new book. Starstruck: My Unlikely Road to Hollywood is now available to purchase anywhere books are sold.