Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Review: The AFI 50th Anniversary Special is Must-See for Movie Fans: Bawdy and Poignant, with Rare Footage


I just watched the AFI 50th Anniversary special on TCM hosted by Ben Mankiewicz and written by Bob Gazzale. It’s must see TV if you have any interest ih Hollywood.

My first takeway is that you almost have to watch it twice to see all the stars sitting in the ballrooms while the 50 salutes progress. You literally see the changing of the guard three times. The early tributes are to people long gone who still look good — Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, directors like Frank Capra and John Ford.

You see the next generation in the background of the first, as they are either guests or being presenters from the stage. You can almost imagine if the AFI annual salutes had begun 10 years earlier, in 1963, who would have been in attendance. As it is, at my age, seeing people who I’ve been lucky to get to know when they were really young is a kick in the pants.

The director thing — it seems like more of them were saluted at the start. Hitchcock is there, David Lean, Robert Wise, Capra and Ford, later Scorsese and Spielberg. I feel a little said that Robert Altman never got the award, or Sidney Lumet, but there are so many, the AFI could do a tribute once a week.

Highlights from the special include really getting to see Jimmy Cagney, Jimmy Stewart, Sidney Poitier as real people, not just icons from their films. A young Jim Carrey does a hilarious impression of Clint Eastwood. Two outstanding musical numbers are featured. One is Jennifer Hudson tearing down the theater singing “A Change is Gonna Come.” Another — and very rare — is Frank Sinatra singing a rewritten “My Way” to Cagney. Sinatra is at top voice — extraordinary!

Phyllis Diller points out on stage that the last time she was there she a different face. You see as the 50 years go by the progression of faces and spouses. A lot of times you say, “Isn’t that?” My old pal George Christy is even in one shot. Because of subsequent memoirs, we know a lot about what was going on in everyone’s lives. But sitting there, they look so innocent — Jack and Anjelica, for example, or Carrie Fisher’s show stopping tribute to George Lucas. Denzel Washington telling the story of how he met Poitier on the street. And then Chadwick Boseman — looking very frail (and no one noticed??? how is it possible?) explaining how Denzel once underwrote his acting classes.

Other moments that stand out are Woody Allen’s very funny, touching thoughts on Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda’s rousing acceptance speech, Orson Welles all organized and spiffed up. I think I even spotted Joseph Cotten in the crowd for Welles’s honor. Barbara Stanwyck, a trail blazer, plus comics like Mel Brooks and Steve Martin, and on and on and on.

The AFI Life Achievement Award: 50th Anniversary special will be shown many times on TCM. It’s a winner. This coming April, Nicole Kidman will be the next honoree, very deservingly, for winner an Oscar, starring in blockbusters, and being dynamic in her choice of independent films.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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