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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Save Turner Classic Movies

By Maureen Dowd

I co-starred with Sir Alec Guinness in a movie where a submersible travels down to the Titanic, springs a leak and implodes.

Co-star might be a bit strong. I walked around for a second in the background of “Raise the Titanic,” a 1980 film about a superpower race to retrieve a superpowerful mineral locked in the ocean liner’s vault. One scene was shot in the newsroom of The Washington Star, where I worked.

It was cool to do because my father had a ticket for the Titanic when he was a teenager. His mother cried so much, he sold it to a young woman. She survived, but her hair turned prematurely white. My Irish dad immigrated to America the following year.

“Raise the Titanic” pops up on Turner Classic Movies sometimes, along with other sagas like the 1953 “Titanic” with Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb, the 1958 “A Night to Remember” and James Cameron’s epic 1997 “Titanic” with Jack and Rose clinging to that notorious wooden door.

Some in the Twitterverse have complained that we shouldn’t have lavished so much attention on the Titan submersible tragedy, dismissing it as rich people with their toys. But thanks to books and movies, the Titanic is one of our primal stories, and the Titan echoes were stunning.

“I think that there is a great, almost surreal irony here,” James Cameron told Anderson Cooper, “which is, Titanic sank because the captain took it full steam into an ice field at night, on a moonless night with very poor visibility, after he had been repeatedly warned.”

Just like Captain Edward J. Smith, Stockton Rush, OceanGate’s CEO, ignored warnings, this time from the deep-submergence community, that his uncertified, experimental design was, as Cameron put it, “completely inappropriate.”

In an email exchange in 2018, Rush snapped back at one OceanGate consultant who claimed passengers were in danger: “We have heard the baseless cries of ‘you are going to kill someone’ way too often.”

Given my father’s near miss (and by extension mine), I have studied the Titanic disaster for decades on TCM. Before we experience life, how do we learn about life? Novels, plays, TV, dance, music and movies teach us how to live by giving us examples of experiences we have never had and some that we’re not likely to have. Movies are a great expander of horizons.

I have never had a stylist, interior decorator, life coach or psychiatrist. I have used TCM for all that, and it has gotten me through bouts of sickness, stress, mourning and insomnia. Studying the channel’s film noir femmes fatales taught me that women could be tough and play the game better than any man. Watching screwball comedies taught me the value of a zany streak.

So naturally, when news broke this past week that Warner Bros. Discovery had jettisoned the top five executives at TCM and the specter was raised that the channel might be in jeopardy, I was distraught.

TCM is more than a cable channel. It’s a public good, like libraries or the Smithsonian. It enshrines our cinematic past. Anyone in power in Hollywood should feel it is a matter of honor to protect this legacy.

I knew that David Zaslav, the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, loved TCM and watched it all day long in his office and on weekend mornings. He had texted me while watching “Annie Hall” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”

He tried to reassure jittery Hollywood titans who, like me, believe TCM is part of their identity; he had a Zoom meeting with Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson on Wednesday.

“We need TCM as a singular source of inspiration and history that is accessible to everyone,” Spielberg told me later.

I called Zaslav on Friday, too, just to make sure my femmes fatales weren’t getting taken away.


“Let me start with this,” he said. “This is my favorite channel. I think it’s critically important. It’s like a trust. It tells you where America was and where America’s going. It defines how people see this country. This is a beautiful living history.”

We can learn everything from how Cary Grant gets dressed for a date, he said, to why it’s better to be the white hat in a western than the black hat. (I learned that when my older brother showed me “Shane.”)

Zaslav said he was keeping Ben Mankiewicz and the other TCM hosts and wanted to spend more money on the channel and market it better. He has a vision of people like Spielberg, Scorsese, Anderson and Guillermo del Toro getting involved in programming and curating, and he would love to see actors like George Clooney talking about the movies that inspired them.

“I think it could be bigger and more powerful with more reach,” Zaslav said. “This is going to be a magical thing.”

I’ll be watching.

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