What is a conservative? Hard to say these days, especially when discussing politics. But the mission of a cultural conservative endures: to save the best that has been thought, said, written, composed, photographed. And made into motion pictures.
By this measure Robert Osborne, who died this month at the age of 84, was an eminent conservative indeed. For more than 20 years he appeared daily on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), introducing titles from the past. Osborne was an excellent host. Approachable, knowledgeable, comfortable, he would recount how the great films had been produced and distributed and received. He would draw connections between the stars, delivering old gossip as if he were disclosing secrets of which he had just been made aware. And since he seemed personally to know the Hollywood greats under discussion—in many cases they were or had been his friends—to watch Robert Osborne was to enter into, however briefly, the rarefied and glamorous circles of the movies.
Born in Colfax, Washington, Osborne became fascinated, obsessed even, with the history of Hollywood. In the 1940s this was a difficult vice in which to indulge: no television, no home video or DVD or Blu-Ray, no Internet. Revivals and art houses were rare. When he went to college Osborne's solution was to spend hours in the University of Washington library, researching back issues of the New York Times. He kept a notebook in which were listed the titles, stars, and credits of the movies playing at each of New York's theaters for more than 20 years. He was a sort of filmic Michael Barone, an encyclopedia of detail regarding long forgotten actors and actresses, writers and directors.
What to do with this knowledge? Osborne studied journalism, but after his stint in the Air Force he became an actor. During a stage production in Washington he met Jane Darwell, who had played Ma Joad in John Ford's Grapes of Wrath. She encouraged him to move to Los Angeles, where he did work in commercials and television, looking the part of the all-American. He auditioned for Lucille Ball, who was organizing a team of in-house players. Lucy loved him, signed him to a contract. It was Ball who eventually recommended that he do something useful with all of the obscure facts in his head. "We have enough actors," she told him. His first book, Academy Awards Illustrated, was published in 1965.
In retrospect the Osborne book and its subsequent editions seem like templates for Turner Classic Movies. Both the books and the cable channel devote their attentions and enthusiasms to domestic films of a certain period: the Golden Age of Hollywood during which the major genres (gangster, musical, horror, comedy, Western, melodrama) were established and the iconic screen personae (Cagney, Hepburn, Leigh, Astaire, Roberts, Garland, Wayne, Davis, Stewart, Grant) were made famous. There is no apparent political agenda to either the book or the network, no self-conscious exploration or celebration of the obscure, no embarrassment at celebrating people who are already rich and famous. The objective was to preserve these pictures and their history for future generations.
Some time ago, in an interview with Alec Baldwin, Osborne attributed his success to luck. His encounter with Lucille Ball had been random, he said; her career advice led to his book, which led to freelance work, which led to a 40-year friendship with actress Olivia de Havilland. In the late 1970s De Havilland invited Osborne to accompany her to a tribute to Bette Davis where he not only met the star of All About Eve but also made the connections that would put him on television. Once he was on the small screen he never left. By the early 1980s the stars that had inspired him in his youth were beginning to fall ill. It was left to Osborne to appear on L.A. news channels and explain who Henry Fonda was and why he mattered.
Luck has a part in all of our lives, of course, but in Osborne's case charm was perhaps the decisive factor. The Hollywood insiders on whom he reported no doubt appreciated his amiable manner long before he joined The Movie Channel in 1984. The combination of his affability and looks must have helped him form relationships with the leading ladies of a bygone era. Over decades in Los Angeles and New York City Robert Osborne seems not to have offended a single person. This achievement alone deserves an Oscar.
I first started watching him in 2013 when TCM featured Mark Cousins's Story of Film. Each of the documentary's 15 episodes was followed by some of the movies mentioned therein. For example, Chapter Four, on the "great American movie genres," was accompanied by broadcasts of The Public Enemy, James Whale's Frankenstein, and Gold Diggers of 1933. Osborne and Cousins introduced not only the documentary but also some of the 119 films associated with it. And their discussions were riveting. What they amounted to was a semester-length course on film history. On cable television, no less.
I noticed something while enjoying these preambles to The Story of Film. Cousins, who does not hide his left-wing politics, would veer into social or political criticism that was neither original nor interesting. But Osborne, whose politics were as opaque as his private life, always would take the conversation back to the movies, return to the people who made them. What mattered to him were the films in themselves, the sensations they evoked, the memories they summoned. These are the things Robert Osborne preserved. And that is why he deserves to be remembered, too.