TCM host Alicia Malone’s latest book, Girls on Film: Lessons From a Life of Watching Women in Movies, combines Malone’s love of film with snap shots from her personal journey through life as a classic film aficionado and woman.
In this exclusive interview, we speak to Malone about her new book and some of the topics covered inside, as well as getting her perspective on some classic and current trends in the world of cinema.
This is your third book about film and in particular women’s roles both behind and in front of the camera lens. Why did you decide to include your personal journey with films as the foundation for Girls on Film?
Alicia Malone: I got a lot of questions over the years about how I developed an interest an love for classic films and how I got my job at TCM, so I was thinking about ways that I could answer those questions. As we went into the lockdown due to the pandemic, I noticed that the films that I was gravitating towards for comfort were classics films and I started to wonder why that was. Why did certain films give me a safe, nostalgic feeling when it wasn’t necessarily a safe time for people of color, or for women, or for really anyone who wasn’t straight and white and male and why I preferred classic films to modern films.
I decided that I would start exploring this in a book, but I didn’t want to write a memoir, so I used snapshots from my life and tie them into film history and film analysis, and hopefully that would make it more relatable to people and accessible to people who maybe aren’t that into classic films, but want to know a little more about them.
Speaking about that journey, was there one film that you remember as being the spark that started your interest?
Malone: Yes, there are a few, but one that was really pivotal was Rear Window because as I say in my book, I am not sure if it is a real memory, or one I created, but my Dad used to wake me up in the middle of the night to show me things on television because he was so excited about movies and still is. I remember him taking me out of bed, sitting me down and saying “This is Rear Window and this is Alfred Hitchcock” and the way that he explained the film and how Hitchcock was making you feel as an audience member just started to spark that interest in me, wanting to know more about behind the scenes.
And the other pivotal one was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which I was too young to consider at the time, but it started me on the journey of examining the images of women and I was so intrigued by Marilyn Monroe and still am. She was one that encouraged me to start reading film books and started me thinking about the image presented on the screen and who the person was.
That goes perfectly into my next question and your chapter dedicated to Monroe. As far as her rise to prominence, and as you said there has been so much written and documented about her, but what do you believe caused everyone to become so captivated with her at the time and even today?
Malone: I think the fact that she had quiet a bit of agency over her career and she was very savvy with publicity and she was able to spin everything in her favor and deliver these great one-liners. She knew how to bring out her sexiness enough to titilate audiences and I think that is what really stood out to me. Unlike many of her contemporaries who were given a persona by the studios, she knew who she wanted to be and she knew she wanted to be a movie star, and she worked really, really hard to become a movie star. Of course the irony was that once she became that, all of the pitfalls of stardom and wanting to be taken seriously as an actress.
The thing that also remains compelling about her is, apart from the way that she died at a young age, is about how contradictory she was and she was often late to set, but she really cared about her performance. She never drank or did drugs, but she was addicted to sleeping pills which she took for work. We are still trying to untangle who she really was.
You also write about the femme fatale in your book, and that character type is very prominent on Turner Classic Movies, especially on Noir Alley but also in many other films. Do you feel that the femme fatale still has a place in modern cinema, and how has the character changed over the decades?
Malone: I think there is something empowering about seeing a woman taking control. She is the one who is dangerous to the man and the one who encourages him to go down a dark path, as she is very sexual and very powerful in that way; mysterious and complex. But the downside is that she usually dies in the end, as there has to be some kind of punishment for a woman like that being so independent and the general underlying idea that an independent woman is dangerous and can lead a man astray, as if a man has no free will of his own.
At the same time, there is just something so fun about watching these type of women on screen. I mean, just recently, I enjoyed watching the remake of Nightmare Alley and Cate Blanchette was just going for it. She knew her assignment and she looked like she was having the best time, and I also love Barbara Stanwyck in the classic Double Indemnity, but she was someone who was so skilled that she was able to weave so much into her character that you didn’t know is she was good or she was evil, and you went back and forth with her character. I think that’s why they remain compelling characters.
Film criticism has always been a male-dominated field. Do you feel that is growing more inclusive since you began writing?
Malone: Absolutely. I remember when I started, and I was one of only a few women in these screening rooms, which were also predominately white. But now, along with a general reckoning around the importance of gender equality on screen, there has also been work down to increase diversity behind the scenes in the world of film criticism. Many of the legacy outlets have made a concerted effort of hiring more female and more non-white critics, and companies like Rotten Tomatoes have begun initiatives to ensure a wider variety of critics have the funds and access to attend film festivals (which are vital for any film critic’s career, but can be costly).
There was a study done by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in 2018 – which helped to spur this along – that proved about 78% of critics were men, and only 18% of some 19,500 reviews were written by critics from a non-white background. It’s so important to allow a wide variety of voices into this space, not only for equal career opportunities, but also to give a more well-rounded view of a movie to audiences.
Girls on Film is currently available in finer book stores everywhere. Alicia Malone can also be seen on TCM as the host of TCM Imports (showcasing cinematic treasures from around the world each Sunday) as well as on the Criterion Channel as the host of Focus Features’ Reel Destinations series.
Her first two books, Backwards and in Heels and The Female Gaze, are also currently available for purchase.