Peter Wilmoth meets Margaret Pomeranz and discovers her life life still revolves around movies
Related: Margaret lists six of her favourite things.
There’s a very funny, and telling, story in Margaret Pomeranz’s new book about food and film. At the Cannes Film Festival one year, Margaret (“Quite a party girl in my youth,” she writes) realised at 3am she didn’t have the keys to her apartment and, wondering whose door to knock on, she chose David Stratton’s.
In his room were two single beds, one to sleep in and the other on which the famously meticulous reviewer had neatly arranged his notes and press kits. “To his look of horror,” she writes, “I swept all the papers off the spare bed, stripped down to panties and bra and immediately fell into a deep slumber.”
I’m with Margaret Pomeranz at Foxtel in Sydney and I suggest the story says a lot about both of them. “Yes it does.” She laughs. “The party girl versus the anal retentive. He’s very meticulous. You should have seen the look on his face. It was sheer horror.”
Last September Margaret and David were gone from our screens – and apparently our lives – when they decided 28 years was enough and they walked from the ABC’s At The Movies. Now she’s back, with a new network and two new shows (Screen, about films and television on Foxtel’s new arts channel, and Margaret Pomeranz Presents on Foxtel’s Movies Masterpiece channel).
She also has a new on-screen partner: Graeme Blundell.
Signing up for the heavy schedule of a film and TV reviewer wasn’t exactly what she had planned. She had mapped out a more languid time for the next few years – writing books, including an autobiography, a biography and a thriller. “I thought that would keep me out of action for a few years,” she says.
After all, 28 years doing the same job is a hard habit to break. “I thought, what am I going to do? I thought it is space for me to see if I can write long form, and that is what I was going to do. I had planned to go to Europe, do some research, see friends, have a nice time, eat well. This was Plan A. And then Plan B approached.”
Plan B came about when Foxtel’s director of television called. “Brian Walsh approached me and said they would like me to introduce movies on their Masterpiece channel and I thought, ‘What a lovely gig’, because they’ve just got such a fabulous store of movies in their library. I came here for a meeting with him and he said, ‘And also we’d like you to do this show with Graeme’. And I went, ‘Yikes’.”
A few months in she’s enjoying it, not just for the chance to explore the wider world of television but also to work with actor, director, writer and television critic Graeme Blundell, whom she didn’t know. “I’m just incredibly lucky that he’s so nice,” she says.
And the dynamic so far? “He makes me laugh a lot. It was always going to be something that we would have to tease out and work through. I think it’s settling into being fun for both of us now.”
For Margaret, there’s been a lot of catching up on television to do. “My younger son works internationally on big Hollywood films and when he comes home we binge on another series of Game of Thrones.”
After almost three decades of working so closely, leaving the partnership with David Stratton wasn’t easy. It was something the pair had discussed often. “There was always that reassessment every year,” she says. “I think David thinks we should have done it years before, after 25 years.
“It wasn’t me,” she says of the decision to call it quits. “It was more him. He lives out of town and he was sick of schlepping into the city watching uninspiring movies – because we had to see just about everything that opened and shut – having to stay overnight at a hotel. He didn’t take my advice all those years ago to buy a city apartment. He would have been a lot better off today.”
I suggest that David had mentioned his great relief about no longer having to watch color-by-numbers Hollywood blockbusters. But Margaret says she didn’t feel any relief at winding up. “I keep on saying to David, ‘Don’t you have any regrets?’ and he goes ‘Nup!’
“I was very apprehensive, because that’s 28 years of a driving force in your life. That’s all I’d done. I’d put off doctors’ appointments, theatre, for this show, to be able to see all the films that we needed to see. It was a compelling part of life.
“It’s also your identity. Who am I if I’m not Margaret Pomeranz?”
But it wasn’t only this identity crisis that concerned her. It was also the fear of having a wide-open diary. “I knew I could not stop and do nothing because I think that’s the way depression lies. My kids would have torn their hair out with my hanging around with nothing to do.”
Margaret’s favourite film of all time: Nashville.
Besides, there were other motivations to return to the small screen. “What attracted me was that I wouldn’t lose my voice in support of good cinema, and particularly Australian cinema. That was very tempting, for me to do that.”
She is disappointed the ABC decided not to continue with the program, even without Margaret and David. “I thought it was really unfair not to reimagine the show, pretty much stick to format,” she says. “I think the ABC was tight for money. And I think they thought it was the Margaret and David pony show.
“I pointed out to [ABC managing director] Mark Scott that the reach that we had, say 700,000 a week, is enormous, what with free-to-air broadcasts, the repeats, the downloads … it’s an enormous cultural focus, and not just on us but on cinema. I thought it was a cultural remit that the ABC ought to have held on to.”
Margaret and David’s partnership – first at SBS and then at the ABC – was TV gold. One of the attractions of their long-running show was the contrast between the two presenters, he the buttoned-up classicist, she the effusive, emotional one. The show would sometimes end with Margaret in tears.
“David’s terribly emotional, too,” she says. “I’ve seen him cry in movies. Not ones that I cried in. [She laughs.] I always felt he felt he had to present a fairly dignified front. He’s very mischievous and very funny and I really wanted some of that to come out and it does come out, on occasion.”
She speaks in a bemused way of David’s meticulousness. “He has notes from the first film he ever saw at the age of six. He’s quite extraordinary in that way. I’m fairly chaotic and he’s not at all. You have to book three months in advance if you want to do anything with him because he will have his diary mapped out for the next six months.”
She got used to David just as we got used to their double act. “I think we were like a comfortable pair of slippers for a lot of viewers. They feel they know us and are comfortable with us.”
Their different tastes suited the format, she says. David hated films made using hand-held cameras; Margaret was more concerned about the heart of the film. “He’s got a very classic view of cinema, loves anything from the ’30s and ’40s, loved silent cinema. And I’m a real ’70s girl. I don’t have that length of knowledge that David has and I don’t care if it’s hand-held. I don’t care if the image is chaotic. As long as I can understand it, I’m happy.”
In her new book Let’s Eat – which she co-wrote with her daughter-in-law Philippa Whitfield Pomeranz – she writes of her experiences with such notables as Sean Penn, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Cruise and Robert Altman, who made her favourite film, Nashville. She barged up to Altman at a reception and asked for an interview. It was a major moment for her.
“It was early days. Over the years, David and I became fairly well established on the international scene and they knew that we were not going to ask people about their private lives. It was always all about the work. Publicists felt very safe allocating interviews to us.
“[Altman] is very tall and imposing and that is one of the scariest moments of my life. I wasn’t very confident then about my role in film. It took many years for me to really feel comfortable in front of a camera.
“We recorded on a Thursday morning to go to air on a Thursday night. I used to have a stiff whisky at seven o’clock in the morning. I produced other people. It’s a really big step to go in front of that camera.”
Margaret is 70. “Tell me I don’t look it,” she says with a smile. “I hate my age being out there because it’s almost like you’re putting a stereotype in people’s brains.’’ What’s the stereotype? “That you’re old.” She adds, with a smile: “The miracle happens in make-up.”
Meanwhile, she is busy watching hour after hour of television to catch up with her co-host Graeme Blundell, a leading television critic. She’s been watching House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Fargo and Wentworth, which she says is “so impressive”.
“I caught up with the high-end television series during the Christmas break,” she says. “I prayed for a rainy day.”
But it hasn’t been her world and she’s treading carefully. “I’m looking at television that I would never normally look at. I’m a little bit terrified of delving into stuff like MasterChef and Australia’s Next Top Model because I have an addictive personality and I’m scared that I’ll be drawn in and never let out!”
» Let’s Eat by Margaret Pomeranz & Philippa Whitfield Pomeranz HarperCollins ($39.95)
» Screen, hosted by Margaret Pomeranz and Graeme Blundell, is on Foxtel Arts each Thursday at 8pm
» Margaret Pomeranz Presents is on Foxtel’s Movies Masterpiece channel each Wednesday at 8.30pm
Robert De Niro
He was extraordinary in his early days. I think he’s tended to coast a bit lately, so I’m less impressed. He’s a tough interview. He didn’t want to do television, and even when I went to press conferences just to see what he was like, it was like getting blood from a stone. He is not happy with that side of the filmmaking process at all.
I think the ’70s was a great decade. This biopic directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro is unbelievable.
I always loved this (1970 political drama by director Bernardo Bertolucci). I think it’s absolutely stunning in terms of images and what it’s saying.
I think he’s an extraordinary actor. The thing that impressed me was those two films that came out almost simultaneously, A Room With A View and My Beautiful Laundrette. They’re like chalk and cheese in terms of character and performance. I thought, ‘This can’t be the same bloke’. And then he did The Age of Innocence with Michelle Pfeiffer. That was an exquisite film. I loved that too.
An incredible film by director David Lynch.
Favourite film of all time.