BFG Interviews America’s Most Popular Film Writer and Podcaster
Karina Longworth is this era’s most important writer on film. Her Hollywood history podcast, You Must Remember This, has turned on a new generation to the magic of classic movies, and has singlehandedly revived the reputations of near-forgotten performers and movies. Her new book, Seduction, Sex Lies And Stardom In Howard Hughes’ Hollywood, profiles 10 actresses whose careers and personal lives ran afoul of The Aviator. As befits Longworth’s reputation, it’s a clever and heavily-detailed feminist history of Hollywood’s Golden Age, full of film analysis and juicy gossip.
Longworth came to Austin, the undisputed film capital of Central Texas, this week to promote the book. I scheduled a half-hour with her. Then I ran afoul of Austin morning traffic. By the time I got to Longworth’s hotel, she had fewer than 10 minutes before she had to catch a ride to the airport. She stood in the lobby restlessly (and rightly so), wearing a fur coat, or maybe a fake fur. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we talked for eight minutes. It turns out you can get a lot done in eight minutes if you don’t have a choice. A lightly-edited transcript of our conversation follows. Enjoy.
NP: Why do you think your work has struck such a chord in people?
KL: Honestly, I have no idea. I never would have thought that it would. Certainly nobody seemed much to care about anything I did before the podcast. So I don’t think it’s me. It’s great, though.
NP: What is it about classic Hollywood that people are so attracted to?
KL: I don’t know. It’s just a huge surprise to me. It’s a personal question for everybody. For me, it’s something I’ve always been interested in since I was a kid, watching movies with my parents. I just fell in love with these images of the great stars. Lauren Bacall and Gene Kelly. I can’t really get into the minds of people who are coming to it later in life or people who are younger than me that get into it. I’m just happy that they do.
NP: Was it the glamour? The dancing?
KL: Sure. Both of those things. I guess I continue to be interested in the older stars, partially because there’s so much in these movies that’s left unsaid, that is coded. It just feels like the work of watching them is more rewarding than watching a lot of mainstream contemporary Hollywood movies.
NP: Where you feel like everything is spoon-fed to you?
KL: There’s nothing to find in them. It’s all surface, and oftentimes I find that surface boring and tedious.
NP: Speaking of contemporary Hollywood, it’s hard to read your book without thinking about Harvey Weinstein and current scandals. I know you say that this isn’t a biography of Howard Hughes, but to what extent does what’s going on right now parallel what happened with Howard Hughes? How do they diverge?
KL: I don’t really love making comparisons between the era of Howard Hughes and the era of now. The studio system was such a different beast even when it was when Harvey Weinstein was at his most powerful in the 90s. In terms of economics and power structure. Actresses under a studio contract with Howard Hughes had a really different experience than actresses trying to get a part from Harvey Weinstein.
NP: They had less autonomy?
KL: Certainly. The only way to work in movies back then was to be under contract. There were many more options available to someone who wanted to work in movies in the 1990s than having sex with Harvey Weinstein. It was just that he had a lot of power over the kinds of movies that he made.
NP: I was surprised, reading the book, that certain women had more autonomy over their careers than I expected. They were able to sidestep the cabal of powerful men.
KL: What actresses are you thinking of?
NP: Well, Katharine Hepburn.
KL: But Katherine Hepburn also needed to align herself with powerful men in the era that I’m talking about, because her movies weren’t making any money anymore. There was this period in the late 1930s where she could have just stopped making movies. And she would have, except Philip Barry wrote The Philadelphia Story for her and Howard Hughes gave her the money to buy the film rights. So she was able to make that movie and call the shots on it. She was only able to get the power to have the autonomy in her career because men helped her.
NP: How is that different than the way things work now?
KL: Sure, yes. Because women actually have production companies. And are actually able to select the material and find ways to get double salaries as a producer and an actresses. Then they can work less. They don’t have to take movies as an actress just for the money. Everything economically is so different than it was during the studio system.
NP: And yet, like you said, the movies are in some ways less interesting.
KL: There’s definitely a crisis in Hollywood right now. I know a lot of people who work in Hollywood, and they want to make better movies. But economically it’s really really difficult to get “adult dramas” financed, unless you can get some kind of awards hook. Even then, it’s really difficult to get more than 20 million dollars to make just a movie about people talking.
NP: Do you think the quality of movies was higher in the golden age because they had to produce in bulk and sometimes stuff would just kind of shine out?
KL: Absolutely. A lot of movies were bad in the golden age as well. But there were also A-level movies, B-level movies, C-level movies. Everybody was really transparent about the kinds of movies they were making. I think things are a little bit more muddled now. But then you have also really lost this middle of the industry.
NP: I’ve got some fan questions. Somebody wanted to know a favorite bit of Hollywood history that you thought you knew but through your research discovered something completely different about.
KL: It’s everybody. Everything I thought I knew about, I discover something new.
NP: Someone you feel is most unjustly forgotten or is most deserving of a revival.
KL: Lately I feel like that would be Linda Darnell. She’s completely forgotten today but she made some really great films. The people that do remember her remember her for being really beautiful. But I sat down and watched seven or eight of her movies within the course of two weeks and I think she was a fantastic actress and more of a character actress than her reputation allows.
NP: We have a “marry, fuck, kill” for you, if that’s OK?
KL: OK, sure.
NP: Howard Hughes, Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn.
KL: I’m not interested in any of them. I don’t think any of them would be good to marry. Kill them all.
Author Photo (c) Emily Berl