The Hidden Lives of Classic Movie Stars: A Primer for AFI Silver’s Leading Ladies Series

Long before Madonna wrote “Vogue,” fans of film and pop culture would fetishize glamorous classic film stars. While their films sometimes seem dated by rampant sexism or mannered performances, these stars’ legends remain intact. And that’s not an accident: The entertainment industry actively cultivated an exaggerated persona for all its stars, male and female, so most details about their actual lives or feelings remained hidden.

In her terrific podcast You Must Remember This, Karina Longworth digs deep into the lives of classic movie stars, uncovering personal details that are shocking, even tragic, as well as a rich sense of history from the period. Her podcast is a perfect companion to the AFI Silver’s series Leading Ladies of Hollywood’s Golden Age, which started in February and ends in early April. Arts Desk spoke with Longworth about her podcast, when Meryl Streep began to embrace her own feminism, and films starring Marlene Dietrich (shown) and Carole Lombard that screen at the Silver March 7-12.

Arts Desk: What inspired you to start the podcast?

Longworth: I used to be the film critic for LA Weekly, and I quit for a bunch of different reasons at the start of 2013. I spent the next few months after that working on a book about Meryl Streep, which I felt was unlike anything that had been written about her. It was a historical examination of her career, and how she fit into the 20th century and also feminism, but the publisher just did not promote the book at all. About a year later, I was frustrated because there didn’t seem like there was a space for me to do the things I wanted to do, and if I did, it felt just like shouting in a forest. I had a teaching job that was not well-suited for me.

In all this frustration, I decide to use my spring break from teaching to do something creative that was exactly what I wanted to do. So I made a pilot for this podcast: The first episode I did was about the hard Hollywood life of Kim Novak. It was technically rudimentary—I was learning how to do a podcast as I was making it—but I still got really good feedback, so I decided to keep doing it. After about six episodes, I stopped doing anything else so that I could get an episode out every week. Eventually I was contacted by American Public Media, who invited me to join their podcast network, so I’ve been a part of that since September.

Your tagline is that you focus on “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century.” Now that you’ve been working on the podcast for nearly a year, why do you think those stories tend to disappear?

I think there are a lot of reasons, but especially right now, the news cycle is extremely accelerated. [This means] there’s a culture of forgetting: Not only do we not remember stuff that happened 40 or 40 years ago, we don’t remember stuff that happened two years ago, or five years ago. That really became clear to me about a year or so ago when Woody Allen received a special award at the Golden Globes. Because our Internet culture is so—what’s the word, knee-jerk contrarian?—the instinct is to dig up all the negative dirt about someone when something positive is said about them. There is not anything wrong with remembering [Allen’s] various scandals, but I found it shocking that people would respond as if they’ve never heard of them, surprised that they could possibly be true. While even researching Meryl Streep in the early ’80s and reading magazine articles from 1981, I saw that the media talked about the world in a different way. It’s fascinating to go back and use movies, particularly movie stars, to talk about the recent past.

So the movie star angle is a way for you to explore broader themes?

I think it’s a way for me to explore everything [laughs]. But you’re right: [the podcast] is sort of a Trojan Horse. It’s easier to talk about feminist issues, racial politics, and class issues if the vehicle through that is Elizabeth Taylor or a movie star sex scandal.

I love the way you weave broader history into biography. In fact, I tell friends about some incredible detail after nearly every episode fact I hear. Was there anything you uncovered that you found particularly surprising?

I recently did an episode about Marlene Dietrich, and there was some stuff I didn’t know, even though I consider myself a superfan of hers. I took an entire class about her during graduate school, but I never learned about her plan to seduce Hitler and kill him, or her plot to keep King Edward from by abdicating by seducing him. I don’t think that stuff is just prurient gossip; it feeds into the Marlene Dietrich legend, which is so specific and unlike most glamorous female movie stars. Still, I learn things in every episode.

As part of its Leading Ladies series, AFI is showing the Dietrich films Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus. For fans, what should they keep in mind about these collaborations with her and director Josef von Sternberg?

In her late twenties, Dietrich was an actress in Germany. She was married with a child when Sternberg cast her in The Blue Angel, so she was acting at that point, but he turned her into what she’s known for: this exotic sexual goddess. I prefer Blonde Venus because it pushes her persona past the point of camp. She plays a cabaret singer in the film, and in the most famous scene she does a number where she enters in a gorilla costume and performs a strip tease. It’s a bizarre scene, but in the context of the movie, it’s a fairly interesting portrayal of a woman who’s deciding what’s more important to her: money or love. There’s also two great performances: one from a very young Cary Grant, and not-so-young Herbert Marshall as Marlene Dietrich’s husband.

AFI is also showing two films starring Carole Lombard this weekend: Twentieth Century and Nothing Sacred. Your episode about her and Clark Gable is the most tragic one I’ve heard, which is ironic since she was a terrific comic actress.

Twentieth Century was really the film that made her. Before then, she was knocking around Hollywood a long time, starring in B-movies or playing the second lead. She hadn’t really found her identity. It was on Twentieth Century…that she was able to let loose and be the girl she was in real life: a wild party girl, but with a core of absolute sweetness. You see that codified, but Nothing Sacred is my favorite of her films because it’s really weird. It’s her first film in Technicolor, and it’s really beautiful, with this pastel painting look. The first set-piece has to do with a guy who’s presenting himself as an African dictator to New York society, and while its racial/ethnic stuff is dated, there’s a terrific screwball comedy there, too.

So the combination of dated racial material and screwball comedy is what makes the film so weird?

That’s what makes the first 10 minutes so weird, but then it continues. It’s directed in a strange way, in terms the way Lombard and her co-stars are framed in the film. They’re deliberately hidden by tree branches, or the camera will do elaborate movements in order to find the actors. The camera work is really advanced for its time.

If you were curating this Leading Ladies festival, who would you want to focus on and why?

Oh, wow. Do you have a timeframe?

Let’s just say the silent era through—I don’t know, the end of the ’40s.

I’m going to give you two answers. The first is that it’s so hard to see silent films except for the great ones, so I’d love to do a series of just Louise Brooks or Marion Davies or Gloria Swanson, particularly those that aren’t available on DVD. The other, much easier to curate answer, would be Judy Garland, who continues to fascinate me the most.

You touched on this when you were discussing Meryl Streep, but I’m curious: What progress do you think there has been for glamorous female actresses, if any, both in terms of the roles they take and the choices in their personal lives?

That’s a big question [laughs]. That’s like a book. But if you’re talking about classical Hollywood, particularly the studio system, anything that was put out about a movie star was probably false. It was probably either created or vetted by a studio publicity department. Even when magazines like Confidential popped up, which were supposed to be telling the truth, those writers were often bought off by rival stars or whatever. People thought the stories they were consuming about stars were true, when most often they were not. That has not completely changed. Everyone should be skeptical about anything they read about anyone. Whether it’s a celebrity, politician, or athlete, anyone who’s given a profile treatment has so many publicists and handlers around them that it’s difficult to get past official stories.

One of things that was specifically interesting about Meryl Streep was that she was someone who went to Vassar, and was coming up at the tail end of the hippie era. This is through 1970s feminism—she considered herself one—but if you look at her early interviews, she’s clearly struggling with owning her feminism. She’s worried about how she’ll be perceived, because it’s still a dirty word at the time of these interviews, especially since she also wants to keep her private life private. My book shows how she got over that inhibition: As the times changed and she got older, she became a much more outspoken activist, to the point where’s literally the face of the effort to have a National Women’s Museum on the Mall. She went from, “Well, I believe in equal rights, but I don’t really want to talk about that,” to being a literal poster girl for it.

When exactly did this change happen?

Around when she turned 40, she made a few movies that were challenging her image, like Death Becomes Her, and they [were] doing terribly at the box office. She really had only big hit in the 1990s, and that was The Bridges of Madison County, and there she played a woman who was older than she was in real life. It was the first instance of her doing the thing she does very successfully later in movies like Mamma Mia and Julie and Julia: She’s speaking directly to a middle-aged, female audience. She’s playing a woman in her mid-forties, with unfulfilled sexual desires and desires for adventures, who is a protagonist in the same way a man might be a protagonist. She was able to do that more and more as she got older, and the culture changed: Baby Boomers were in charge. Women like Amy Pascal, [the former chairperson of Sony Pictures] who is of Streep’s generation, would give her jobs.

Since so many studios and magazines created fabrications about film stars, how would you research an episode of your podcast?

I brand the podcast as a work of creative nonfiction. I’m doing the best I can, but since most of my sources are dead, I can only pull what’s available on the record. I take everything that’s available in news articles, biographies, recent books, and try and get a sense of what seems like the most true. If there are discrepancies in the episode, I’m honest about them. Because I have to work so fast now, I’ll do some pre-research a few months before an episode just to see if there is enough material I can find.

Right now you’re in the middle of the “Star Wars” series, which focuses on a different star and how they helped the World War II effort. What can we expect from future episodes?

Right now I’m working on an episode about the early life of Marilyn Monroe, which will carry her through World War 2 to 1952, when she had her nude photo scandal. After that, I’m going to do an episode on Olivia De Havilland and John Huston. Since I’ve been focusing on women, I’m also going to switch gears and focus on men: Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Charlie Chaplin and The Great Dictator. All that will carry me through the spring.

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