Interviewing the Stars, Then and Now

Brad Pitt was featured this past week in Parade magazine, the tiny Sunday supplement to most major-city newspapers. In the cover article, he beams about family life with wife Angelina Jolie and their six children. He created a stir among gossip columnists and Internet wags when he referred to his previous marriage to Jennifer Aniston as an inauthentic life, because he was trying “to pretend the marriage something that it wasn’t.” Whether the quote was taken out of context, or whether Pitt isn’t particularly articulate, it was an ungracious comment to make regarding Aniston. Pitt’s offending quote swept across the Internet, and he felt compelled to make a sort-of retraction. All of which played out before the article was even available in Sunday’s issue of Parade.  Pitt’s interview was insensitive to Aniston. Anyone who has ever been thrown over for another person, and then had to endure comments about how happy their former spouses are now that they have moved on, will blanch at his statements.  And, yet, I did not think them so nasty or insulting that they warranted a back-pedaling press statement.

A day or so later, I read an interview with Nora and Delia Ephron about their upcoming stage play opening in Chicago, Love, Loss, and What I Wore. The interview was so dull and the Ephrons’ comments so colorless that I didn’t make it through the article. Both the Brad Pitt feature and the Epron interview reminded me that today’s celebrity interviews are as dull and rote as those found in studio-controlled fanzines of the Golden Age. They exist to promote a new film, a new play, or a new television series but do little to reveal the personality or career of the star or director. Many reasons account for this, including the lack of experienced journalists and interviewers who know how to ask the right questions and provide insightful context for the answers.

ROGER EBERT'S INTERVIEWS WITH MITCHUM ARE TERRIFIC.

These thoughts sent me searching for my file of “great interviews,” which is a collection of print articles from magazines and newspapers on stars, directors, and other big names in the entertainment industry. Many were written by entertainment journalists who had perfected the craft of interviewing the famous and infamous, such as John Horn, Rachel Abramowitz, and Roger Ebert. [Ebert’s interviews are among the best.]This stash comes in handy for researching articles or lectures, and some of the articles are so old, they are yellowed and ragged. As I leafed through them, I saw that many were from the 1970s and 1980s, and several were from the 1990s, but only a few were from the new millennium. Part of the reason is that the Internet makes it easy to find interviews at the click of a few keys, but part of it is because few stars “give good interview” anymore, crazy Charlie Sheen aside.  Just to give you a taste of what I mean, I offer a few snippets of colorful interviews from my stash. Unfortunately, many of these articles were ripped from newspapers with no dates or other citation information, but I have included this info when possible.

In an interview with Lee Marvin in Esquire magazine in November 1970, Roger Ebert asked the feisty actor about his common-law wife, Michelle Triola. “She’s been eating nothing but anchovies for the past day and a half,” notes Marvin. “You know why she likes anchovies so much all of a sudden? She’s knocked up. She’s gonna have a little Lee Marvin. Put it down: Michelle’s knocked up.”  Shortly after this, the couple broke up, and the embittered Triola took the actor to court in the infamous palimony suit, in which she claimed her common-law status entitled her to community property rights.

"FILL YOUR HAND, YOU SON OF A BITCH" -- JOHN WAYNE IN 'TRUE GRIT'

In a Variety article shortly after winning an Oscar for True Grit, John Wayne, who had a good sense of humor about himself, quipped, “I thought some day I might win an award for lasting so long, but I never thought I’d get this particular award…If I’d known what I know now, I would’ve put a patch on my eye 35 years ago.”

Ebert interviewed Charles Bronson, a notoriously difficult subject, during the shooting of Death Wish. In a rare candid moment, the star opened up about his childhood as the son of a coal miner in Pennsylvania. I can’t imagine a young actor going through this type of childhood: “I remember my father had shaved us all bald to avoid lice. Times were poor. I wore hand-me-downs. And because the kids just older than me in the family were girls, sometimes I had to wear my sisters’ hand-me-downs. I remember going to school in a dress. And my socks, when I got home sometimes I’d have to take them off and give them to my brother to wear into the mines.”  In a follow-up interview after the film was released, Ebert asked Bronson to comment on critic Jay Cocks’s harsh review of the film. Bronson snarled, “First [the film] was a novel, then it was a screenplay, and there was a cinematographer involved and a lot of other people. That makes it personal when he picks on just me, and that gets me mad. One way or another, sooner or later, I’ll get that man. Not physically, but I’ll get him.”

BRONSON EARNED HIS TOUGH GUY STATUS.

I wonder if Bronson ever got his opportunity with Cocks. I admit I have a fondness for stars who fight back against reviewers who tend to reveal their personal biases in their reviews rather than stick to a film’s merits or weaknesses. In a 1970 Esquire interview with Kirk Douglas, Ebert asks the big star about how his career had gone wrong lately. Douglas talks a bit about A Lovely Way to Day and The War Wagon and then remarks, “But that woman, Pauline Kael—did you see that piece she wrote about [The War Wagon]? If Pauline Kael were sitting here right now, I’d tell her, you’re a bright dame, but you’re full of s—t.”

Often, the famous maintain a position on their careers, consistently giving the same answer over the years to the same questions. I have heard Ron Howard speak glowingly about his years as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show and how grateful he was for the chance to be part of American pop culture. It’s not that I don’t believe him, but in an interview with Premiere magazine after the release of Apollo 13, he let his guard down a bit and offered another side to his childhood fame. Disappointed that he did not get nominated as best director for Apollo 13, though the film garnered nine nominations, Howard was thoughtful about his directorial career. In that context, this comment revealed another side to being Opie, “When I walk into a Wal-Mart, people still talk more about The Andy Griffith Show or Happy Days than they do about Ransom or Apollo 13. Every time I hear that, that bugs me. I’m really proud of my work as a director. . . .”

I once edited a coffee-table book on James Dean, and I collected several quotes made about the screen icon after his death. I was surprised at the harshness of some of them, considering the remarks were made in public forums.  Elia Kazan, who directed him in East of Eden, noted, “[James Dean] was a hero to the people who saw him only as a little waif, when actually he was a pudding of hatred.”  Struggling young actor Steve McQueen remarked to Dean’s friend, John Gilmore, “I’m glad Dean’s dead. It makes more room for me.” While acknowledging the teen idol’s talent, Rock Hudson also said, “I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead, but he was a prick…He was selfish and believed his own press releases. On the set, he’d upstage an actor and step on his lines. Arrogant.” After I had collected several of these negative quotes, I realized they said more about the person making the comment than Dean. I didn’t use them.

MITCHUM ON McQUEEN: 'DOESN'T BRING MUCH TO THE PARTY.'

Years later, McQueen was paid back for his insensitive comment on Dean in the form of Robert Mitchum, who could cut a mean quip when he wanted. Like Bronson, he was often contrary with journalists, but he was always good with Roger Ebert, who pronounced Mitchum his favorite interview. Over a 20-year period, the film critic spoke with Mitchum three times. In 1969, the star was recalling certain directors he had worked with, and in the course of talking about Robert Wise, he blurted, “I never saw Wise’s The Sand Pebbles. Of course that was a problem picture out in front, with Steve McQueen in it. You’ve got to realize a Steve McQueen performance just naturally lends itself to monotony. Steve doesn’t bring too much to the party.”

In another interview, Ebert asked Mitchum, “What does it take to make a movie star?” He replied in typical Mitchum fashion, “Somebody asked my wife once, what’s your idea of your husband? And she answered: He’s a masturbation image. Well, that’s what we all are. Up there on the screen, our goddamn eyeball is six feet high, the poor bastards who buy tickets think you really amount to something.”

Now, that’s a hard act for anyone to follow in any interview.

28 Responses Interviewing the Stars, Then and Now
Posted By dukeroberts : September 19, 2011 4:14 pm

I guess most movie stars don’t open up like this anymore, unless it involves politics. Many of them open up in that way. When it comes to the really personal stuff though, it seems musicians are much more open-mouthed.

Posted By dukeroberts : September 19, 2011 4:14 pm

I guess most movie stars don’t open up like this anymore, unless it involves politics. Many of them open up in that way. When it comes to the really personal stuff though, it seems musicians are much more open-mouthed.

Posted By Jenni : September 19, 2011 9:02 pm

Honestly, the best interviews that I have heard lately have been on the radio! Didn’t David Frost supposedly conduct interesting interviews with famous folk, and Dick Cavett? Granted they did their interviews on tv, not in print.

Posted By Jenni : September 19, 2011 9:02 pm

Honestly, the best interviews that I have heard lately have been on the radio! Didn’t David Frost supposedly conduct interesting interviews with famous folk, and Dick Cavett? Granted they did their interviews on tv, not in print.

Posted By Tom S : September 19, 2011 9:25 pm

I think the quality of interviews vary greatly with the venue- but it’s true that stars have to be extremely careful not to piss off anyone they work with, or might potentially work with. Case in point: this whole fiasco http://www.avclub.com/articles/chloe-sevigny-apologizes-for-av-club-interview,39609/

If you read interviews with people who aren’t currently huge stars, though, you get some interesting stuff, like this interview (also on the AVClub) with Bronson Pinchot: http://www.avclub.com/articles/bronson-pinchot,34310/

Choice part: In talking about Tom Cruise on the set of Risky Business, he claims his homophobia was so extreme he’d go around saying things like: ‘“You want some ice cream, in case there are no gay people there?” I mean, his lingo was larded with the most… There was no basis for it. It was like, “It’s a nice day, I’m glad there are no gay people standing here.”’

Posted By Tom S : September 19, 2011 9:25 pm

I think the quality of interviews vary greatly with the venue- but it’s true that stars have to be extremely careful not to piss off anyone they work with, or might potentially work with. Case in point: this whole fiasco http://www.avclub.com/articles/chloe-sevigny-apologizes-for-av-club-interview,39609/

If you read interviews with people who aren’t currently huge stars, though, you get some interesting stuff, like this interview (also on the AVClub) with Bronson Pinchot: http://www.avclub.com/articles/bronson-pinchot,34310/

Choice part: In talking about Tom Cruise on the set of Risky Business, he claims his homophobia was so extreme he’d go around saying things like: ‘“You want some ice cream, in case there are no gay people there?” I mean, his lingo was larded with the most… There was no basis for it. It was like, “It’s a nice day, I’m glad there are no gay people standing here.”’

Posted By Martha Clark : September 19, 2011 10:08 pm

I hane an old ReSearch (volume 10- Incredibly Strange Films) that Ive read over and over. It features great interviews with Ted V. Mikels, Larry Cohen, Russ Meyer, etc. Granted not big star directors, but I think some of the most forthcoming interviews I’ve read have been with these lesser known guys. They’ve got nothing to lose and the most interesting stories! Sometimes its not the interviewer,but the lackluster subject!

Thanks for another insightful and entertaining post! Will share with others. :)

Posted By Martha Clark : September 19, 2011 10:08 pm

I hane an old ReSearch (volume 10- Incredibly Strange Films) that Ive read over and over. It features great interviews with Ted V. Mikels, Larry Cohen, Russ Meyer, etc. Granted not big star directors, but I think some of the most forthcoming interviews I’ve read have been with these lesser known guys. They’ve got nothing to lose and the most interesting stories! Sometimes its not the interviewer,but the lackluster subject!

Thanks for another insightful and entertaining post! Will share with others. :)

Posted By Lisa W. : September 19, 2011 11:58 pm

Oh, that Robert Mitchum! Every time I learn something new about him I just love him more! I love the quotes you shared— hopefully they will inspire an interviewer!

Posted By Lisa W. : September 19, 2011 11:58 pm

Oh, that Robert Mitchum! Every time I learn something new about him I just love him more! I love the quotes you shared— hopefully they will inspire an interviewer!

Posted By dukeroberts : September 20, 2011 12:24 am

Hmmm. I wonder what that says about Tom Cruise?

Posted By dukeroberts : September 20, 2011 12:24 am

Hmmm. I wonder what that says about Tom Cruise?

Posted By suzidoll : September 20, 2011 12:28 am

Jenni: Sometimes the Cavett shows in which he interviewed the big stars from the Golden Age are broadcast on TCM. Very enlightening–and they are also from the 1970s.

Tom: One thing about quoting actors on other actors, you can’t put much faith in the veracity of their statements. That’s the point I tried to make in the paragraph on James Dean, when I said I learned more about the people making the statements than I did about Dean. As much as I like quoting Robert Mitchum, his assessment of Steve McQueen isn’t accurate, and I detect a bit of envy over a younger actor taking the roles that Mitchum used to get. Pinchot was a big star at one time when he had his own tv show, and he lost it. He’s taking pot shots at someone who never lost their stardom. I think his statements regarding tell us more about him than Cruise. Sometimes, you have to read between the lines.

Martha: It sounds like you have a treasure in your book of interviews.

Posted By suzidoll : September 20, 2011 12:28 am

Jenni: Sometimes the Cavett shows in which he interviewed the big stars from the Golden Age are broadcast on TCM. Very enlightening–and they are also from the 1970s.

Tom: One thing about quoting actors on other actors, you can’t put much faith in the veracity of their statements. That’s the point I tried to make in the paragraph on James Dean, when I said I learned more about the people making the statements than I did about Dean. As much as I like quoting Robert Mitchum, his assessment of Steve McQueen isn’t accurate, and I detect a bit of envy over a younger actor taking the roles that Mitchum used to get. Pinchot was a big star at one time when he had his own tv show, and he lost it. He’s taking pot shots at someone who never lost their stardom. I think his statements regarding tell us more about him than Cruise. Sometimes, you have to read between the lines.

Martha: It sounds like you have a treasure in your book of interviews.

Posted By CherieP : September 20, 2011 12:59 am

Celebrities are just reflections of the culture they live in, so these days it follows they are afraid to say anything that may be construed as offensive. That’s why the interviews are so boring.

I don’t like to read personal attacks on anyone, but the old timers had class and could walk the thin line between being entertaining and opening themselves up to a possible law suit.

Nowadays our current ‘celebrities’ (if you could call them that) are too obsessed with their self-image to be remotely interesting. They don’t have the cohones of the old timers, and as a result, won’t be remembered with the same fondness.

Posted By CherieP : September 20, 2011 12:59 am

Celebrities are just reflections of the culture they live in, so these days it follows they are afraid to say anything that may be construed as offensive. That’s why the interviews are so boring.

I don’t like to read personal attacks on anyone, but the old timers had class and could walk the thin line between being entertaining and opening themselves up to a possible law suit.

Nowadays our current ‘celebrities’ (if you could call them that) are too obsessed with their self-image to be remotely interesting. They don’t have the cohones of the old timers, and as a result, won’t be remembered with the same fondness.

Posted By Tom S : September 20, 2011 3:17 am

Suzi, I agree that it’s not safe to take what Pinchot says at face value- it’s hearsay, it’s from a questionable source, etc- but as with reading Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, it’s sometimes fun to think about the counter-programming to star images. It’s particularly fun with Cruise, as his star image is one of the most carefully guarded in Hollywood (though obviously the whole Scientology thing pushed it off the rails to some degree.)

Honestly, I don’t care very much about what big celebrities are _actually_ like- I’m never going to meet them, in all probability- but I find the bumping around of narrative and counter-narrative kind of interesting. That interest isn’t strong enough to get me to read gossip sites or tabloids or anything, but the occasional dose of salacious rumor or backstabbing can be a good time.

Posted By Tom S : September 20, 2011 3:17 am

Suzi, I agree that it’s not safe to take what Pinchot says at face value- it’s hearsay, it’s from a questionable source, etc- but as with reading Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, it’s sometimes fun to think about the counter-programming to star images. It’s particularly fun with Cruise, as his star image is one of the most carefully guarded in Hollywood (though obviously the whole Scientology thing pushed it off the rails to some degree.)

Honestly, I don’t care very much about what big celebrities are _actually_ like- I’m never going to meet them, in all probability- but I find the bumping around of narrative and counter-narrative kind of interesting. That interest isn’t strong enough to get me to read gossip sites or tabloids or anything, but the occasional dose of salacious rumor or backstabbing can be a good time.

Posted By Al Lowe : September 20, 2011 7:03 am

Some of my best memories of celebrity interviews can not be found in print or on tape.
TV is a great meat grinder. People do great interviews butthese are not kept on tape and the only place they are available is in your own mind.

Here are some memorable moments I recall from talk shows. I generally don’t remember which shows these came from.

I do remember this moment was from an old Jack Paar show. For some reason (it made sense at the time) Paar was praising some handsome actor with curly hair.
His two guests were Jayne Mansfield and Zsa Zsa Gabor, both dressed to be alluring.
Gabor said she generally didn’t like men with curly hair.
Jayne responded, “I can’t think of any kind of man that I don’t like,” as Zsa Zsa glared at her.

Dean Martin mentioned one of his old movies, BANDOLERO, as the audience applauded. “Wasn’t that a good movie?” Dino asked. He mentioned one of his co-stars, Raquel Welch, and in an obvious allusion to her chest, said, “That girl will never drown!”

David Wayne told of making ADAMS RIB with Spencer Tracy. At that time MGM was in the middle of an economy wave and they removed the public outhouses from the set. Wayne alarmed Tracy by bursting into his star dressing room because he had to use his toilet. The public restrooms were back the next day.

This next story isn’t funny but it stays in my memory. A TV reporter actually asked Lloyd Bridges how he felt now that his two sons were much more successful than he ever was. Lloyd was shocked by the question and didn’t give much of an answer.

Posted By Al Lowe : September 20, 2011 7:03 am

Some of my best memories of celebrity interviews can not be found in print or on tape.
TV is a great meat grinder. People do great interviews butthese are not kept on tape and the only place they are available is in your own mind.

Here are some memorable moments I recall from talk shows. I generally don’t remember which shows these came from.

I do remember this moment was from an old Jack Paar show. For some reason (it made sense at the time) Paar was praising some handsome actor with curly hair.
His two guests were Jayne Mansfield and Zsa Zsa Gabor, both dressed to be alluring.
Gabor said she generally didn’t like men with curly hair.
Jayne responded, “I can’t think of any kind of man that I don’t like,” as Zsa Zsa glared at her.

Dean Martin mentioned one of his old movies, BANDOLERO, as the audience applauded. “Wasn’t that a good movie?” Dino asked. He mentioned one of his co-stars, Raquel Welch, and in an obvious allusion to her chest, said, “That girl will never drown!”

David Wayne told of making ADAMS RIB with Spencer Tracy. At that time MGM was in the middle of an economy wave and they removed the public outhouses from the set. Wayne alarmed Tracy by bursting into his star dressing room because he had to use his toilet. The public restrooms were back the next day.

This next story isn’t funny but it stays in my memory. A TV reporter actually asked Lloyd Bridges how he felt now that his two sons were much more successful than he ever was. Lloyd was shocked by the question and didn’t give much of an answer.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 20, 2011 8:41 am

Dick Cavett got more out of Katherine Hepburn than anyone save A. Scott Berg. Her interview, which aired on TCM, gave me real insight into her and it wasn’t about backstabbing or taking people down, just about her talking openly and honestly about her career and life. And it took Cavett two episodes to get there, the first one with no audience (she didn’t want one) and the second, as she grew more comfortable, with an audience of some friends as well as the show’s cast and crew. But he didn’t give up and maintained a gracious attitude. It should be used as a role model for how to get the most out of a subject while remaining respectful and dignified.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 20, 2011 8:41 am

Dick Cavett got more out of Katherine Hepburn than anyone save A. Scott Berg. Her interview, which aired on TCM, gave me real insight into her and it wasn’t about backstabbing or taking people down, just about her talking openly and honestly about her career and life. And it took Cavett two episodes to get there, the first one with no audience (she didn’t want one) and the second, as she grew more comfortable, with an audience of some friends as well as the show’s cast and crew. But he didn’t give up and maintained a gracious attitude. It should be used as a role model for how to get the most out of a subject while remaining respectful and dignified.

Posted By Suzi : September 20, 2011 2:24 pm

Al: Jack Paar was terrific. I was so young when his show was on the air, but I remember it vividly. I remember seeing film footage of The Beatles performing at the Cavern in Liverpool on his shows months before they were on Sullivan.

Greg: I have seen the Hepburn interviews with Cavett. You are so right.

Posted By Suzi : September 20, 2011 2:24 pm

Al: Jack Paar was terrific. I was so young when his show was on the air, but I remember it vividly. I remember seeing film footage of The Beatles performing at the Cavern in Liverpool on his shows months before they were on Sullivan.

Greg: I have seen the Hepburn interviews with Cavett. You are so right.

Posted By dukeroberts : September 20, 2011 3:00 pm

I have The Jack Paar program on DVD. Good stuff.

Posted By dukeroberts : September 20, 2011 3:00 pm

I have The Jack Paar program on DVD. Good stuff.

Posted By David Konow : September 21, 2011 4:47 am

The B movie guys are indeed great interviews. They’re accessible, although not sure why anyone likes or remembers their work, and have great stories, much like what you see in Ed Wood about the insanity of trying to make a movie.

Playboy used to have great interviews too. Nowadays we really see stars for what they are: Vapid, boring, no personalities, no soul, with evil dragon gate keepers making it nearly impossible to get to them in the first place. Celebrity journalism should be eliminated, there’s nothing interesting to read or learn anymore from it, not that you learned much from it previously.

Posted By David Konow : September 21, 2011 4:47 am

The B movie guys are indeed great interviews. They’re accessible, although not sure why anyone likes or remembers their work, and have great stories, much like what you see in Ed Wood about the insanity of trying to make a movie.

Playboy used to have great interviews too. Nowadays we really see stars for what they are: Vapid, boring, no personalities, no soul, with evil dragon gate keepers making it nearly impossible to get to them in the first place. Celebrity journalism should be eliminated, there’s nothing interesting to read or learn anymore from it, not that you learned much from it previously.

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