Karina Longworth

You Must Remember This, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh… and Karina Longworth’s podcast of the same name is without a doubt one of the best film podcast going right now. It’s been running since 2014, I got into it around 2017 and have been hooked ever since. Longworth probes into various subjects and contexts of Hollywood’s first century with uncommon precision, depth, and often humour and emotion – each episode illuminates another brilliantly fascinating aspect of the dream factory, whether it’s what they were all up to during WWII, the eerie Hollywood connections to Charles Manson, an in-depth exploration of the notorious “Blacklist” and so much more, like the ongoing new series about the two gossip journalists – Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons – that did so much to canonise Hollywood in the way we often understand it today.

 

To start off, I want to just say how happy I am that the show’s back, because it’s just wonderful.

Karina Longworth: Aw, thanks!

So what I was wondering, first off – is there anything about the process that changed during this situation over the past year making it? I’m assuming with the first lockdown you had a lot of the Polly Platt [the most recent season before this] stuff already done – did anything change over the making of it this year?

Well in America here, we didn’t really have a first or a second lockdown; a lot of things are still closed – like, libraries are closed, archives are closed. I still can’t do research in LA like I’d like to. And with the Polly Platt show I wasn’t done. Luckily, I’d done the archival research but as of March 2020 I’d only done two interviews.

Ohh…

I did almost all the interviews for that project over Zoom or over the phone. So for this season about Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, I started doing the research in the summer of 2020 – August/December. Things were gonna get much worse here in those coming months, it got very bad in LA in around November-December. But in August I just really didn’t know; I didn’t know what would open up or what I’d have access to. I knew I’d needed to try and pick a topic – anything that I did in 2021 I knew I had to pick a topic that I could research without having to go anywhere.

That meant it had to be something based on really high-quality books that I could acquire. Because a lot of the topics that I could choose about the history of Hollywood, there just aren’t really great quality books that have already been written, so that’s why it becomes important to do things like going to an archive and reading newspapers from the 1930s, studio documents and things like that, look at those primary sources.

So I narrowed it down to maybe five ideas and then I picked two to do this year. The thing that made me realise I could do Louella/Hedda wasn’t so much that there were great books about the two of them – although there’s a lot of writing about the two of them and by the two of them because they each wrote two autobiographies and there are autobiographies about the two of them as well. I came to understand that it was really a story about newspapers in the 20th century, and about almost this secret history of the American newspaper. And so there’s a lot of material I could access about that which would compliment the stuff about the gossip columnists.

Let’s talk about that new season then. Because as of us talking right now, there’s two episodes already released and they both focus on Louella – I’m assuming Hedda is waiting in the wings somewhere.

Hedda shows up in episode three. *laughs*

Nice. What I like about it is that for me it feels like a prequel or a prologue to everything you’ve explored so far; the way that Hollywood mythologises everything, the way that the print and the media help create these icons out of normal people. Is that what you thought about when you started it?

I didn’t really think of it as a prequel, no… I guess I don’t really think that way.

Fair enough. But you’ve been doing the show for nearly seven years now, right?

Over seven years, yeah. We started in April 2014.

So in terms of the process, is it just muscle memory by now? Or is there anything in the making of the show that still surprises you?

Well, every season’s different – that’s why I probably don’t think of it as a prequel or anything like that, because every season sort of feels like starting from scratch. There’s a lot of material in this season that I’ve talked about before; like, say, Charlie Chaplin’s troubles that led to him having to be exiled from the US… but I talk about it from a completely different perspective this time, how Hedda Hopper helped to make that happen. So you can’t really rely on the research you’ve already done or the things that you think you already know. You have to start from scratch as though you’re doing it for the first time.

So it’s really on an episode-by-episode, story-by-story basis?

Yep.

For example, with an average episode, from conception to release on wherever you get your podcasts, what usually goes into it in terms of research, recording, writing? I’m really interested.

Like I said, I started thinking of doing this season in August/September last year. This season of the podcast wasn’t the only thing I was working on between now and then – I had another podcast project that is not You Must Remember This that I’d been working on at the same time – and I have various other projects. But in terms of purely what it takes? You can say it takes from August 2020 until May 2021, because these episodes weren’t finished until a couple of weeks ago. There are nine episodes in the season, and I’ve only finished five. We’re still working on the other four.

One of the things that I love about the series is how well-defined your voice is – not just literally your voice, although it’s a lovely cadence, but in terms of the way you write and speak. What I’m wondering about is – a lot of the time you have a sort of very objective shaman quality to you; a “time for a story of old-Hollywood, my children” vibe. But then I remember you voicing your own opinion on Lon Cheney Jr. that he “fucking sucks” or Judy [Garland] losing the Oscar to Grace Kelly and you just say “Ugh, of course she won.” Or the episode – I listened to the Clark Gable and Carole Lombard episode this morning, when there’s palpable emotion in your voice when you talk about what happened. When do you decide to put your own opinion into things and when do you decide to step back and just let the facts speak? What’s the relationship between that?

Well, I always let the facts speak! It’s not like I ever replace facts with opinion… but I don’t know if it’s necessarily a conscious thing. Sometimes I feel like there are moments when you kind of have to step back – once you tell the story, you have to step back and sort of have a moment that you’d have at a cocktail party when you tell an anecdote, and then you tell why you told the anecdote, you know? You say like, “this thing happened to me, and this is how it made me feel.

In terms of how you feel, another thing I really like is that you’re really clear-eyed and straightforward about Hollywood as an institution; the way it runs and what it’s capable of doing to people. But you also show a great deal of empathy for the people caught up in this system; how it can corrode them as much as it might enrich their lives. Is that something you were thinking about going into it, or did it become more of a focal point going through?

Yeah, I’ve definitely always been interested in it. I went to graduate school 17 years ago and my graduate thesis was about Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli and A Star is Born and Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York which are sort of parallel films, but they both deal with what fame does to you as a person, and why people want it. So yeah, the George Cukor/Judy Garland version of A Star is Born has been my favourite film for as long as I can remember, and nothing else supplants it. Part of that is the filmmaking and performance, but a large part is that… it has this at least dual thing going on where it is Hollywood attempting to be critical of Hollywood, but at the same time, the way it does it is very emotional and incisive.

But at the same time its such an incredible production that it makes you love Hollywood even more. That’s just my aesthetic, I think. It has a lot in common with what I’ve tried to do with the show. You want to get into who these people really are and talk about the tragedies in their lives and their struggles – but at the end of the day, I love movies and I love cinema, and I think there’s this endless fascination in the library of American cinema. I don’t ever want to say that “Hollywood was like a cesspool and they’ve poisoned our children for 120 years!!” I think movies are extremely powerful. At the end of the day I just want people to watch them.

With A Star is Born, do you think what you just described is why it keeps getting remade so much? Obviously the most recent one was a huge success, and the push and pull between meteoric rises and just-as-swift fall – the idea that for one to come, another has to go – is something that you talk about a great deal… Is that part of the reason Hollywood loves telling stories about itself? To either justify itself to some way or remake itself in the image it wants to be shown as?

So, I think that thing you talk about, that there’s “only so much space in the heavens” and for one star to rise, another must fall – this is like, a structuring myth that Hollywood… whether the people in Hollywood making these movies believe it or not, they want people who watch movies to believe it. But I think in terms of why it keeps getting remade, the last two of them have done something kind-of interesting, which is that they’ve taken the story out of movies and transformed the gaze over to music. And so in a way it’s less self-critical; It’s not the movie industry saying “Oh, look what we do.” It’s putting myth onto the music industry. I think especially in terms of the most recent one, it’s an opportunity to do a lot of acting, which actors – and especially actors who direct themselves like to do. It’s less about even the pretense of “Let’s take a hard look at ourselves.”

Yeah that makes a lot of sense. I love the new movie but it’s got a very – I’ve not seen What Price, Hollywood? [the film that inspired the original A Star is Born] but I’ve seen all the others, I think. Most of them I enjoy but there’s always this quality of “Ok, we’ve gone this far, but we’re not going to go across the line in truly interrogating what this can do to people in the way that your show does.

And in terms of the myth – we know that Hollywood loves a movie about itself – for example, I love Hail, Caesar! which you namedropped in the first episode of this season with the Hedda/Louella parody character that Tilda Swinton plays. That film also has Eddie Mannix, who by all accounts is the real Mannix in name and job only, which you articulated in another episode. And I just fucking adored Mank, I thought it was wonderful. That’s another film about the myth Hollywood creates and its relationship with the media, with politics… but historically not very accurate with the overall story in regards to who wrote Citizen Kane. Do you still get enjoyment out of these films, do you think there’s still a place for them? Because Hollywood’s been slightly misinforming since its inception, so I guess, in a long-winded way, what’s your opinion on that?

Yeah I like those movies! And maybe I like them more because I know that Hollywood is never going to make a real movie about Hollywood; it’s never going to show people a movie about Hollywood. There’s an episode about that in episode two of this season when Howard Hughes comes to Hollywood and he’s like “I’m going to make a movie out of this novel that shows what Hollywood is really like” – and Hollywood stops him from doing that. Hollywood doesn’t want anyone to know what Hollywood is really like. But I guess because I know that, like I’m able to – I liked Mank more than anyone else I know.

Me too. 

I feel like I can really enjoy the fantasies set in that world, and yeah, I love a lot of movies Hollywood makes about itself.

I rewatched Mank the other day and there’s this line that [Gary] Oldman says near the end: “People sitting in the dark willingly checking their disbelief at the door.” It’s a film all about that responsibility that artists feel they have about conveying truth and emotion to the people who need it, while also having that same discourse with the film’s own filmmaking. It’s interesting because they have it both ways, of sorts. And with a lot of the Star is Borns or the films that pretend to take the glamour out of Hollywood, at the end it’s always an ode.

Absolutely.

Like with Mank we see all this horrible socio-political stuff happening – but we got Citizen Kane out of it! And with A Star is Born they always without fail show the tragedy, but spliced in with the triumph of finding this new star. Do you reckon that the sort of, chewing up and spitting out nature of Hollywood is essential to this myth, or is there another way?

Chewing up and spitting out?

Yeah – especially with the Dead Blondes series, they seem to have a ten-or-so-year window when they’re young, beautiful and innocent enough to be used in the way that they are, and then a lot of them are thrown out. Do you think that’s something that’s always going to be the case?

Are you talking about the career longevity of stars?

I guess, whether it’s a system that started early and became essential to the machine, or whether it’s just always been an excuse for worse things like the mistreatment and abuse of these women that you’ve sometimes explored.

I’m not trying to be wilfully obtuse… but I just think young people look really beautiful on movie screens. And I think that especially once you get older enough and powerful enough to be able to greenlight a movie or decide who gets to have opportunities, you are often at a point in your life where you’re wistful about youth, if not parasitic about it. And so it tends to be older people deciding that younger people should be in movies. I don’t know whether it’s always sadistic or cruel that it means that a woman who is 40 doesn’t get the job. It’s more neglectful; it’s “You know, you were beautiful 15 years ago – and now you’re still beautiful but I’d prefer to look at the person who’s 22. I mean, maybe that’s evil?!

[laughs] It definitely isn’t.

But I also think as someone who’s now 40, I can kind-of understand it because there is a certain magic to capturing youth on screen. And of course you can and should tell stories about people in their forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, but… there’s something about the magic of cinema that’s very tied to fantasy, and very tied to people who are not as young, not as beautiful, fantasising about when they were or that they could be.

Maybe also because the medium of film is really a preserver, isn’t it?

Mmm.

In that, it’s always going to be them at their best and brightest… I feel that something You Must Remember This does beautifully is how it shows a lot of the effort, and sometimes extreme pain that went into some of their greatest work. You never give a definitive answer to the “was it worth it?” question, but I feel like you always take a lot of pain to show exactly what comes out of these situations – the good and the awful – and how the work will always be there in some form even if the people behind it are not. I really like that.

Thanks! Polly Platt titled her unfinished memoir It Was Worth It, and I thought a lot about what that meant in her case. Because she was somebody who felt like her contributions were not given the credit or attention that they deserved, and she was somebody who felt like she never quite reached the level she wanted to professionally – and because she was focusing on the professional side, she wasn’t the mother she wanted to be. And so she felt like a failure on both arenas. But at the end of the day, she knew these movies would outlive her and she felt like that was worth it.

Can we talk about that season a bit? Because I think that is the absolute – the best the show has ever been.

Thank you very much.

I’d seen her on some executive producer credits, I knew a tiny bit about her relationship with [Peter] Bogdanovich… but I think it was an incredible achievement bringing this woman to life and honouring her the way you did. Comparing it to my other favourite season, which was the Manson one, which a lot of people see as a definitive article on what happened in those years. But that’s a very different context; almost everyone at least in passing knows about the gist of August 1969, but the Polly Platt thing – like you said, she was the “Invisible Woman” of Hollywood. So what kind of differs between a subject where you want to educate between one you really want to re-educate; one that you feel like you weren’t told the whole story, like Manson?

Well they were both very different because I made them several years apart. With Polly, the whole reason to do it was having access to this unpublished memoir that nobody had read, and so that dictated the structure of that season – because it was unfinished, I had questions, and that’s when I started talking to people who knew her and started filling in the story. And with the Manson season it was like… I guess a lot of people do think they know what happened there and consider themselves Manson experts. But I wasn’t, because I don’t care about murder or true crime or anything.

The only reason why I did that season is because I was watching a Doris Day movie and I googled her, and I learned for the first time that her son was Terry Melcher; and them there was something about Terry Melcher in an obituary saying some people believe that when the Manson Family killed Sharon Tate, they were looking for Melcher that night. And so that’s the only reason why I was interested in that story; I was trying to connect how Doris Day is one degree of separation away from Charles Manson. I was never going to tell the story in any way other than that one; I wouldn’t have known enough about Manson, or the Family, or any of the crime or cult aspects of it to tell it any other way.

You know, that’s kind of the funny thing about that season. I sold a TV adaptation of it – we did a writers room, a professional showrunner was hired and she wrote two episodes, and the network who bought it had paid for this whole process… and they ended up not making the show. I personally think the reason is because the professional showrunner didn’t know how to preserve what was unique about the podcast season, which was that it did come from this point of view of “I only care about Doris Day.” She – and I think a lot of people – thought the way to tell this story was making a more conventional true-crime thing focused on “what happened” and “why did it happen” from the perspective of the justice system. But that’s not why anybody listens to my version of it.

It’s also probably the “myth” of Manson that completely envelops everything around it. Case in point; I have two books about it right here – obviously I have Helter Skelter but I also have this book called Chaos that I found out about.

Yeah.

And they’re two completely different takes on it. And yours I guess is in the middle of that in that you use the story, but you tie it into the culture and what was going on in Hollywood, the nature of cults and the cycles of violence and suffering. It’s not really about Charles Manson, is it? He’s a springboard like the way you use Howard Hughes in that he’s a catalyst to talk about much more interesting things and much more interesting people. Was that in mind when you mapped out the season?

Absolutely, because I do not care about Charles Manson. It was really just about the stories that I’d heard – like “everybody bought a guard dog” or “everybody in Hollywood bought a gun” because they all thought somebody was going to come and get them. And then it was more about: what was going on in Hollywood that would allow someone like Charles Manson to get so close to the Beach Boys? You know, what was going on that allowed, like Angela Lansbury’s daughter *laughs* to go hitchhiking with these people? It was answering those questions, you know? For me, I never cared about a lot of the things that had to do with the murder or the trial or things like that. It was more like “how is this a story about Hollywood?”

So making it a story about Hollywood – what do you care about in the telling of these stories – these “secret or forgotten histories” as you describe it. What do you want your listeners to care about or take from them?

Well I think at the end of the day like I said, what I want is for people to watch the movies and care about the movies, and for this body of work to not go away. And that feels increasingly urgent over the years that I’ve been doing this show because it feels like as the culture evolves – and certainly there’s a very strong movement in culture right now to throw away our idols, and part of that is to “smash the patriarchy”, to be more inclusive of race and sexual identity and stuff like that…

What I try to do is talk – and this is where I always say the secret history comes in; in that my version of doing the secret history of Hollywood is looking at films and events of the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s from the perspective of today. And being able to understand – or not even just understand. So much of film history today is written by men or white men and is written from their perspective of their point of view being the dominant one, the default. You can kind of reinvent the way anybody thinks about the history of Hollywood just by looking at it from a different perspective. By trying to empathise with what it was like to be a woman in these situations, what it was like to be a black person or a gay person – which is perhaps shockingly, and I think definitely shockingly to young people, is just something that hasn’t been done before.

I really get that from the series; you really go into detail on… not exactly the dark underbelly but the darker elements of how Hollywood either runs or used to run. But there’s so much emphasis on the love and warmth that comes from it as well – again I’m thinking about Carole and Gable, or Liz [Elizabeth Taylor] and Monty’s [Montgomery Clift] relationship. The best thing you do in the show is that you give people their due. You see them fully as human; they can be brilliant, they can be awful, frequently both but you give everything you’ve got as a writer and a performer to make them living, breathing humans.

I don’t even know if that’s exactly intentional… what is intentional is that I want to share my enthusiasm for why I like movies and why I’m interested in this stuff – and often I get enthusiastic or excited about personal stories that I can relate to. For instance, with the Carole Lombard and Clark Gable thing, I can relate to this idea of Clark Gable waiting in a hotel room, knowing that his wife is probably dead, but knowing that if he leaves the room, he’ll find out for sure. And if he stays, then maybe he never has to find out for sure. I almost feel tears in my eyes just thinking about that.

It’s that kind of thing. When I can understand what it felt like to be that person at that time, in that situation, and can empathise with it, I feel like I have to share that because that will help other people connect with the material and connect to the movies at the end of the day.

I think you’ve done just a wonderful, wonderful job with that.

Thank you so much.

One more thing; I’m just interested in voices. Obviously the main one is yours, but I love when other voices turn up in the show – it’s fun and immersive to see different, Old Hollywood voices. You’ve got Noah Segan as Howard Hughes, Craig Mazin as Mayer or – I can’t remember his name – some director guy called “Rian Johnson” as John Huston… [Longworth has been married to Rian Johnson since 2018]

*laughs* Oh yes…

How do you go about directing them? Is it fun getting your friends to do it?

Well, it’s easier to get friends than anyone else right now. On this other project I’m working on, we’re working with professional actors and going through their agents, and it’s a pain in the ass. It’s much easier to just email someone you know.

God, thank you so much for doing this. I can’t wait to see how this season goes. Are we getting another season this year afterwards?

Thank you! And yeah, there’s going to be another You Must Remember This season probably in October, but before that there’s this project, this podcast that’s about an Old Hollywood story but it isn’t YMRT. It’s a collaboration with somebody else.

Can you tell us anything about it?

Nope, sorry. *laughs*

The new season of “You Must Remember This” is streaming weekly every Tuesday in the UK on various podcast providers, along with all previous episodes.

By Stephen Cosgrove

Hi everyone. English with Film student at KCL here. I love movies as much as you do, and if I feel like I have something to say about them, I'll post it here. Thanks! p.s. I can't write a short review if I tried.

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