Interview: Leonard Maltin on Classic Movies (2015)

With publication of the third edition of Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide: From the Silent Era Through 1965 (Plume, 2015), presented by Turner Classic Movies (TCM), I interviewed the film historian, university instructor, critic and author at his home in the San Fernando Valley about the new book, his podcast, working with TCM, favorite artists and classic movies.

This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Scott Holleran: Now, talking about the third edition of the Classic Movie Guide. Did you pick TCM or did they pick you?

Leonard Maltin: I approached them. They were very receptive, which pleased me no end. Which also pleased my publisher because they’re going to help promote the book. It’s a great marriage.

Scott Holleran: What is the basic value proposition of the Classic Movie Guide for someone who’s new to classic movies?

Leonard Maltin: Well, we’ve tried to make a user-friendly guide. There are plenty of sites online where you can go and get heaps of information. We don’t give you heaps of information; we try to give you [only] the most essential, useful information in capsulized form. That’s the idea and always has been the idea of our movie guides. And, so, if it’s of someone’s film debut, we note that. If there’s somebody who later became famous who’s in a tiny role, we note that. If it’s based on a Broadway play or a bestselling novel, we note that. We try to pack as much as we can into our tight little paragraphs so you don’t have to go searching to accumulate that information. It’s all there.

Scott Holleran: What’s the driving editorial decision: Is it that you want the reader to get a sense of whether the movie’s worth the time or is it a more definitive, scholarly approach?

Leonard Maltin: No, I don’t think it’s scholarly. It’s well-informed, I think, and it’s—as you know, Scott, when all else is said and done, it’s an opinion. We do give a rating and a review, and it’s our collective opinion, the editors’ and mine. And you may disagree. I’m always hesitant to say, “You should see this,” or, “You can skip that.” We do give an opinion, and, sometimes, we’ll say we think it’s terrible. But, you know, then I’ll get mail from people saying, “I loved it.”

Scott Holleran: How much debate goes on between you and the other writers?

Leonard Maltin: Well, I’m the editor-in-chief, so— [laughter]

Scott Holleran: —You get final say—

Leonard Maltin: —I have to have some perks to that job.

Scott Holleran: What are the additions to this third edition of the Classic Movie Guide?

Leonard Maltin: Well, we did a lot of amending to the existing book, which means fixing mistakes, embellishing reviews, adding information, clarifying synopses, adding cast members that we had omitted who deserved to be included, just tweaking the book, trying to make it more thorough—more accurate in every possible way, as well as adding more than 300 new reviews.

Scott Holleran: Such as?

Leonard Maltin: A lot of silent films, a number of foreign language films, and a lot of B movies. Our criterion was whether it is available for people to see; is it on cable television? Is it on DVD or Blu-Ray? Is it downloadable? There are a lot of films, many, many more than we could list that exist in archives and museums, but outside of visiting that archive, you can’t get to see it. So, this, again, is supposed to be a user guide, and that’s the particular purpose of this book. I mean, for instance—the great find in New Zealand five or six years ago of John Ford’s long-lost movie Upstream from 1927, a staggering find for a film that no one had seen since 1927 that actually is good. Just because you find the film doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to be worthwhile or live up to your expectations, but this is a delightful movie, a comedy, kind of a backstage comedy and really entertaining. And it’s now on DVD as part of the National Film Preservation Foundation series. So, you can see it. That’s why it’s in the book.

Scott Holleran: What’s the most popular film to be added?

Leonard Maltin: No, most of the additions are—we already had most of the big, mainstream titles. So, these tend to be a little off the beaten path. There are some that I was surprised we hadn’t tackled before. On TCM last night we showed the Colleen Moore movie Why Be Good? a late silent movie with a Vitaphone soundtrack. It’s a wonderful—a really good movie starring one of the most popular leading ladies of the silent era. She was like the number onebrea box office star in the late Twenties. And, it’s a very interesting film that is now available on DVD from Warner Archive which we screened on TCM. Last night’s was its TCM debut. Now, five years ago that film wasn’t available to be seen. It’s another one that was missing in action for like 80 years, more than 80 years. So, it’s a treat to be able to include things like that.

Scott Holleran: Is there an example of a film that had a more nuanced assessment that gets a more positive assessment in this edition?

Leonard Maltin: There are some rewrites, and some changes of opinion. And you’re going to ask me for examples.

Scott Holleran: Any come to mind?

Leonard Maltin: [Pauses] Naughty Marietta, the first Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald movie, had gotten kind of a blah review, and I had seen it as a young person but not in decades. I revisited it a year or two ago, and it’s a delightful movie. It’s really good. And I said, “Well, we haven’t been fair to this movie.” So, I rewrote it and improved its rating.

Scott Holleran: I know that, sometimes, I’ll think, I see why I liked a movie when it came out, but it doesn’t hold up well, or vice versa; that there’s more to this than I remembered liking about it. Does that happen with you?

Leonard Maltin: Yeah, I mean, it cuts both ways. Sometimes, its better than I remember, and sometimes, it doesn’t live up to my memory of it. And in an ideal world or in an idealized world, I would re-view all 10,000 movies and reassess them because some of the change of opinion has to do with changing times. We don’t live in a vacuum. None of us, and the world changes. It changes our view of things. New movies come along that change our perspective on older movies. So, you can’t write anything in concrete when you’re writing about film, I don’t think. So, I try to stay open-minded to that.

Scott Holleran: I notice in reviews that sometimes a reviewer will overpraise a film because it’s clear that they really like the leading lady or the leading man or someone in the cast. Or, they have a favorable disposition to a director. Is there a common thread as you’re editing copy that you see over time, something that stands out as a common mistake you see in film assessments, reviews or critiques?

Leonard Maltin: That’s for other people to say, I think. I don’t know that I could identify it. We try to be fair. We try to be fair-minded, and we don’t indulge in hyperbole. We’re very stingy with our four-star ratings, for instance. Some people criticize me for that. But, I feel that if you praise everything or if you praise it too glibly or too lightly, then, when it comes time to really honor a film, it doesn’t have the same meaning or the same impact because you’ve been saying good things about so many movies that come along. We want those higher ratings to have real significance.

Scott Holleran: Are there any new features?

Leonard Maltin: The only really new item is sort of a gimmicky list I put together of some favorite performances from A to Z.

Scott Holleran: Your condensed favorites list?

Leonard Maltin: Yeah.

Scott Holleran: I would think that tracking down whether it is available would itself be heavily research intensive—

Leonard Maltin: —Well, yeah, that’s my video editor, Casey St. Charnez, who’s been doing that for decades for the video guides. And he and his wife run a video store, and have for years, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That’s their domain. I trust him implicitly on that. He does a very good job.

Scott Holleran: Sometimes, I’ll notice that a movie becomes available, then goes away.

Leonard Maltin: Yeah. But that’s been true on DVD for years. And before that, on VHS, something would go out of print just like a book sometimes goes out of print, which is why we never take that symbol out of the book. If it was ever available, we indicate it because you could maybe hunt for it and find it.

Scott Holleran: What is a common response you get from past editions that differentiates from the regular, now retired Leonard Maltin movie guide?

Leonard Maltin: The angriest reaction we get is if there’s an actor we’ve left out of the actor index in the back. It’s a very selective star index in the back that people like having, so they can have an easy reference to looking up the films of Humphrey Bogart or the films of Loretta Young, and if I’ve left out one of their favorite stars, they’re very peeved. Very peeved. And, you know, if we did a thorough index, it would be almost as thick as the book itself. Mostly, some people can’t agree to disagree. And I’m not trying to force my opinion on anybody. Obviously, it’s my book. My name is on the book. I’m offering my opinion. But I’m not insisting you agree with it. When people say they like me as a critic, what they mean is they tend to agree with me. I found that out years ago. And so, if you know my work, you know how to assess my reviews. You know that I tend not to like gory horror films. So, if you know that going in, you can better judge my review of a horror film. And, I don’t hide my prejudices or my taste or my likes and dislikes. So, I think think that’s the value of having a known quantity as a critic as opposed to just some anonymous person online position a review. It may be very intelligent and very well reasoned opinion, but you don’t know that. You don’t have a history with that person.

Scott Holleran: Do you think the Classic Movie Guide helps sustain film criticism?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t know. That’s a tall order. What we do is such a shorthand version of film criticism. I think it’s valid, but it’s still very—

Scott Holleran: It’s a starting point because it gets the reader thinking about a film?

Leonard Maltin: Yeah. I hope so. That’s a nice way to put it.

Scott Holleran: Silent films seem to be receiving something of a renaissance right now.

Leonard Maltin: Yes. In fact, I dare say that there are more silent film showings than vintage talking film showings around the country which is just great. And that means that more people are being exposed to silent films on a theater screen with live music, and that’s the way they really ought to be seen.

Scott Holleran: They’re getting re-scored and remastered. Why?

Leonard Maltin: People continue to discover the magic of silent films. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival every spring is a wonderful event that often sells out the Castro Theatre up there. It’s just heartwarming to see. And it’s not alone; there are many showings around the country.

Scott Holleran: What else will you be doing, if anything, with Turner Classic Movies?

Leonard Maltin: I’m continuing to host their Disney evenings. I’m very lucky to have had that evening last night with Ben [Mankiewicz] and I’m delighted to be doing the Disney series for them. I usually participate in their Classic Film Festival every April.

Scott Holleran: Can people see Leonard Maltin doing any original programming anywhere else?

Leonard Maltin: Well, I’m still working for Reelzchannel. I’m about to tape a new movie review special with my partner, Greg Drake, which we’re going to record next week and which will be airing in mid-October. Those are always fun to do. We tape those in Albuquerque, so that’s an adventure in itself. And I’m doing my weekly podcast, almost a full year’s worth so far.

Scott Holleran: Maltin on Movies?

Leonard Maltin: Right, on the Wolfpop network, part of Earwolf, and that’s available for free from iTunes. And there’s a link to it on the home page of my website.

Scott Holleran: And what’s the feedback you get there? How is it different?

Leonard Maltin: We hear from all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons. It’s very interesting, very engaged audience. It’s fun.

Scott Holleran: So, you like podcasting?

Leonard Maltin: I do. I like the informality of it and the immediacy of it.

Scott Holleran: How does it differ from traditional radio broadcasting?

Leonard Maltin: It doesn’t have to be perfect. I had to learn that. At one time, I was having our engineer edit out all of my flubs and all of my, every time I stumble over a word or something like that. And then, he said to me, “It doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect.” I thought about it, and I listened to some other podcasts. I realized he was right. We can be casual, and it’s conversational. I think that’s the main difference. Also, it doesn’t have to be a particular length. It can go shorter or longer, and it doesn’t matter.

Scott Holleran: But you usually try to keep within a certain timeframe, right?

Leonard Maltin: We like it to be under an hour because those seem to be the ideal length for podcasts, I’m told. But some weeks it might be forty-four minutes. And other weeks, it might be fifty-two minutes. It doesn’t matter. I heard from an old friend in New York I hadn’t talked to in ages who said she listens to it while she exercises. [laughter] You know, it’s totally unpredictable.

Scott Holleran: Your daughter, Jessie, is getting more involved, right?

Leonard Maltin: Yes, she is. I enjoy it, and she enjoys it, too. When I was ill this summer, she Skyped in from the UK with my partner Baron Vaughn and filled in for me. That was wonderful.

Scott Holleran: Which 2015 films, in your view, will end up being regarded as classic movies?

Leonard Maltin: You know, that’s hard to say. I don’t know. Some of what grabs us right now is so of the moment, either in terms of topic or its approach, it’s hard to know how they’re going to wear over the years. I don’t know. I saw an early screening of Steve Jobs at Telluride, and it’s a very flashy film. And very good, I think. Will that approach stand up to the years? Will it seem overly flashy? I can’t know. We can’t know that. But I think Danny Boyle did a great job with Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, and Michael Fassbender is terrific. You can only judge for now. To me, the ultimate oxymoron, and it’s used a lot, is the term “instant classic”. Instant would-be classic or classic wannabe, I’ll accept those. But people don’t say that. They say “instant classic”. Well, we don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.

Scott Holleran: The idea of classic movies has changed in terms of how people think of it. On TCM, they’ll show B horror movies. Sometimes, I’ll think, Really? This is not a classic movie.

Leonard Maltin: Well, not everything old is classic. Just because it’s old doesn’t make it a classic. But TCM has been very canny in broadening its horizons and showing a wider variety of films, including tacky stuff from recent vintage and newer films coming up through the decades that have staying power. Look, the Seventies, which is an era that many people regard so highly in American filmmaking and writing, and rightly so, that’s 40 years ago. Forty years is a long time.

Scott Holleran: Do you think that this approach dilutes or diminishes how people should properly regard what constitutes a classic movie?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t want to be uptight. We call this a Classic Movie Guide, and we have a lot of stinkers in here, too. So, it’s another way of saying “vintage”, I guess. Not just old. I’m trying to be careful with my terminology, but—let’s face it. It’s a broad-based term for older films. I accept that. There are some films that are thought of as classics that I may not necessarily love.

Scott Holleran: Such as?

Leonard Maltin: A Place in the Sun. I’m not a great fan of A Place in the Sun. Some people revere it. That’s not the right word. Some people think highly of it. Many people think highly of it. I’m not one of them. It has some great moments. So, my opinion may be the minority view in that case.

Scott Holleran: So you do look at the movie as a whole movie.

Leonard Maltin: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. The greatest irony is the decade of the 1950s. So many of the films of the 1950s that were Oscar winners and critical favorites back then were big, important movies with a capital I. And those, Around the World in Eighty Days or Ben-Hur, those are not necessarily the movies that fans and movie buffs enjoy the most now. The Searchers, which was dismissed on its release in 1956, is now one of the most treasured films in all of American cinema. As are many other westerns and science fiction films and thrillers and genre pieces that were considered almost program movies or inconsequential movies in that same period. You’ll get more people talking about Invasion of the Body Snatchers than you will Around the World in Eighty Days.

Scott Holleran: That goes to what you’re saying about changing times and mores—

Leonard Maltin: Yes.

Scott Holleran: And ethics, that we look back on Invasion of the Body Snatchers and see it as a metaphor for conformity—

Leonard Maltin: —Yes.

Scott Holleran: And The Searchers, we are more enlightened about racism, for instance. I’m not sure that people viewed the John Wayne character as villainous when they went to see it in theaters back then, or as having a dark side.

Leonard Maltin: Right. No. I mean, if you read some of the reviews, it’s astonishing. “Just another John Wayne western”, you know. Really? What film did you see?

Scott Holleran: Speaking of a couple of your favorites: Bad Day at Black Rock from the Fifties. Why is that one of your favorites?

Leonard Maltin: It’s a great film. I mean, some of its ideas have been echoed in subsequent movies, but it’s still a great concept and beautifully executed. Spencer Tracy is so solid in that film. The supporting cast is exceptional. The use of location up near Lone Pine.

Scott Holleran: And the editing, the concision.

Leonard Maltin: Oh, yes. Everything. Everything about it, everything about it just clicks. And it’s a tough movie, too. It’s a very hardboiled film. And, of course, the other genre I should have mentioned before is film noir. That is so endearingly popular today I think because of its cynicism. We live in a more cynical world. So I find, dealing with my students at USC, they can more easily accept cynicism than they can accept sweetness, light and innocence in older movies. They’ve grown up in a harder, harsher world. A post-9/11 world.

Scott Holleran: Was Bad Day at Black Rock a commercial and critical success in 1955?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t think it was a hit, but I think it was well received. It still has the element of surprise to it.

Scott Holleran: The Furies, that was, if you can remember—

Leonard Maltin: Oh, yeah. That’s 1950. The Furies is a fascinating film—absolutely fascinating. Talk about dark. Judith Anderson is so good. Everyone is so strong in that film. And again, it’s an example of—people who think of old Hollywood films as being simplistic or all having happy endings and blue skies ought to take a look at The Furies. [laughter]

Scott Holleran: Or Bad Day at Black Rock.

Leonard Maltin: Or Bad Day at Black Rock. They may be in for a shock or something of a shock. And these films were all made by studios; these were made under the studio system. Strong-minded writers and directors and producers got films made that were complex and multilayered and not as sunny or simplistic as some people would have you believe of that period.

Scott Holleran: You mentioned your students at University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Can you think of a movie or couple of movies consistently over the years that students come back to with high praise—

Leonard Maltin: Well, I don’t teach a film history class. I teach a contemporary film class. So, but what I do is I sneak in short subjects at the beginning of class, old shorts, cartoons and shorts, to get a taste of film history. And, I showed them Betty Boop last week, and Popeye, a Max Fleischer cycle, and those cartoons from the 1930s need no apology, no explanation, they just play to an audience. They play beautifully, as if they were made this morning. And to an audience that’s used to seeing postmodern cartoons, self-referential humor, a lot of things that you don’t find in the older, animated shorts. Yet, they responded as any audience would.

Scott Holleran: Is Song of the South in Classic Movie Guide?

Leonard Maltin: I think it has been from the beginning, yeah.

Scott Holleran: But that’s not available.

Leonard Maltin: Well, it is—

Scott Holleran: You made an exception?

Leonard Maltin: —if you look in the right places. Every rule—

Scott Holleran: Is made to be broken?

Leonard Maltin: —has its exceptions.

Scott Holleran: Should Disney release Song of the South on Blu-Ray?

Leonard Maltin: I think they should with appropriate introduction and commentary to put it into context.

Scott Holleran: I always thought Disney should consider inviting someone such as Sidney Poitier, who’s served on the Walt Disney Company’s board of directors, to introduce it and provide a wider context. Why haven’t they? Have you talked to Bob Iger about that?

Leonard Maltin: I’ve not personally had a conversation with him about this, no.

Scott Holleran: But you are regarded as a Disney historian and expert.

Leonard Maltin: Yeah, but he’s made his own assessment and opinion. And he’s asked about it every year at the shareholders’ meeting, and he’s been pretty emphatic about it. He hasn’t used the word “never”, but he’s pretty emphatic in his thinking about it. My feeling is that nothing is gained by sweeping something under the carpet. I think the problem for Disney is that Disney is such a big target. No one thinks of 20th Century Fox or Warner Bros. or Universal Pictures in the way they think of Disney. Disney has a bond with its audience and a reputation, so they’re more vulnerable. I understand their trepidation. I completely understand their trepidation.

Scott Holleran: Have you seen Song of the South?

Leonard Maltin: Yeah.

Scott Holleran: Is it a racist film?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t think it is. Uncle Remus is the hero of that movie and a lovable, beloved character. And that’s how I always saw it when I was a child when I first saw the movie, and I didn’t grow up to be a racist or think that all blacks were subservient or spoke in a dialect. I just took this as a particular story set at a particular time.

Scott Holleran: Who are some of the, in your view, looking back at the whole scope of classic movies from the silent era to 1965, some of the more underrated directors or directors who haven’t gotten their due.

Leonard Maltin: Well, I mentioned this name in an interview earlier this morning to someone who’d never heard of him. King Vidor—I think he is actually overlooked when the roster of great directors is cited. His first great success was The Big Parade, one of the greatest of all silent films. He then went on to make The Crowd, another milestone film about—and a very, a typical Hollywood product. He made a delightful comedy with Marion Davies called Show People in 1928. He left the studio system to make a very personal project called Our Daily Bread in the Thirties. He was constantly reaching and experimenting and trying new things. He made The Champ with Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery in the early Thirties which was an enormous success. H.M. Pulham, Esq. is a film I like very much. Northwest Passage. He made many great films, and he had some misfires as well. But [he’s] not easily pigeonholed. One of the things I admire about him. And I showed one, one of my favorite under-appreciated films of his, at the TCM festival two years ago called The Stranger’s Return with Miriam Hopkins and Franchot Tone and Lionel Barrymore, which suddenly turned up on TCM. A really, really good movie, a very adult movie, from the early Thirties. Again, atypically sophisticated and adult for its time.

Scott Holleran: Who’s your favorite movie star from the era of silents to ’65?

Leonard Maltin: Bogart.

Scott Holleran: Is Casablanca one of your—

Leonard Maltin: That is my all-time favorite movie.

Scott Holleran: Is its director underrated?

Leonard Maltin: Yes, that’s a good one. Michael Curtiz is underrated. He was an incredible director with a dynamic visual sense. He hated ordinary shots. He put vitality into everything he did.

Scott Holleran: What are a few movies people should see by Michael Curtiz?

Leonard Maltin: The Kennel Murder Case, early Thirties [1933]. Yankee Doodle Dandy, of course.

Scott Holleran: Any others by Curtiz?

Leonard Maltin: Mildred Pierce.

Scott Holleran: What about producers?

Leonard Maltin: There were great producers in the Golden Age and the Golden Era who exerted great influence and who sometimes sat on the shoulders of directors and guided them in a positive way. Daryl F. Zanuck was a very gutsy producer, studio chief and producer. And sometimes his interference wasn’t welcomed, and sometimes it was. And he and John Ford had their bones of contention, but they also made some great films together. It was very bold of them to make The Grapes of Wrath. They had to make some concessions to censorship of the time, but they still managed to capture the essence of John Steinbeck’s book in what was almost certain to be a noncommercial venture. And Zanuck did that time and time again with The Ox-Bow Incident, with Gentleman’s Agreement, with Pinky. He was a very forthright guy who stuck to his guns when he believed in a property.

Scott Holleran: Is he one of the producers that you think of when you think of—again, silent to ’65—people who made movies better?

Leonard Maltin: Yes, absolutely. He did at Warner Bros., and he did when he started at 20th Century Fox. And Hal Wallis, who was the head of production at Warner Bros., did remarkable work. And the proof is in the surviving memos from Warner Bros. that Rudy Behlmer collected into a fascinating book called Inside Warner Bros. [Fireside, 1986], which reproduced all these unbelievable memoranda that showed just how savvy Hal Wallis was as production chief. It’s must reading for any classic movie fan, just endlessly fascinating to see how he micromanaged the films under his watch at Warner’s.

Scott Holleran: Is Kazan one of the great directors?

Leonard Maltin: Yes, absolutely. And his first films were made for Daryl Zanuck. I love his first film: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Scott Holleran: His last film, or one of his last films, The Arrangement: I know that’s after this era, but how do you regard that? Is that going to be a classic film?

Leonard Maltin: No. I don’t think so, but America, America, I think, is fantastic from his later period.

Scott Holleran: Who deserves credit for Gone with the Wind?

Leonard Maltin: That’s a collaborative film. I guess who deserves credit is David O. Selznick, primarily. But, not solely because he worked with so many directors and several screenwriters, not to mention William Cameron Menzies’ production design and Walter Plunkett’s costumes and Max Steiner’s music, etc., etc., etc. No film is made by a single person, but if there’s a single vision to that film, I think you’d have to say it’s Selznick’s.

Interview with Lasse Hallström on A Dog’s Purpose

Lasse Hallström recently took a break from work to talk with me about his newest movie, A Dog’s Purpose, in theaters now. Mr. Hallström, whose films range from Dear John and Hachi: A Dog’s Tale to The Cider House Rules, The Hoax and Chocolat, has been directing motion pictures since 1985 with his feature My Life as a Dog. This is his first interview about the picture since A Dog’s Purpose debuted. This is an edited transcript with one minor plot “spoiler”.

Scott Holleran: Congratulations on a commercially successful debut at the box office, where your movie, A Dog’s Purpose, made its money back in one week. Thank you for making an intelligent, wonderful and meaningful motion picture.

Lasse Hallström: Thank you for the lovely review. I really appreciate it. I put a lot of heart into this film and I totally enjoyed the process.

Scott Holleran: Applying the movie’s theme, what are you working on now?

Lasse Hallström: I finished shooting a live action version of The Nutcracker [Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms] based on the original story by E.T.A. Hoffman in the 1800s—the ballet came out in the late 1800s—which will come out around Thanksgiving 2018. So, now I start editing. It’s a lot special effects. I’ve never had a budget like this before. It was fantastic, not that the budget didn’t weigh on us—it’s a tremendous responsibility. We had a wonderful lead girl named Mackenzie Foy. She played the daughter in Interstellar. I think she’s amazing in it. We have cinematography by Linus Sandgren (La La Land, The Hundred-Foot Journey), music by James Newton Howard (The Hunger Games, Batman Begins, Concussion) and Tchaikovsky and we use the original ballet music. We have Morgan Freeman (An Unfinished Life, Feast of Love), Helen Mirren (Collateral Beauty, The Hundred-Foot Journey) and Keira Knightley (Collateral Beauty). It was a lovely experience.

Scott Holleran: Your last movie, The Hundred-Foot Journey, and this one, A Dog’s Purpose, are bright and colorful. Is this a conscious choice?

Lasse Hallström: No. If there’s a [subconscious] choice, I can only say I enjoy making movies that focus on character and what characters have in common—in India, France, or America—I love character observations. So I work with actors to help to create something authentic and recognizable. That’s what drives me really.

Scott Holleran: What technology do you find best helps you achieve the look you want?

Lasse Hallström: That’s a good question. I have a split answer. If I’m egotistical, I would go with the digital system when it comes to capturing performances because I love to improvise especially with dogs in order to keep rolling. But for the artistic look I certainly prefer film. If I want the best and most authentic look, I have to go with film. Subtleties of the skin get flattened out with digital. The greenery of the forest looks very different, too. My cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, who just did La La Land, has taught me the wonderful difference between film and digital and I have to stick to film. Film is superior when it comes to subtlety of color.

Scott Holleran: What one quality did you seek in the actors who played Ethan?

Lasse Hallström: I look at the ability to improvise and be alive in front of the camera. I tend to want to improvise around the script. There’s a lot of improvising. It’s a great asset for me, it’s more vibrant. For example, when [two characters in A Dog’s Purpose] break up, that was all improvised. The scripted version felt a little written. So I used the improvisation.

Scott Holleran: Which scene best essentializes the movie’s theme?

Lasse Hallström: [Pauses] I don’t think I have one. Personally, I like the end shot of Maya [a character played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste] when she pats her dog and says ‘what are you thinking?’ and he says “…one of my best lives, really”. I thought that was the best interaction. I can’t say I have a defining moment.

Scott Holleran: Why did you decide to make another movie about dogs?

Lasse Hallström: It’s coincidence, really. I have to say if I’m offered something with potential charm that’s driven by character and allows for that, I’m undaunted. I like the idea of hearing a dog’s thoughts and trying to get in the head of the dog. I pay more attention to dogs now. I try to figure out what they’re thinking which makes me want to connect with dogs even more. I find that I’m more passionate in wanting to know what’s on a dog’s mind. I think you know about my [having had] five chow chows. I’m a fanatic dog lover. [Pauses] I lost my chow chow right before we started shooting [A Dog’s Purpose]. So, now I just have memories of them.

Scott Holleran: Did you have Dennis Quaid in mind as Ethan?

Lasse Hallström: He was cast very early on. It’s a lead character but I had worked with him before on Something to Talk About. I really love him. We both love dogs and play golf and we’ve worked together before so it was easygoing [on the set]. He’s got a great sense of humor.

Scott Holleran: Did he collaborate with the other actors playing Ethan at earlier ages?

Lasse Hallström: I kind of told him [about the character] and he met and discussed the character with K.J. Apa. I think they decided to have some mannerisms in common, like a little nervous thing with his hand. I trusted him to the point of letting him do whatever he wanted to do including when to tell the cameraman to stop. So we did a lot of takes. I said: here’s the crew, here’s the camera and there’s the crane.

Scott Holleran: Why did you choose Josh Gad (Frozen) as the voice of the dogs?

Lasse Hallström: That was an idea from the studio that I loved. We really hit it off long distance and, with him in Los Angeles and me in London, we kissed and hugged long distance. I still haven’t met him.

Scott Holleran: You chose Rachel Portman, who scored your movies Chocolat and The Cider House Rules, to compose the musical score. Why?

Lasse Hallström: She always delivers. I love what she’s doing and she’s a dog lover, too. She loved the film and was inspired by it, so we had another good experience. She made so many scenes [with her musical score]. It’s a perfect complement to that breakup scene.

Scott Holleran: What’s the most common criticism of the movie which you think might be valid?

Lasse Hallström: I knew it was [going to be] that I’ve been making too many “heartwarming” movies. So, it’s a bit too sweet even for me. It’s the nature of the project. I keep getting attracted to stories that have a certain life-affirming quality. I’m just that kind of guy. I can’t resist charm and life-affirming moments that entertain or, as we say in Swedish, roa röra, a phrase which means entertain and touch or move.

Scott Holleran: What’s the most common praise for the movie that you think might be valid?

Lasse Hallström

Lasse Hallström: The one I pick up on and appreciate is that it’s heartwarming after all. But being drawn to it is crossing the line into sentimentality. I’m actually allergic to sentimentality. But I’m very, very drawn to it, or to the conflicts, because I keep saying that if I’m honest or realistic with wanting to convey strong emotion or sentimentality I can stay on the right side [of the line]. If I’m false or pushy, I can fall into sentimentality. The fact that people are moved by it, not by blatant attempts to push buttons and evoke emotion, may be why the movie earned an A from Cinemascore audiences.

Scott Holleran: Had you seen Frank Marshall’s Eight Below?

Lasse Hallström: No. But Frank Marshall is probably a kindred spirit. He has a positive outlook on life.

Scott Holleran: What did Walden Media add to the movie?

Lasse Hallström: I got to meet them for notes on the edit. But nothing was imposed on us.

Scott Holleran: What did Amblin add to A Dog’s Purpose?

Lasse Hallström: I really enjoyed working with the heads of Amblin, Michael Wright and Holly Bario. I respect them very much. Steven [Spielberg] wasn’t involved very much this time but he liked the final result which is the ultimate reward to me because he is my master.

Scott Holleran: What did Universal add to the movie?

Lasse Hallström: They gave it a fantastic release. They’re the best at releasing and doing publicity from what I’ve been told.

Scott Holleran: Is this the movie you wanted to make?

Lasse Hallström: Yes. There’s nothing I can’t stand for.

Scott Holleran: Had you read W. Bruce Cameron’s book, have you spoken with him and has he seen the movie?

Lasse Hallström: I read it, I met him on set and he likes the film. Expect similarities to the book but also a lot of differences. However, it is heartwarming.

Interview: Theodore Melfi on Hidden Figures

Turning from his first feature film, St. Vincent, a comedy starring Bill Murray as an alcoholic who forms a bond with a boy, to a major motion picture about black women who broke NASA’s color barrier to do calculations for the manned space program, Hollywood screenwriter and director Theodore Melfi makes an important transition with Hidden Figures, which First Lady Michelle Obama screened last week at the White House.

Having recently seen Fox’s Hidden Figures, which debuts in movie theaters on Christmas Day and expands in January, I wanted to ask about the story, script, score, meaning and production. I spoke with Melfi, whom I had interviewed in Los Angeles in 2014 (read my interview with him about St. Vincent here), in an exclusive interview by telephone on the day he attended the White House screening as the First Lady’s guest.

This is an edited transcript (with minor spoilers).

Scott Holleran: What was the hardest scene to shoot?

Theodore Melfi: Taraji [P. Henson, who portrays Katherine Johnson] blowing up at Kevin Costner’s character—because of the subject matter and it was the last two days of the shoot—day 41—and we were all so close and really happy and cohesive. So, to do that scene there was emotionally draining. Everyone there, all the white guys, and half the crew was crying. We did seven or eight takes. I was trying to contain her for longer as Taraji sometimes came in with all the energy.

Scott Holleran: Which scene differs most from your script and why?

Octavia Spencer, director Theodore Melfi, and Janelle Monae on set of ‘Hidden Figures’

Theodore Melfi: Any scene with the three women having fun with each other. Half the stuff at the barbecue was made up because they were having such fun. The banter over [Mahershala Ali’s character] was improvised. So was the scene at the beginning of the movie—with them chasing the cop car. I just let them go.

Scott Holleran: Is your movie about racism or exceptionalism?

Theodore Melfi: Exceptionalism. The movie’s [about] a meritocracy. NASA was one of the first places for merit in government work and it’s an actual place which was seen as progressive. It’s still seen that way today in terms of [inclusive] hires.

Scott Holleran: Did someone named Al Harrison, played in the picture by Kevin Costner, break down that barrier?

Theodore Melfi: I don’t know because he’s a composite character. When [Katherine’s] supervisor found out about the [fact of her having to run a distance to the race-segregated toilet] he did have it removed.

Scott Holleran: What is the womens’ and families’ estimate of the film?

Theodore Melfi: Katherine Johnson and her family are over the moon. She’s 98 years old and we screened it in her hometown of Hampton, Virginia. She came with her two daughters and they were crying. Afterwards, the family said that what they’re most grateful for is the treatment of her husband [played in the movie by Mahershala Ali], the family and kids and how they were sharing rooms. Also, those are direct quotes from him at the dinner table scene.

Scott Holleran: Have you seen 2016’s other movie involving racism in Virginia, Loving?

Theodore Melfi: Not yet. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

Scott Holleran: What did the other credited screenwriter, Allison Schroeder, add to the screenplay?

Theodore Melfi: Allison wrote the first draft of the screenplay. Then, I got my own pass and did my own thing with it. She had a movie that followed the women outside of NASA—there were a couple of Tupperware parties—and I wanted to balance it.

Scott Holleran: Why did you make John Glenn, who was 40, younger?

Theodore Melfi: It was his spirit. We tried guys that age and we couldn’t get that boyish spirit.

Scott Holleran: Your first two feature movies depict the physicality of the individual’s struggle to achieve. Why?

Melfi with Monae

Theodore Melfi: I do this thing called 50 questions that [my wife] Kim gave me. She got them from Larry Moss—this great acting teacher—and I answer these 50 questions for each character. I answer as if I’m the character. Then, I give that to each actor and I see how each actor feels about the character’s posture and [and physical movements, mannerisms, etc.] and I get into that. Then, I keep that posture and the way they walk [in the film]—like I told Janelle [Monae, who portrays Mary Jackson]; you kind of bounce and lead with your face. But Taraji [as Katherine] leads with her mind, so there’s a pressure on her shoulders which kinda pulls her down. Octavia Spencer [as Dorothy Vaughan] leads with her heart. [In St. Vincent], Bill Murray drags. The actor does the work. You don’t talk about it—it’s ingrained—and you’re free to let it go. Taraji P. Henson came up with the idea of running [to the bathroom] in high heels and that’s how she had to run. [Composer] Pharrell Williams wrote the song [“Runnin'”] after reading the script. He wrote that song before we started shooting.

Scott Holleran: What would Bill Murray’s character from St. Vincent say about these three mathematically inclined NASA women?

Theodore Melfi: That he wishes they could do his taxes.

Scott Holleran: Who is your favorite astronaut?

Theodore Melfi: John Glenn because, even before he came to NASA, he was a Marine, he broke the land speed record and he was helping minorities and getting welfare off the ground. He was always the type to look you in the eye. He’s the best that this country can be.

Scott Holleran: Is Kirsten Dunst’s character a villain?

Theodore Melfi: Her character is ignorant. That’s what the movie is for me. The movie is summed up in Octavia Spencer’s response to Dunst’s character: “…and I know you probably believe that.” That, to me, is the core of racism; people don’t even know how they treat blacks, gays, women, [and anyone they consider different]—because, if they did, most good people couldn’t sleep any more. [Kirsten Dunst’s character] Vivian Mitchell just doesn’t know that black people shouldn’t use a different water fountain because of her upbringing. So I don’t know whether she’s a villain. Not seeing is as bad as not doing something about [injustice] and, at some point, everyone is complicit. The same goes for Kevin Costner’s character. Yes, he does the right thing, but he should have known about [Katherine’s working conditions]. Necessity is the mother of breaking down that bathroom sign.

Scott Holleran: What is the single most admirable quality of these women and why?

Theodore Melfi: Fortitude. Because it shows an example for today to not [only] look left and right and backwards—you don’t get there—you have to go forward.

Scott Holleran: Is there a scene you would change?

Theodore Melfi: Yeah. I would probably change the scene when Mary [Janelle Monae’s character] comes into the capsule room to see [NASA’s] Karl Zielinski. I would recast that actor.

Melfi directing Taraji P. Henson on set of ‘Hidden Figures’

Scott Holleran: Taraji P. Henson has had critical and commercial success with her Empire character. How did you purge Cookie Lyon from Hidden Figures?

Theodore Melfi: I took Taraji to meet the real Katherine Johnson. I sat with her and pointed to her elegance, her quietness and her posture—and Taraji P. Henson just absorbed it all because when you’re sitting with Katherine Johnson, you’re sitting with royalty. I kept reminding her with inflection or mannerism to resist the urge to lash out or jolt. It was a more reserved time.

Scott Holleran: Had you seen her in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?

Theodore Melfi: Yes. That’s where I fell in love with her. That’s who she really is.

Scott Holleran: Janelle Monae’s appearing in another 2016 movie. Have you seen her in Moonlight?

Theodore Melfi: I haven’t. My screener’s at home [in Los Angeles]. Tonight, we’re going to the White House [for a screening of Hidden Figures]. Apparently, Michelle Obama saw the movie and loved it, so she wanted to show it.

Scott Holleran: Had you seen Octavia Spencer with Kevin Costner in Mike Binder‘s Black or White?

Theodore Melfi: I did. What it did for me is show that she’s one of the best actors in the world. It also made me rediscover Kevin. He’s just a great actor.

Scott Holleran: You’ve depicted the unit cohesion these women accomplished at NASA. Were you aware of the need to portray similarities as well as differences?

Theodore Melfi: That is the original message of the script and the writing—it was, ‘let’s all get to the peak together or we don’t get there at all’—and they are extremely proud of their work and NASA. These women are extremely patriotic and they love America, so it was very important to me not to make NASA a bad guy—they were complicit in the times but they got out and made the change—and it’s almost biblical, like Jesus on the cross saying ‘forgive them for they know not what they do.” The movie opens on Christmas Day.

Scott Holleran: What advice do you have for a director making a racially-themed movie?

Theodore Melfi: Be honest. We’ve seen the brutality of [the] civil rights [struggle] and slavery but I was being honest and true about what happened in Hampton, Virginia. There was unconscious bias and systemic racism—not getting promotions and equal pay—and they had segregation. I would say just be as honest as you can without being slick in either direction. There’s a lot of footage of the protest scene with [the menacing] dogs, so I had to resist the urge to be too exciting. You have to work hard to be objective and subtle.

Interview: Alain Mabanckou on Free Speech, Charlie Hebdo and Victor Hugo


Alain Mabanckou

Born in Africa’s Congo in 1966, poet and novelist Alain Mabanckou lives in Southern California, where he teaches literature at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Mabanckou is the author of six volumes of poetry and six novels, winner of the Grand Prix de la Littérature 2012, and recipient of the Subsaharan African Literature Prize and the Prix Renaudot. His books include African Psycho, Broken GlassMemoirs of a Porcupine and Black Bazaar.

Earlier this year, when I had the opportunity to meet and interview Mr. Mabanckou in Santa Monica, California, I found that his absurdist humor and flamboyance covers an inner strength, commitment and fortitude.

After all, I had become aware of this writer when he chose to present the PEN American Center’s Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage award to the satirical weekly publication Charlie Hebdo in spring 2015, mere months after Islamic terrorists slaughtered the publication’s staff in Paris after Charlie Hebdo printed a cartoon of the Moslem prophet Mohammed.

Alain Mabanckou bestowed the award to Charlie Hebdo‘s editor-in-chief Gerard Biard to a standing ovation from writers, journalists and publishers 48 hours after Islamic terrorists assaulted a Texas cartoon competition for depicting the prophet Mohammed. The gala was held as police officers guarded the venue, New York City’s American Museum of Natural History.

Mr. Mabanckou spoke in a French accent with enthusiasm and vitality. This is an edited transcript of the interview.

Scott Holleran: How do you pronounce your last name?

Alain Mabanckou: ‘mahBONkoo’

Scott Holleran: Do you live here in Southern California and also in Congo, Africa, and Paris?

Alain Mabanckou: Yes. I teach at UCLA and live here. I also kept my parents’ home in Congo. In Paris, I decided to buy something because I felt that having a home in Paris is secure compared to the United States. The market will not go down. In France, it still remains like that, you know? So I bought [my home in Paris] in 2006 when I had [bestselling author] success.


Alain Mabanckou photographed in 2013 by Claude Truong-Ngoc

Scott Holleran: Do you consider yourself primarily French or Parisian, African or Congolese or American?

Alain Mabanckou: I think I remain Congolese. I remain a Congolese who is open to other cultures. In my deep conviction, I remain a Congolese who was raised in French culture. I like to dig my own roots to explain to myself what being Congolese [means]. This is very important. I think literature is about expressing a detail which is in your culture to other people that they’ll understand.

Scott Holleran: Who are other influences?

Alain Mabanckou: French literature is obvious. After French literature, I read Latin American literature. So, [Gabriel Garcia] Marquez, Horatio Quiroga, Mario Vargas Llosa, Octavio Paz. I like literature, you know? I like reading, first of all, the classics. So, for American literature, besides Hemingway, I read [William] Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom! And it’s curious, but when I was reading Faulkner—I was like 20 or 23—I didn’t know that he was white. The first time I knew that Faulkner was white it was when I went to the University of Michigan. I was passing or crossing a road by a bookstore and there was a kind of commotion about Faulkner’s books. That was the first time I saw a photo [of Faulkner]. I said to my friend, “Faulkner is white?” Because, you know, his work was talking to me. It was like, this kind of desperation, this kind of broken world—it was like mine. So [when I learned that Faulkner is white] I was like, “Wow!” That was a big surprise for me. That was great.

Scott Holleran: Because it showed the power of writing?

Alain Mabanckou: Yes. It means that we don’t need to consider literature by race. Once a text is talking to you, it’s going to be yours. You’re going to think that the people who are in the text are your parents, your family, and so on and so on. Yeah. After that, I read Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie …

Scott Holleran: Your mother had been training you and teaching you to be well read, right?

Alain Mabanckou: Yes! I’m still digging and digging. Then, I read Russian literature—Pasternak, Nabokov, Dostoyevsky …

Scott Holleran: Did you read them in French?

Alain Mabanckou: Yes.

Scott Holleran: Your books are translated into 15 languages. Which are available in English?

Alain Mabanckou: African Psycho, Broken Glass, Memoirs of a Porcupine, Black Bazaar, Letter to Jimmy, Tomorrow I Will be Twenty.

Scott Holleran: Which book should the American reader start with as an introduction to your work?


Alain Mabanckou

Alain Mabanckou: Readers often say Broken Glass. As for me, I think that it should be Tomorrow I Will be Twenty because the protagonist or narrator is ten and he’s trying to describe Congolese history but at the same time the history of the world. You’re going to see the war in Vietnam and Henry Kissinger, and it’s like how, when you are a kid, you receive the sound and the fury of the world. How are you going to deal with that? So I think this book is the one to read if they want to get inside my world because you’re going to see my mother there, you’re going to see when I’m a kid, you’re going to see a small teenager trying to get in love, you’re going to see French people, dictatorship, everything is in it. Maybe it’s the longest book I’ve written, close to 400 pages.

Scott Holleran: Are you working on something new?

Alain Mabanckou: For the time being, I’m working for the classes I’m going to teach at the College de France starting this year. I’m also going to publish a nonfiction book about African literature. So, I’m trying to introduce the student to African literature.

Scott Holleran: Why did you decide to present the Freedom of Expression Courage award to Charlie Hebdo?

Alain Mabanckou: Beside the fact that I am a Charlie Hebdo reader, as a writer, I thought it was the moment to step up and say: “No. We cannot let people reduce the freedom of speech. We need to explain to the world that if we are writers, it’s because people struggled for us to become free. So, we cannot take [freedom of speech] for granted, sitting in an armchair and just watching TV and saying, ‘Oh, go ahead.’” If you are a writer, and if you understand that the freedom of speech is being erased, you have to speak out. So, I had to go to New York [to present the Freedom of Expression award to Charlie Hebdo]. I know I took a risk because my face can be seen by the Islamists, by people in France, but I said to myself, “What does it mean for me if I cannot [redeem] what literature gave to me—that freedom?” So, that’s why I stepped up. It was one of the emotional moments of my life. There were like 800 people—a lot of entertainers like Glenn Close and Steve Martin—who came as a show of support.

Scott Holleran: Did anyone try to talk you out of going?

Alain Mabanckou: Yes.

Scott Holleran: Was it easy to write a speech?

Alain Mabanckou: I wrote it in French, as I often do when I have to read a speech in English. I write first in French and give it to one of my graduate students to translate. So, I think that it was a great moment—my certificate of birth as a writer in the United States.

Scott Holleran: I know that Joyce Carol Oates and other writers came out and angrily denounced Charlie Hebdos artists and writers, insinuating or claiming that they instigated the Islamic terrorist attack. What do you think of that viewpoint?

Alain Mabanckou: No! At the same time, I can [almost] understand because none of them had read a single issue of Charlie Hebdo. They were just talking about what had been shown, a kind of caricature of Mohammed. If you haven’t read Charlie Hebdo, you cannot judge. They were trying to say that you can’t criticize Islam. But, at the same time, you can criticize Jesus Christ, you can criticize Buddha. So there are those who know Charlie Hebdo and those who don’t know.

Scott Holleran: Or those who know what freedom of speech means and those who don’t?

Alain Mabanckou: Yes! So, that was it. I think that it’s pitiful to see that sometimes people judge without having proof.

Scott Holleran: Would you do it again?

Alain Mabanckou: Yes, definitely. I would do it again.

Scott Holleran: Did you get support from other writers, including people in the room?

Alain Mabanckou: Yes. I received encouragement from writers and journalists. It’s also helped me also to get to know people. I even changed publishers.

Scott Holleran: Do you remember where you were when the Charlie Hebdo office was attacked?

Alain Mabanckou: I was in the United States. I knew one of the journalists killed. He was a friend of mine.

Scott Holleran: What was his name?

Alain Mabanckou: Bernard Maris. I took it personally.

Scott Holleran: Do you remember where you were when Islamic terrorists attacked the Bataclan nightclub in Paris [in November 2015]?

Alain Mabanckou: I was in Paris. It happened not far from my house—

Scott Holleran: How did you hear about it?

Alain Mabanckou: I was watching soccer with the Paris Saint-Germain. And all of a sudden on TV, I heard like a shot: boom! which was a kind of bomb they put outside the stadium. But I was watching TV, so the sound came from the TV. Then, they said that the Stade de France was under attack and everybody went to the Stade de France. But it was [also] happening somewhere else at the [avenue de la] République, which is close to my house.

Scott Holleran: What did you do?

Alain Mabanckou: I was advised to stay home, so I stayed home. Policemen were everywhere. I stayed home that day, and just watched TV—

Scott Holleran: Did you start getting e-mails, texts and phone calls from friends?

Alain Mabanckou: Yes, e-mail. The press wanted me to write about freedom, so I wrote a piece for Vanity Fair, the French edition, and I wrote for … I think it was Liberation. Two or three newspapers.

Scott Holleran: So you wrote during the attack?

Alain Mabanckou: Yes.

Scott Holleran: You talked about taking a risk. Have you been threatened?


Alain Mabanckou

Alain Mabanckou: [Pause] Fortunately, no. But the danger would have come from France. As I’m living in the United States, it’s okay, you know? Charlie Hebdo is a tough issue in France.

Scott Holleran: You’ve mentioned Victor Hugo. Did you study his novels?

Alain Mabanckou: Yeah. It was mandatory at school [in Congo]. We had to read French literature—Balzac, Proust—and we read each writer closely. I was influenced by Hugo and the romanticists for the poetry. I liked Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Verlaine. I like Les Misérables, which is becoming like a comedy here [in the United States], Ninety-Three, Les Travailleurs de la Mer—I do not know the title in English [The Toilers of the Sea]—L’Homme Qui Rit, The Man Who Laughs. Hugo is the major writer. You cannot avoid Victor Hugo. If you go to poetry, he is there. If you go to the novel, he is there. If you go to the play, he is there.

Scott Holleran: Strictly speaking, you’re not a romanticist, so how do you classify your genre? I know some have said absurdism. How do you regard what you write?

Alain Mabanckou: I think I have two faces. When writing poetry, I’m closer to Victor Hugo, Lamartine, these kinds of romanticists. But when I’m writing a novel, it’s important for me to put [in] satire, to put [in] the critique. When I’m writing a novel, I’m trying to be like—

Scott Holleran: The observer?

Alain Mabanckou: Yes, the observer.


Interview: Richard Zoglin on Bob Hope


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Having previously written a book about stand-up comics in the 1970s, Time magazine contributing editor and theater critic Richard Zoglin turned to one of the 20th century’s multimedia masters in his new biography, HOPE: Entertainer of the Century (Simon & Schuster, 2014). The Kansas City, Missouri, native, who lives in New York City, recently spoke with me about the legendary comedian. This is an edited transcript.

Scott Holleran: What was the first Bob Hope experience you had in life?

Richard Zoglin: Growing up with his movies watching the Road pictures. I grew up in Kansas City and I loved Bob Hope. I watched his specials growing up. He seems like such a constant presence.

Scott Holleran: As an editor and theater critic for Time magazine, did the publication’s archives aid your research?

Richard Zoglin: They did. Time has a library, though it’s not what it used to be. There were clips that are now withering still sitting in folders. They’ve started converting to digital but they still have those old paper files up until 1963. So the older files are still on paper. They’re so old that they crumble in your hands. The way Time used to work, a writer would take the files and turn it into a story. All those files are still there. The files at Time were the main thing. The [Bob Hope] TV shows are more tricky because the Hope family owns a lot of those. The Paley Center [in New York] was helpful. But the whole family cooperated with me. The movies are mostly out there on video in packages and the few that aren’t—there are four or five—I was able to track down. Here Come the Girls was one the family sent me. Ninety percent of my research was at the location where the family donated all his papers, scrapbooks, scripts and a huge amount of material, so I spent weeks at the annex of The Library of Congress in Culpepper, Virginia.

Scott Holleran: What was the biggest surprise in terms of valuable research?

Richard Zoglin: One of the big things, and it took a long time, was [obtaining an unpublished manuscript by] Bob’s older brother Jim, who had his own memoir. I had seen it quoted—it was [called] “Mother Had Hopes”—and I just stumbled on it while I was talking with a guy in England who had done a lot of research on Bob Hope’s genealogy. He had a copy and, though I had a tough time getting it sent over—he lives in a town on the west coast of England—he was willing to send it to me digitally. Someone told me that there were only three copies of [the manuscript] and I found that one. Jim was very perceptive about the house in England, and where the kids played, going to America, growing up in Cleveland, the jobs they had and where they worked. It was such a nice picture of life in turn of the century England and in Cleveland in the 1910s and early 1920s. There were personal anecdotes about Bob Hope doing Charlie Chaplin imitations.

Scott Holleran: You have written a book about stand-up comedy in the 1970s. If you could have one comedian with you while stranded on a desert island, who would it be?

Richard Zoglin: Albert Brooks. He’s just naturally so funny. He’s just so clever, insightful and subversive, making fun of stand-up comedy in a sort of anti-show business way, though David Letterman would be a close second. Almost everything he says is just naturally funny. One of the reasons I wrote this [biography of Bob Hope] is that, when I wrote the other book [on stand-up comedy], and I was asking comedians who they grew up liking, nobody mentioned Bob Hope. So, he was really off the radar for that generation. He was [considered] the old-fashioned kind of comedian. I thought that was a shame because Bob Hope basically invented their art form. I wanted to take the full measure of his achievements. I don’t think anyone can match him. He was kind of a rebel, he was kind of risque, he kind of expressed an anti-authoritarian viewpoint. He made fun of Army officers. Or just the fact that he was doing topical jokes making fun of the president when most comedians were doing vaudeville material. Jack Benny was making jokes about Rochester. Bob Hope was doing topical humor. He was the one comedian who was connected to what was going on in the world. It made him seem hip and a little avant garde. He was making fun of the government. He was making fun of Eleanor Roosevelt and paying taxes. That was pretty gutsy for that early time. When Mort Sahl came along, comedians all went further.

Scott Holleran: Is the lack of recognition due to the fact that Bob Hope doing topical humor made it look easy because he was skilled and that, in this sense, he is a victim of his own success?

Richard Zoglin: That’s exactly right. Also, as comedians got more personal, talking about their girlfriends, Bob Hope never went there, so he seemed very impersonal and old-fashioned in that way.

Scott Holleran: Which medium if any consistently gave Bob Hope his due?

Richard Zoglin: What people don’t realize is that he had such longevity. All those comedy stars, such as Jackie Gleason and Sid Caesar, had no longevity. Bob Hope did. That was a real achievement. So when people talk about the big comedy stars I’m afraid that people think of Lucille Ball and Sid Caesar but not Bob Hope because he did television specials, not a series. But, if you look at ratings, he had some of the highest rated shows in history. One of the five highest rated entertainment shows of all time, even today, is Bob Hope’s Christmas 1969 special [for U.S. Army troops in South Vietnam] which aired in 1970. Since then, it’s been surpassed by the last episode of All in the Family, the last episode of M*A*S*H and the last episode of Roots. He was a major television star over four decades. So, there is no one medium that really embraced him.

Scott Holleran: Are there any major figures whom you attempted and failed to reach for an interview that you think would have added to the biography?

Richard Zoglin: There was one that I did talk to but wanted to get back to him because I had a very superficial conversation with him. That was [Bob Hope comedy writer] Mort Lachman. Unfortunately, he died a short time after I talked to him. Very few people turned me down for an interview. I couldn’t get Doris Day [who performed on radio and toured with Bob Hope], though I didn’t expect to get her. [Lucille Ball’s daughter] Lucie Arnaz didn’t talk to me, but I don’t know how much she really knew about the relationship between Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. I talked to [comedienne and Bob Hope co-star] Phyllis Diller and [Bob Hope comedy writer] Larry Gelbart before they died. I talked to [actress and Bob Hope co-star] Jane Russell before she died.

Scott Holleran: If someone’s never heard of Bob Hope, but is inclined to grant him the benefit of the doubt based on your biography, what is the best work to watch or listen to as a start?

Richard Zoglin: It’s a good question. I’ve been thinking of the answer because I’m doing an event with Dick Cavett. I would say it would be a movie. The best example are the Road pictures. There are three or four I would pick; The Road to Zanzibar, The Road to Morocco, The Road to Utopia and I’d probably put The Road to Rio near the top. The patter between Hope and [Bing] Crosby is so great. The downside of The Road to Zanzibar is that the musical numbers aren’t the best, so The Road to Morocco might be more well rounded in terms of music. It has “Moonlight Becomes You”. But The Road to Zanzibar might be the best for the back and forth. Other than that, my personal favorite would be Sorrowful Jones. Also, look at [Bob Hope’s work in] The Seven Little Foys, where he does some good dramatic work.

Scott Holleran: Is vaudeville comedian Frank Fay the most influential comedian to Bob Hope?

Richard Zoglin: Yes. He was the only one that Bob Hope modeled himself after to the degree that he did. Frank Fay is still very different than Bob Hope. He’s more sophisticated with an almost aristocratic kind of air. But that kind of conversational, spontaneous comedy was [typical of Frank Fay], so if you had to say someone, it’s Frank Fay. Also, Will Rogers, though Hope wasn’t as political.


Scott Holleran: You write that Bob Hope was “resourceful, vigilant, watchful of money, and always on the move.” Which quality is fundamental to Hope’s success?

Richard Zoglin: Both resourceful and always on the move. [Bob Hope’s ability to see] where the audience was going in terms of medium, from vaudeville to radio to TV and movies—no one else did that and he was willing to give it a try. I think his ability to be resourceful is fundamental; the way he figured out how to market and promote himself and deal with the press in a more sophisticated way. He was smarter about the culture, the presidency and the media. He realized the power of his brand.

Scott Holleran: Were you granted full access to his letters and correspondence?

Richard Zoglin: Yes.

Scott Holleran: Is Hedda Hopper right to call Bob Hope “our American Noel Coward”?

Richard Zoglin: [Pauses] I’m not sure I would compare him to Noel Coward. Maybe so. He was a very good, light comedian. Bob Hope is much more of a populist.

Scott Holleran: Was Bob Hope a workaholic, bipolar or somehow psychologically or mentally deficient?

Richard Zoglin: A workaholic? Definitely. He might have been using his work to distract himself from his private life. He didn’t spend much time with his family and maybe that was a failing. But in terms of any mental deficiency, I don’t think there was anything serious, unless you say someone who’s not introspective is not healthy because he was not introspective. He was a happy guy. He didn’t seem to have serious doubts or anxiety. Maybe he was limited but he knew what he was and he was comfortable in his own skin.

Scott Holleran: You have written that he understood the power of his celebrity as an agent for helping others. Do you attribute these activities, such as performing for the troops, to altruism if by altruism one means self-sacrifice?

Richard Zoglin: To some degree and there is also an element that he knew it was good for his career. I don’t discount that he knew that his celebrity would enable him to do good. But he also made sure people knew about these acts. I think both elements were there. I don’t think he only did it for good reasons but I don’t think he did it [strictly] for promotionalism. It gave him great pleasure to entertain the troops and it satisfied his patriotism to serve the troops. He got great satisfaction from cheering up these men and leaving them feeling better, making them more capable of defending the country and alleviating the loneliness and the hardship that they went through. That was a good feeling to him. I don’t know whether you call that altruism. But it made Bob Hope feel good about [doing and having done] it.

Scott Holleran: Bob Hope had ghostwriters according to your biography. Is there one book by Bob Hope that you think best captures his true convictions?

Richard Zoglin: I do think [Bob Hope’s memoir] Have Tux, Will Travel is certainly good in terms of giving some real insights to playing vaudeville. I know there were things he left out but what it does tell is honest and revealing. That’s the best. His book I Never Left Home is a good expression of Bob Hope and how he felt about seeing all the troops and how much it meant him.

Scott Holleran: Hope supported the military from D-Day and the Marshall plan through the Gulf War. To your knowledge, did Bob Hope ever openly and explicitly challenge the United States government on any single issue?

Richard Zoglin: No. He respected authority.

Scott Holleran: Is it true to say that Bob Hope was political only in the most superficial sense?

Richard Zoglin: Yes. I don’t think he was a very sophisticated political thinker. He had a simplified view of the world. His viewpoint was: America was at war and we should support the war.

Scott Holleran: Where are the souvenirs Bob Hope brought back from World War 2, such as Hitler’s stationery from the Berlin bunker and a photo of General Patton urinating in [Nazi Germany’s] Rhine River?

Richard Zoglin: I think a lot of them are still at [Bob Hope’s] house. I think the family still has those.

Scott Holleran: He was condemned by the Catholic Church in Catholic media. Did this have an impact on his devout Catholic wife Dolores?

Richard Zoglin: I never got any sense that she—she was always a sounding board for him and he would run things by her and she would say no. Maybe she said ‘I told you so’. I’m sure it did affect her but I don’t know how she felt about those instances.

Scott Holleran: Is it true that his wife Dolores was raided by police for gambling in a charity event on behalf of a group of nuns?

Richard Zoglin: Yes, though I’m sure she didn’t realize it was illegal. Somebody blew the whistle. The police came and confiscated their gambling games.

Scott Holleran: You write that Bob Hope’s singing voice was a crystal-clear tenor effective at “slicing through the confusion” and that his physical comedy has precision and clarity. It’s a rare evaluation in the biography. In retrospect, as a critic, are you interested in reviewing more of Bob Hope’s work?

Richard Zoglin: I do review the films and shows on the page. But, yes, I would like to do full scale reviews. I would enjoy doing that.

Scott Holleran: Tell me about the time Bob Hope went on strike at Paramount.

Richard Zoglin: He wanted to set up his own production company and share in the profit. He thought he could make more money by co-producing and this was a new idea. There had been a couple of stars like [James] Cagney [who had obtained producing deals] but this was new. Paramount didn’t want to [enter into a deal] so he didn’t show up and he would not go back to work for several months. Finally, Paramount caved. Now, that’s basically the model today.