Ten Interviews That Shook Hollywood
From Marlon Brando to Kevin Costner, sooner or later everyone's fair game in the celebrity journalist's quest for an unforgettable interview. Here are 10 memorable rounds when author or subject--and sometimes, both--came out swinging.
In view of all the recent bad press that Hollywood publicists have been getting for their attempts to control access to their celebrity clients, we thought it would be instructive to take a look back at some of the stories published over the years that scared these spin doctors into their current defensive posture.
While there have been fearless, dead-eye journalists talking to celebrities since at least the '50s, the trend that sent publicists reeling was the phenomenon known as "New Journalism," which started in the '60s and reached its heyday in the '70s. The New Journalism interviews written by, among others, Rex Reed, Tom Burke, Julie Baumgold and, in the early to mid '80s, by Lynn Hirschberg--had a certain skepticism about them that had previously been almost unknown in the annals of profile puffery. The attitude was, "Don't necessarily believe what the studio bio says. Let's actually take a look at this person." For a while, encountering celebrities was actually interesting.
"Writers had voices then," says John Lombardi, an editor at Esquire who dates back to that era. "The way most interviews read now, it could be anyone writing them. In some cases it's more like stenography than writing. I understand why it's happening but I think it's sad."
Tom Burke, who's living in Key West these days and writing a novel, says that "[celebrities'] publicists calling the shots has driven a lot of writers out of the business. I don't want to do it myself under these circumstances." Burke also disputes the familiar complaint from publicists that unflattering profiles are often premeditated hatchet jobs. "I never tried to destroy anyone, and I don't know anyone who's ever gone into an interview with an axe to grind," insists Burke. "I think Hollywood is hilarious, but writing about it these days has become such a serious business. Which is a shame because you can't take it seriously."
Writer Jeffrey Wells has surveyed the charred landscape of celebrity journalist exchanges over the last few decades and picked out 10 of the Waterloos. In some cases, he checked back with the offending journalists to see how they remembered the events, now that the smoke has cleared. It all makes us downright nostalgic.
1. TRUMAN CAPOTE VS. MARLON BRANDO
("The Duke in His Domain," The New Yorker, November, 1957)
By today's standards, nothing all that outrageous was revealed in Capote's landmark profile of Brando, which was based on a six-hour conversation between the two men in Brando's hotel room in Kyoto, Japan, his base while filming Sayonara. What it boiled down to was that Brando shared with Capote a few intimate secrets--that he was unable to love or trust anyone, that he had the attention span of a child, that his mother was an emotionally unstable alcoholic--and Capote simply jotted them down. "I used to come home from school," Brando recalled about life with Mother. "Then the telephone would ring. Somebody calling from some bar. And they'd say, 'We've got a lady down here. You better come get her.'" This would not seem to be a shattering revelation, but columnist Dorothy Kilgallen called Capote's piece "a vivisection," and, by 1957 standards, it probably was. And the controversy went beyond the interview--years beyond it.
When writer Lawrence Grobel, in his book Conversations With Capote, told Capote that Brando's version of the interview depicted Capote arriving with a bottle of vodka, then spilling his own sad tales of childhood to get Brando to talk, Capote agreed that he'd done just that. His attitude was that the end justified the means: "I think it's one of the all-time perfect interviews," Capote modestly said.
Gerald Clarke, in his biography Capote, quotes Sayonara director Joshua Logan warning Brando, "Don't let yourself be left alone with Truman. He's after you." In his memoir Movies Stars, Real People and Me, Logan himself recalled phoning Brando after the piece was printed. "He was livid. 'That little bastard told me he wouldn't say any of the things I asked him not to, and he printed them all. I'll kill him!' he shouted over the phone. 'It's too late, Marlon,' I told him. 'You should have killed him before you invited him to dinner.' " Of course, for all his professed outrage, Brando would confess even more graphic details of his mother's alcoholism in his self-reflecting, improvisational performance in Last Tango in Paris in 1972.
2. REX REED VS. WARREN BEATTY
("Will the Real Warren Beatty Please Shut Up?" Esquire, October, 1967)
Rex Reed has a lot to answer for, because this is the piece that convinced Beatty to avoid interviews for the better part of the next 25 years. (He did just one more major interview, a Time cover story in 1978 to promote Heaven Can Wait, until more or less dropping his reluctance in 1990 to promote Dick Tracy at Disney's insistence.) While not friendly, Reed's epic piece wasn't all that damning, either. Reed noted that "nobody knows very much at all about Warren Beatty, including Warren himself," claimed that Beatty "acts like a jerk," "wants the entire world to go to bed with him," and has a "fear (the greatest terror of his life, to be exact) of being considered unintelligent." At one point Reed remarked that Beatty "looked sad and lonely, like a rag doll thrown in a corner by a bored child." At another point Beatty was quoted as saying, "A short relationship where you tell the truth to somebody is in many ways more satisfying than a longer relationship where truth becomes painful."
In short, Reed didn't find much except the usual lonely-guy, fear-of-intimacy stuff, except that he chose to begin the piece by asking kids on the UCLA campus if they knew who Beatty was, and reporting that nobody much cared. (The actor's last two films had been lightweight failures, Kaleidoscope and Promise Her Anything, and his career was seemingly going nowhere.) "Sure," a coed says, "isn't he the one who got arrested not long ago for beating his dog?" When Reed says no--that was Tab Hunter--the coed shrugs and says, "Well, I mean, same difference." Reed underscores this point by taking a five-block stroll with Beatty along New York's Eighth Avenue: "Not one person showed any sign of recognizing Warren," he wrote. These observations probably irritated Beatty more than anything else, since he had just finished producing Bonnie and Clyde and was soon to bask in the glow of that film's extraordinary success. Had Reed interviewed Beatty after the release of Bonnie and Clyde, things might have been different.
"I remember it well," says John Springer, the publicist who set up the interview. "It was a very painful experience. We're friends, but Rex did a hatchet job. He was working out some of his own personal problems." Responding to Springer, Reed claims, "I wasn't trying to be a smart-ass or write a hatchet job. I was just desperately trying to get something out of someone who wasn't willing to help. I wasn't trying to work out my personal problems. I didn't have any personal problems back then. But if anyone didn't have personal problems, Warren Beatty was just the guy to give them some. I certainly wasn't the first journalist who had a hard time with him." Nor, thanks to this interview, was he the last.