By BARRY HERTZ
Saturday, December 1, 2018
When moviegoers today hear the name Howard Hughes, there's a good chance that one of three images comes to mind, depending on the vintage of each person: A) Hollywood's passed-down legacy of Hughes as a devil-may-care playboy who eventually succumbed to obsessive-compulsive disorder; B) Leonardo DiCaprio's slickly stylized version of option A in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator; or C) that episode of The Simpsons in which Mr. Burns becomes a germaphobic shut-in with dreams of building a plane that carries "200 passengers from New York's Idlewild Airport to the Belgian Congo in 17 minutes!" (Maybe that last one is just me.)
Few, though, likely think of Hughes as a manipulator who made a business of using and exploiting women as he attempted to conquer Hollywood and satisfy his own selfish desires. In her new book, Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood, author Karina Longworth painstakingly details the truth of Hughes's rise and fall by chronicling the lives of 10 women whose lives were forever altered by the producer, director and self-styled industry titan.
Far from a straight biography of Hughes, Longworth's 450-page epic - spun out of her film-history podcast You Must Remember This, an obsession among a certain circle of cinephiles - concerns itself with the struggles of such Golden Age icons as Ava Gardner, Jane Russell and Katharine Hepburn.
And by tracing their careers, Longworth examines just how deeply the entertainment industry has been dependent on stripping women of their worth. As she writes early in Seduction, "The female body has always been a key building block of cinema, of raw material fed into the machine of movies as integral to the final product as celluloid itself."
In Toronto recently as part of her North American book tour - which comes complete with screenings of rarely seen films from the 1930s and 40s - Longworth spoke with The Globe and Mail's Barry Hertz about the hidden history of Hollywood and her own uneasiness with newfound fame.
After writing this book, do you think that Hollywood was better or worse off for Howard Hughes being a part of it?
What about Hollywood? Well, do you think that the industry benefited in terms of his artistic output?
No. [laughs] His legacy is not an artistic one.
What about the actresses that he did give a platform to, in a way?
Well, I think that Jane Russell would've said that she owed her whole career to him. I think Ida Lupino was able to have a career as a director, and was the only woman able to do that in her era because of Hughes. And I think the other women would have different opinions about it. I don't think that he discovered anybody.
He gets credit for discovering Jean Harlow and Jane Russell, but Jean Harlow was brought to him by James Hall, the other actor in [Hughes's film] Hell's Angels and Jane was brought by an agent. So technically, Hughes chose them instead of choosing other actresses. But I think he gets more credit for discovering and being a starmaker than he deserves.
What attracted you initially into looking into the history of the industry, both here and on your podcast?
At the end of the day, it's just an excuse to watch old movies and try to understand them a little bit better. I would say my parents were into Old Hollywood, but it wasn't unusual to be into that in Los Angeles in the seventies and eighties - you cared about the Dodgers and Natalie Wood and the Lakers and Elizabeth Taylor.
We're talking about Old Hollywood a few weeks after it was announced that FilmStruck [a U.S. streaming service that specializes in rare and classic cinema] would shutter. But last week, Criterion announced it'd be launching its own streaming service. Are you cautiously optimistic about access to older films?
I don't like to predict the future - I hope things become available on streaming because that's how people want to watch things. As someone who does research on movies that aren't available on streaming, it'd be a real loss if the places where I get stuff disappeared.
What's your own film collection like at home? Do you have an emphasis on tangible media?
When I moved to Los Angeles from New York in 2010, I got rid of everything. Most of my books, my vinyl, my DVDs. I was just like, "Physical media is dead." And it was the worst decision I ever made. I guess I saved some money not shipping that stuff across the country, but as soon as I moved into an apartment in Los Angeles without that stuff, I had an identity crisis. I didn't know who I was.
So I've spent the past eight years trying to rebuild those collections. You can't replicate that through streaming.
Where do you go to find stuff these days?
There's a place in Los Angeles called Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee. They have an incredible collection of stuff that's out of print. [Studios] don't have a financial incentive to release these more obscure films, which is too bad because it's an important history. We've already seen that only a fraction of the silent films made are available today, and now it's happening to non-silent films.
That struck me while reading the book - just how many films from that era are lost forever.
In the twenties, thirties, forties, Hollywood thought most of their films were disposable, and that's why they weren't archived. Probably in the late fifties and sixties, when universities started doing cinema programs, for the first time there was a demand to see things on-demand.
Before starting your podcast, you were a film critic for LA Weekly.
What do you think about the state of film criticism today?
I don't think about it much. I read a little bit, but I'm not engaged in any of the debates about it.
Really? I enjoyed your work at LA Weekly, and April [Wolfe's] work there, too. But the alt-weekly situation for film criticism seems especially dire today.
Well, that's two different issues: The alt-weeklies and the state of film criticism, except for the fact that people used to go to their altweeklies for film criticism. But I think that by the time I was at LA Weekly, its central importance in people's lives was already gone.
And, unfortunately, I didn't realize that until I took the job. I didn't realize I had more influence on the internet previous to that, as opposed to being at a print publication.
Is that what led you to depart?
No, not at all. I left because I was having a nervous breakdown just being a film critic. I only care about 20 to 30 movies a year, and I was expected to see at least eight movies a week, and have an opinion about all of them.
Here's the obligatory question I'm sure you've been getting: How has the tenor of the #MeToo cultural conversation affected how you talk about this book?
Well, people want to ask about it.
Do you think it's an uncomfortable topic that you have to juggle with the book, which was written beforehand, or does talking about them both work hand-in-hand, for lack of a better term?
If it makes people want to read the book, that's great. I don't like to talk about contemporary Hollywood, and I think that people can be too quick to make parallels. Especially right when the Harvey Weinstein stuff came out, I got a lot of calls to go on the radio and on TV because all people wanted was to put him in this context of "the great men of Hollywood history," and I refused to do that. I don't think it's fair to anybody, to file him away as being like, "Every mogul did this, it's just what happens." I don't think it's the most productive thing to do, because when Howard Hughes was working, the studio system was such a different beast than the one that existed in the nineties, when Harvey Weinstein was at the peak of his powers, and certainly different from anything that exists today.
In a recent piece in The Atlantic, you talked about not wanting to put yourself forward as a brand. But now that you're on a book tour, how have you found the process of promoting your work, and yourself?
It's really difficult. I'm not a natural conversationalist. I don't like being photographed or public speaking. I prefer to stay home and watch movies and read books. But I do really want people to go to these screenings, because these are opportunities to see movies that aren't revived often, or at all. The idea that Toronto tonight gets to watch a 35mm print of a movie that almost nobody has seen [1952's Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie] is interesting. But if no one ever takes my picture again, I'd be really happy.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood is available now from HarperCollins.
Karina Longworth, author of Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood, is seen in Toronto on Nov. 19. The film critic and journalist tells The Globe she prefers to stay in, watching movies and reading. 'If no one ever takes my picture again, I'd be really happy.'
MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL