The BOOKPRESS December 1999

Candid Camera


Jason Cons

The Spectator: Talk About Movies and Plays with Those Who Make Them
By Studs Terkel.
The New Press, 1999.
364 pages. $26.95
 
 
When someone’s telling a story, I shut up. When I’m doing an interview, I don’t shut up.
                                            —Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel can get people to talk about anything. Throughout his long career in both books and radio he has chronicled some of the most turbulent periods in American history (the Depression, World War II, the ’60s) and some of the most complex and debated issues in American life (work, race, the American Dream). For Hard Times: an Oral History of the Depression, rather than probing academic historians, Terkel talked to survivors, people who lived through that most desperate period of the 20th century; for Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, he gathered the hopes and dreams of men and women across a variety of jobs, classes, and positions. The results are often inspirational.

While Terkel’s work has always relied on "ordinary" people, his new book, The Spectator, departs from this approach. Composed primarily of interviews from his radio show archive spanning the last 50 years of theater and film, The Spectator has a star-studded cast, including James Baldwin, Arthur Miller, Lillian Gish, Marlon Brando, and others of comparable fame. The result is one of the most entertaining, insightful, and eclectic looks at the evolution of theater and film to appear this decade.

Compared to Terkel’s previous works, The Spectator is an oddly personal book in that it is as much the story of his life-long love affair with the stage and screen as it is a collection of interviews. "The journeyman carpenter," Studs observes, "or the dedicated schoolteacher, in recounting his or her life and work, affected me, of course—but not in the same way, nor to the same degree, as those in the world of the lively arts."

The book is peppered with Terkel’s flashbacks, first sightings, and reflections. He elaborates his subjects’ lives and careers, and occasionally fantasizes about a film that might have been made or a play that was never performed. We even get an acid review of Michael Cimino’s much lauded The Deer Hunter. Terkel attacks the film’s implicit racism, classism, and simplistic view of working-class and immigrant cultures. "The difference between The Birth of a Nation and The Deer Hunter is the difference between D. W. Griffith and Michael Cimino. One was a genius who was also a racist. The other is simply a cheap-shot artist." Of the film’s often celebrated, prolonged portrait of an ethnic wedding, he writes, "It is as though National Geographic were offering a portrait of the Watusi people. All detail, no insight."

In his past works, Terkel edited himself out of the interviews wherever possible, giving the false impression that he simply sat down with his subject and a tape-recorder and said, "go!" In The Spectator, Terkel prompts and sometimes goads his subjects into expressing themselves. Whenever he says something, it is calculated to elicit a response, and the interview technique is revealed as more a process of point and counterpoint than of question and answer.

This is not to say that Terkel’s style is an argumentative one. He often charms and shocks his subjects with his intimate knowledge and understanding of their work. He surprises the Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray by making reference to Kanchenjungha, one of Ray’s early and difficult to find films. When he remembers the name of the boy in The Bicycle Thief, the director Vittorio De Sica responds, "I am so enthusiastic over you because you remember the name of my characters." Terkel’s subjects open up to him, engage his observations, debate his points, and tell the stories we want to hear.

Part of the fun of The Spectator is that Terkel’s own excitement often shines through. Caught up in the infectious personalities of his subjects, he is as entertained as we are. Take this piece of dialogue from an interview with the aging Jimmy Cagney, on the comeback trail with Milos Forman’s adaptation of E.L. Doctrow’s Ragtime:

—Some of the things I said in the movies were things people around me said. "Whattya hear, whattya say?" That was one of the lines I put in. There was a gal in the neighborhood, I think she was a hooker—I never found out, really—and she came out with that one day. One of her boyfriends used to use it, so I dropped it in.

—You could drop in your own phrases?

—Well, I knew more about the hoods than the writers did, for God’s sake. They were country boys.

—What about "That’s the kind of hairpin I am?" You said that in The Strawberry Blond.

—That was my grandfather’s line. It was something that he used to say as a kid in Norway.

In this exchange, the only piece in the book that resembles a traditional interview, you can almost hear Terkel slide into Cagney’s cool ’40s-gangster lilt and feel his joy and nervous excitement in talking to this aging icon.

Aside from providing insight into the technique of a master, the real pleasure of this book is still Terkel’s subjects. We learn the etiquette of pie throwing from Buster Keaton: "…about eight years ago, Milton Berle got Ed Sullivan with a pie. The audience froze up. And Milton didn’t get another laugh while he was on stage. There’s just some people you don’t hit with a pie and that’s all there’s to it;" the finer points of traveling from Ruth Gordon: "When you’d go up to the hotel desk to register, they’d ask, ‘Are you with the theatrical company.’ I’d say, ‘No, I’m traveling with Arnex hose’…Arnex hose people were supposed not to steal towels;" and the best places to settle from Arnold Schwarzennegger: "California is to me a dreamland…It has all the money in the world there, show business there, wonderful weather there, beautiful country, ocean is there. Snow skiing in the winter, you can go in the desert the same day. You have beautiful-looking people there. They all have a tan."

In one of the most interesting interviews, Ian McKellen describes Shakespearean acting as a process of translation. To convincingly portray a character from Shakespeare, McKellen seeks out his ethical equivalent in modern society. The actor, avoiding the easy choice of Richard Nixon, suggests that Lord and Lady Macbeth are like the early Kennedys, whose ambition leads them to destruction. To play Coriolanus, McKellen looks to John McEnroe (this interview was conducted in 1986.)

He doesn’t kill people he slaughters them. Or did at the time we were rehearsing for Coriolanus. He appears in public in front of thousands of people. He clearly enjoys that. But he despises the people he’s entertaining. That’s rather like Coriolanus: he wants to be out there. He wants to be a star. But there’s something in him that says, "I hate you all for making me a star because if I’m a real star I don’t need your approval because I know how good I am." I think that’s behind all McEnroe’s outbursts.

One of the highlights of The Spectator is the section titled "Bert and Sam: Brecht and Beckett." Though Terkel, unfortunately, never had the chance to interview either of the great dramatists, this section tackles a number of directors, actors, and visionaries who knew them and attempted to bring their work to American and European audiences. Brecht, the hard-headed realist, anticipated misunderstanding and antagonism from his audience. The actress and singer Lotte Lenya, wife of Brecht’s compositional partner, Kurt Weill, tells of the master’s strategy for dealing with a hostile crowd:

Brecht said, ‘I don’t think this will go over right away in a highbrow festival like this.’ So he supplied us with whistles. Whistling in Germany means disapproval—not like here. He foresaw that. He stood there with his stogie in his mouth and said, ‘If you hear whistles, whistle right back. Don’t let them win. We must win that evening.’

In several interviews Terkel chronicles different early productions of Waiting for Godot, from director Alan Schneider’s lukewarm reception by the literati of New York to the play’s success in the civil rights movement. Gilbert Moses, the director of Free Southern theater, a company of African-American actors that performed in the South during the 1960s, describes his audience’s sense of recognition on seeing Pozzo and Lucky:

Our audience knew a great deal about waiting. They had been waiting all their lives. They actually knew what it meant to be Lucky, the slave of Pozzo. When they saw Lucky with the rope around his neck, they understood immediately that that rope had two ends.

Rick Cluchey, an ex-convict and theater director describes seeing Waiting for Godot performed by a group of actors while in prison:

All around me the convicts were laughing! The laughter of recognition? Of course! We knew about waiting. We knew what it meant to wait for something; waiting had become an essential part of existence behind the grim walls of San Quentin.

If the book has a weakness, it is that Terkel allows some of his subjects—especially authors and critics—to use the interview as a theoretical sounding board. At times, dialogues descend into rather glib discussions about the role of theater in 20th-century America, or the function of art in society. While such discussions are, of course, essential to an understanding of culture and aesthetics, the interview may not be the best place for their elaboration. Complicated ideas are sometimes glossed over in exchange for observations that run dangerously close to clichés, and certain authors, such as Tennessee Williams, seem unable to provide any fresh insight into their work.

But this is a minor cavil, and The Spectator remains an entertaining and stimulating book. Each one of Terkel’s guests has a revealing story to tell about the workings of theater and film. August Wilson’s remembrance of discovering the blues shows us the importance of music in his plays. Alan Schneider’s recollections of getting drunk with Samuel Beckett reveal the author’s reclusive yet surprisingly humorous personality. Agnes DeMille’s reflections on the production of Oklahoma explain the unlikely introduction of modern dance into the Broadway musical. Ravi Shankar’s story of producing the music for Pather Panchali is a look at the connection between South Indian classical improvisation and Satyajit Ray’s unique style of filmmaking. Vittorio De Sica’s description of making The Bicycle Thief reveals the transition from a proletarian aesthetic to celebrity film. The Spectator provides an opportunity to observe a master at work and to hear first-hand from some of the most interesting people in 20th-century show business.
 

Jason Cons is a writer living in Somerville, MA. He is a former editor at The Bookpress.

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