"America, The Movie: The Press and Popular Culture"
The New York Times
Northwestern University "Literature of Fact" Lecture Series
March 1, 2004
I feel that I may be here under false pretenses, just in that the reason I was asked to come here was largely because of the "Watching Movies" series, but the periods in my career when I covered Hollywood and covered the movies have really been fairly small, and I spend most of my time doing other things. But, I would like to talk to you about that series and how it came together and the impact that it had. Also maybe a little bit about the presidential campaign trail I've been on since September, kind of to compare the two worlds of covering a presidential campaign compared to what is was like covering movie stars in Hollywood, and it's territory that's been covered in the past. I mean, six people have already noted some of the similarities between the two worlds, but I'm going to trod over that a little bit again just because it happens to be what's been on my mind recently.
I think that you pretty much got the idea from the introduction what my background was, and I came from a working-class family, my father was a steel-worker. You know, I'm starting to hear myself give John Edward's speech that I've been hearing for the past weeks. I was the first one in my family to go to college, and I also didn't support NAFTA.
All this began, this "Watching Movies" series, when I was a boy and I was watching- I was part of the very first generation of Americans to have movies piped into their homes on television. The result was that even though perhaps earlier generations had gone to the movies and seen more movies, there was something different about being at a young age as I was and having it in your home. And I very vividly remember the very first adventures of getting on my bicycle and peddling to downtown Gary with a couple of my friends to go to movies theaters. The very first double-feature was Elvis Presley in "Fun in Acapulco", the bottom- it was always a double-feature in those days- was a movie called "Burn Witch Burn" which I remember because I couldn't figure it out, it was beyond me. I couldn't figure out who the witches were, and how you're supposed to kill witches.
What I'm trying to say is that there was never any plan to cover movies. Movies are what I did for pleasure. I never had much of a plan to do anything, really, but even when I got that job as a copyboy as a 14-year old and that fact that I was going to go into journalism because, well, it seemed like everybody else in the newsroom was having so much funÉ
Certainly it didn't occur to me that I was going to write about movies or was actually going to be a critic. I didn't know how a person became a movie critic. I still don't know. So it all happened rather by happenstance. At Indiana University I went to the journalism school and I had every intention of being a journalism major, and perhaps, one day, my dream at the time was to get a job at the Chicago Tribune. That was the big paper that I read growing up.
It was only purely by happenstance that I starting taking film courses. I usually took film classes through the English department, it was film as literature, as they put it, and they were great and I loved them. But I was doing it for fun, and I was doing it because I needed to get some course credits in and I was spending twelve hours a day working on the Indiana Daily Student, which is what I really wanted to do, and which occupied most of my waking hours, and some of the closest, long-lasting friendships I made in my life were made at the Daily Student, and the people that I'm closest with are now- my best friend in the world is the assistant style section editor at the Washington Post, and another guy, Sports Illustrated writer who has now become a movie critic as well- and these are all guys that sat around at the Daily Student. But anyway that's getting beside the point.
What happened was I got to be halfway through my junior year and I been spending so much time taking film courses and working on the Daily Student that I was not going to be able to get my journalism courses finished in time to get out of there. So I went to my advisor and they plotted out-- well, if you switched your major to English with the film emphasis then you'll make this happen, so that's what I did. And without any thought that I was going to do anything with it, and it turned out to be something that's come back to haunt me time and again.
After Indiana I briefly was a labor reporter, that was my specialty, I was the labor reporter for the Hammond Times, which was the home newspaper of the region. And I went from there to the UPI bureau here in town, which was fairly miserable, working overnights and I was turning their newspaper copy into broadcast copy overnight, and my specialty was the Nebraska news in brief. I did that for about a year and then I took a job at the Kansas City Star, and through all this there's no film in any of it, and I was still going to see films and I was still very interested in it, and it was something that was always in the back of my mind but I never thought I was ever going to do it professionally. It was only when I went to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which was in 1982-- I'd really been trying to get to the Inquirer for many years, that was well before your time but the Inquirer was a the really hot paper to get to in the late 70s and the early 80s, it had a brilliant, eccentric oddball of an editor named Gene Roberts, and it everybody who was young wanted to go there. It won Pulitzer Prizes every year; they were sending 24-year-olds to go be the New Deli bureau chief. You just had to get there.
So I tried very hard to get there and got very polite responses, and then-- I forget what year it was- I happened to be in Kansas City and there was a story that happened when a couple of skywalks collapsed in a crowded hotel lobby where they were having a tea-dance on some afternoon. And 114 people were killed, and the paper sprang into action and everybody on the staff when down there and we were able to come out with a story about four days later about why it happened. The staff shared a Pulitzer Prize for that. And, you know, all of a sudden the Philadelphia Inquirer was now returning my phone calls and I was able to make a shift and go the Inquirer and I was just working very happily out in the suburbs, and what happened was- a defining moment in my life came when Gene Roberts went out and bought his first VCR, and what he did was he brought it home and realized that the little movie blurbs in the Sunday TV book were terrible. They didn't tell him what he needed, he didn't know what movies to tape, because he couldn't tell from the blurbs what was important and what wasnŐt. So he called in his right hand man, a guy named Steve Lovelady, and said, we got to get better blurbs, go buy some better blurbs, and he went around and looked at all the services and they all stunk and he didn't like any of them, and the final straw for Roberts came when-- I don't know if you're familiar with "The Third Man", one of his favorite movies-- and the blurb in the TV book said: Hack writer visits friend in Vienna, which is not really quite accurate.
So he said, we've got 600 people on the staff we'll write our own blurbs. When you went to work on the Inquirer you filled out this long form; what language you speak, what countries you've visited, what you hobbies are, and I put down that I'd studied film-- and they used it all the time. When the hostages were taken in Iran they went in there and typed in "speaks Farsi" and out popped-- it surprised everyone, the editor of the Sunday magazine spoke Farsi, and he was on the next plan to Tehran that night. So they really did use it.
And so they assembled this small group of people, including me, and they said well we want you to write blurbs on every movie that's ever been made. How many movies are there?
We don't know.
Do we watch the movies first?
If you got time.
Well, how longÉ?
Take a week, two weeks, whatever you need.
So we called up a local TV station and we found out that at any given moment-- this was in the early 80s, that there could be one of 25,000 movies on television. So I figured I could turn out about 100 blurbs a day, and I did the math. I think it would have taken me, without weekends, about six months to get that done, with 100 a day. If you watched the movies- the average length of a movie is 120 minutes- it would have taken 17 years, without a vacation, to see all the movies. So we decided not to watch the movies.
Anyway, it was in the midst of doing this that they came to me and-- I had never met Gene Roberts, I was hired in this big burst of hiring-- I got called in and-- first time I met him-- and he was sitting there, he was very eccentric, had this North Carolina drawl, and I went in there and he said well, Rick, I like your blurbs. Thanks very much, Gene. How'd ya like to be a movie critic. I said what, no-- I'd come to the Inquirer because I really wanted to get one of the foreign bureaus. My hero at the time was a foreign correspondent named Richard Ben Kramer who has now gone on to write books, he did a biography of Joe DiMaggio and some other things-- and I wanted to be Richard Ben Kramer. I said no, I want one of your foreign bureaus, Gene, that's what I really want, and I went on very passionately about why I was perfect to be a foreign correspondent and there was this long silence and he looked up and said: No, movie critic.
So that was the very first time that I started to think; what would that be like, to be a movie critic? Meet movie stars, go to film festivals. It didn't sound too bad. So I said OK, and I agreed to do it for three years and it was a great time. I was happy when it was over, I can tell you that. A couple of things I came out of it with, first of all, were that you don't really realize how many bad movies there are until you're a movie critic. Most of the movies that are made are really terrible and you're able to whittle that number down just by reading reviews and talking to your friends so that even though ordinary moviegoers see a lot of bad movies in a year, that's after the filtering process.
The other thing that happened was you realize that, unless you're a giant, national figure like Roger Ebert, that the movie critic for the local paper, even a big city paper like the Inquirer, is kind of a mini hometown celebrity, and you have the pleasant experience of people being very happy to meet you, and surprised to meet you, and quoting lines that you've written-- usually ones that you wish you'd had a little more time to work on. So anyway I did that and that was it. I went to New York, and I was in Africa for four years, and it was great. I got there three weeks after Mandela's release from prison and left the day after he was inaugurated president, so I was there for the whole transition period, it was just an amazing time to be there. And I was covering all of Africa for the paper, so there was a lot of traveling around and usually in unpleasant situations-- but not always, and also some really surprising, multiparty elections happening in countries that had never seen them. It was just a great time to be there, and I came back and having dinner with Roberts and he told me that I should-- by then he had left the Inquirer and retired briefly for a period and then came back as managing editor of the New York Times-- where he had started his career-- he said you gotta get out of there, Knight-Ridder's gonna ruin it-- and come to work at the Times. And I said wow, great. So he thought he could make it happen, and the way that he made it happen was by hearkening back to this movie critic period that I had and got me hired as a general assignment reporter on the culture staff, which I had had no real cultural writing experience for.
So that's how I came onto the Times and started there. And then a little later I found myself in Hollywood for the same reason; they needed someone to cover the movie business and write copy for the culture pages out of Hollywood so it was a lot of, you know, writing the Oscar stories, which I did for the last four years-- and I'm very happy I didn't have to do last night's-- and doing profiles and that sort of thing. It was in the course of doing that that I started this Watching Movies series, which I guess was the primary reason for my coming here. As with most things that happen in newspapers it certainly wasn't highly thought out and planned strategically, it was a creature of the needs of the day.
I had done a series when I had first arrived there, where the editor of the Friday weekend section came up with an idea for a series to try to get some celebrities into the section where I would go off into some neighborhood of Manhattan with some celebrity who had lived there or had some contact with that neighborhood and we would walk around and they would say 'oh this is the best coffee cake in the neighborhood". We had a lot of fun doing that, I did Yankee Stadium with Billy Crystal and two or three others.
So she had this history of me doing that series and she came to me and said-- the phenomenon for the NYT, as far as advertising goes, is over the last decade the huge growth areas in advertising were dot.coms and movie ads. When they looked at the end of the year, the rise in-- however the measure advertising, I don't even know, the movie ads were really driving it. And you can see it if you look at the paper in the Friday section or the Sunday section and especially the special movie sections that we used to crank out every couple of months-- they've cut back on that a little bit, just a huge moneymaker. So the weekend section was being taken over by movie ads. It used to be that it was three or four pages of theatre, two pages of movies and then other stuff. Now it's 20 pages of movies and a couple of pages of theatre.
So she came to me and said we need to get more movie copy into the weekend section, because we can't be running these classical music reviews in between the movie ads, so you did that thing where you walked around neighborhoods, can you come up with something that will be about movies and that we can put in the weekend section.
And in the time honored newspaper tradition I stole the idea from a friend of mine. The chief art critic, Michael Kimmelman, had done a series a couple of years earlier when he walked around museums with artists and they would say; here is a painting that people don't recognize for being as influential as it really was. And it was really a great series and they published it as a book, actually as well.
So I thought alright, well I'll do something like that with movies and I came up with this idea of watching a single movie with them and to define the story by the experience, this time limit of this couple of hours of this movie. And that it should be a movie of their choice and a movie that had some resonance in their life.
And the real idea, the subversive idea of it was to do a profile of people that wasn't the normal celebrity profile that was tired the second week they started writing them, and they're still writing them-- you know "Goldie Hawn is picking at her spinach salad as she said,"-- and the idea was to sneak up on them and to-- by getting them talking about something that was so connected to the creative heart of their life, they would inadvertently and inescapably find themselves talking about themselves, without really knowing they were talking about themselves.
So I think that it worked out in about 2/3 of the people, so that was good. You know, it was interesting to hear it described as an instant hit because it took me forever to get the thing off the ground. By the end of it people were beating down the door to do it, I mean once they saw that it was huge real estate on the front of the weekend section and a full page inside, the publicists and agents were all begging to be in it. It was very satisfying.
But in the beginning it was not that way at all. It was very difficult to get it going; I approached at least a dozen people. I made a strategic error at the beginning because I decided that I needed to kick it off with a big movie star, some big name that would help launch the thing, so I was going after Tom Hanks, and at the time Kevin Spacey had just won an Oscar, and I was really trying to get these people to do it, and the answer that I was getting back from all of them-- of course never talk to them, you talk to their handlers-- and the answer I was getting back was "what is this, I donŐt understand, what, two hours? They're not gonna give you two hours. You want them to talk about someone else's movie, I don't, what's the point of that?"
So it took a while to really get someone, and it happened to be Quentin Tarantino. He was the first one who agreed to do it, and you know I thought it was going to be someone who was doing it to promote one of their movies, but once he did it-- and I got Ron Howard to do it early on because I knew him, I'd interviewed him a few times, and once that happened, after about six months of that it started to take on a life and I was not having to go out and find people, they were coming to me. The real tipping point was the Costner one, he did "Cool Hand Luke", and it was good piece, it was a good piece for the series as well because he doesnŐt have the best reputation in Hollywood and he's gotten some very bad press and this was his assessment of what a leading man needs to do to be a leading, which is what he considers himself. And he was very smart and very insightful, but also contained the seeds of the egomania he's been accused of harboring.
It was the one that really turned the series around and after that people started saying; "Kevin Costner did it and didn't look like an idiot, so maybe we can do it." People have really been asking recently to compare the experience of covering Hollywood and the campaign trail. So I have being thinking about it, because there has been a fair amount written comparing the two worlds. The first thing that comes to mind when you think about that is the fact that, in both cases as a journalist, what you're negotiating for often is access to the people that you really want to talk to and talk about. And it's a very similar experience talking to the press secretary for Howard Dean or John Edwards and trying to get them to give you that 45 minutes on the plane that you need to do the interview, and talking to Ben Affleck's people when they're convinced all you're going to do is talk to him about why is marriage broke up. Even though they know you're from the NYT and they understand you're probably not really going to be talking about that.
You're dealing with people who are very interested, in both cases, in what the resulted image is going to be. They're shaping and burnishing this image and if it's a movie star it doesn't matter, I mean they're very interested in hearing what you want to ask them about, not necessarily because they're worried you're going to ask them questions they aren't able to answer, but how will this interview help us shape the image in the way that we're trying to shape it, whether its John Edwards-- I was most recently on the Edwards bus, until just a couple days ago-- and he's come under criticism most recently for a lack of foreign policy experience and for saying a couple of things that seem that perhaps he was not as informed as the president of the US ought to be, on certain foreign policy issues. So if you go to the handlers and tell them that you're interested in talking to him, and that the subject is foreign policy, it's very important to them what the subject is and what kinds of things you want to talk about and whether-- well, the point I think is not that they're so much interested in "am I gonna try and pin him down and ask him policy toward North Korea, but rather is having him in the paper talking about North Korea going to push his image in a way that we want it pushed at the moment. The main things the two have in common, and something that's also in common with the newspaper business, I would imagine, is the triumph of marketing.
Marketing has taken over everything, because it just works, it's very effective. One time I had a contract to write a book about public opinion polling in presidential elections that I had to give up when I went to South Africa, but from the time that George Gallup, who was an advertising man in the 1948 election came up with his very fist public opinion poll for that election, which was wrong, you know there's the public poll is just the most public face of this whole thing. It's really much more insidious than that, and its just a whole focus-group mentality, itŐs the whole-- an attempt to build productivity by diminishing risk and to diminish risk in very risky enterprises-- and there's no riskier business than the movie business-- by selling people what they already want. By printing newspapers that give people what they say they already want.
I think I was saying to someone earlier that you know, almost every paper I've been at has done one of the Belden surveys. Every two years they do a survey of the readership of the newspaper where they find out how many people read this column on page 2, who are they?, and you can go in and read it, and it's very disheartening as a journalist when you get to see it and you get to realize how few people are really reading, and what they really want is something else. Almost every one of these that's ever been done comes up with the same two answers: People want shorter stories, and more local news. Beef up your local coverage, double your local coverage, cut stories by 20%, you come back and do another Belden survey and they tell you they want shorter stories and more local news. There's no end to it. My theory of it was just that when people said the want more local news that mean that literally. Not much happens in their lives, they want more things to happen. Certainly in Hollywood, in movies, almost anyone can see the effect that marketing has had on it, I see it in newspapers, not so much at the Times but, in Hollywood it's primarily responsible for the decline in moviemaking in the last quarter century. I don't think anyone could look objectively and think Hollywood movies are better now than they were 25 years ago. I think they're much much worse. And that's the direct reason for it. I better stop talking.
Copyright 2004 Rick Lyman. All Rights Reserved.