As January comes to an end – and our descent into anti-democratic chaos continues – it does well to take time for yourself to enjoy the things you love that bring you unabashed pleasure. Fortunately, a glimmer of light found its way to the surface, as Karina Longworth released the first episode of a new season of You Must Remember This.
The podcast, dedicated to, as Longworth notes in the introduction of every episode, “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century”, is absolute catnip for geeks of film and the industry that make it. Podcasting can be a tough field to break into. While it’s now more democratic than ever – anyone with a microphone and Audacity editing software can make a podcast (and we have!) – it’s even harder to find a sizeable audience, particularly if you’re focusing on a niche topic. Longworth has defined herself in a crowded field thanks to her mixture of dedicated research, borderline-camp gossipy tone, and overwhelming empathy for the figures involved. We’ve already talked about the show on the site, but with the brand new “Dead Blondes” season underway – you can download the first episode, all about Peg Entwistle, now from her site and other podcasting services – we thought we’d share with you some highlights from a 92-episode long tenure. This is purely subjective, as always, and in no particular order, but also offers a good sampling of the things Longworth does best. Join us, won’t you?
While Longworth’s most famous episodes tend to focus on the earlier years of Hollywood, this study of one of the most enigmatic figures of the 80s and 90s offers a striking take on an industry that is more familiar to listeners yet tied to its past. Rossellini was born into scandal as the daughter of Robert Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, the latter of whom was condemned on the floor of the US Senate as an “instrument of evil” for having an affair with Rossellini while still married to someone else. Isabella remained in the public eye as a Lancôme model, then as the wife of Martin Scorsese, and later the partner of David Lynch. Longworth contextualizes her fame as part of Hollywood lore, changing definitions of femininity, and the constraints put on women at every turn.
This two-parter special takes on one of our era’s most iconic celebrities, her use of classic movie imagery in her work, and her desperate attempts to attain movie-star status, even as it became clear acting was not her forte. By focusing her gaze on Madonna’s relationships with her first husband Sean Penn and her rebound-slash-director Warren Beatty, Longworth is able to dissect the ways Madonna took on Hollywood, paid homage to it, and ultimately used it to further her music and image. By referencing everything from Marilyn Monroe to Italian New Wave, Madonna established herself as the cinephile of the MTV generation, emphasized further by the men in her life, although they clearly weren’t the focus. Longworth is also careful to note the much discussed end of Madonna’s relationship to Penn and the allegations of abuse, which can make this one a tough listen, but crucial all the same.
While Longworth’s empathy is her greatest skill, she’s also excellent at playing up the inherently ridiculous elements of Hollywood, and nowhere is this more evident than in her take on Streisand’s remake of a classic. The Oscar winning diva started dating her hairdresser, a semi-illiterate horn-dog named Jon Peters, who became a Hollywood producer of great infamy thanks to films like Rain Man and Batman (if you’ve heard Kevin Smith’s story about writing the cancelled Superman movie, you know all about him. And his giant spider). Peters’ vaulting ambition saw him take a note from Sid Luft’s book, by taking the oldest Hollywood film fable of the follies of fame and crafting it into a star vehicle for his lover. Everything goes wrong here – warring producers, a director who loses control of the film, demanding stars, boozing, public fights – and it’s hilarious, but Longworth also clearly loves Streisand and speaks in favour of her “no fucks given” image. It’s an intriguing episode on what happens when a forced “power couple” doesn’t quite take.
The cheekily titled Star Wars season (Longworth’s partner is some dude working on a film about that topic) focuses on the work and lives of major Hollywood stars during World War 2. Some were conscripted, others volunteered, a few found a way out of serving, and many stars went to work for the war effort through various means. Each of these episodes has much to recommend – the famous Carole Lombard and Clark Gable episode where Longworth cries is the show at its humane best – but for my money, the Hedy Lamarr episode is its peak. It can be hard to truly cover a life as colourful and sometimes bizarre as Lamarr’s, but Longworth does an admirable job – and a glorious Lamarr impersonation – in fleshing out the life of a complex figure whose influence spanned from film to technology to lawsuits.
Without a doubt, the Manson season is the show’s zenith. The true crime genre is saturated with Manson Family stories, ranging from respectable to garish, but Longworth’s focus on the intersections of the family, Hollywood and the changing culture of the 60s offers freshness to the field. The 60s may have ended when the family killed Sharon Tate, as Joan Didion famously said, but Longworth argues that the 60s was what made Manson, as well as the changing landscape of Hollywood, where barriers to fame and creativity were being torn down while still maintaining some of the old ways. While the episodes more focused on Manson, Tate and the murders tend to get the lion’s share of acclaim, the episode on Dennis Wilson, the Beach Boys drummer who briefly welcomed Manson into his fold and worked with him on his music, is the season at its strongest. The odd, oft-overlooked element of the entire case, wherein an earnest yet destructive man naively befriended one of the most infamous figures of our time, emphasizes the strength of the entire season. This isn’t so much about a series of murders as it is the people who unknowingly watched history unfold.
MGM were the quintessential Hollywood studio of the Golden Age. Not only did they create some of the most iconic films of all time, they were experts in crafting sturdy public images for their stars and maintaining them even as the scandals of real life set in. Some big names are discussed in this season – Judy Garland, Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow, Elizabeth Taylor – but for my money, the two parter on David O Selznick is the most fascinating. Selznick will forever have a place in history as the producer behind Gone With the Wind, but his rise and fall is as major a Hollywood story as anything MGM could craft. The most revealing part of this two-parter lies in the second half, as Selznick’s relationship with Jennifer Jones is discussed. Jones, originally called Phyllis Walker, had been married to fellow actor Robert Walker when Selznick discovered her, reinvented her as the dazzling ingénue of the moment, then essentially dictated her career at every moment, long before deciding to actually marry her. Theirs is a story of business, not love, and for that, it’s equal parts riveting and deeply sad.
The Blacklist season is the show at its most ambitious, tackling one of the great shames of American culture, as the McCarthy witch-hunts led to communist paranoia, accusations of treason, and the exile of several figures from the industry as the finger pointing began. While the involvement of director John Huston and actors Humphry Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in the House Unamerican Activities hearings was minimal, this episode offers a unique glimpse into the ways major Hollywood names tried to combat the growing unease as free speech rights became targeted under the guise of tackling the red threat. It’s a mixture of earnest nobility and privilege blindness, as not even the glow of the movies could combat the fear. This episode shows the ways big names such as Bogart and Hepburn were indirectly hurt by the committee hearings, and the film that helped them make their way back to the top.
Longworth defined the Joan Crawford season as the podcast equivalent of a beach read, and it’s certainly loaded with all the juicy gossip you’d expect, but it’s also a keenly perceptive dissection of the work and image of one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars, one who has been more defined by other people than herself. Nowhere is this more evident than in Longworth’s take on the most infamous movie of her life, the camp classic Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, co-starring her supposed enemy, Bette Davis. While this feud has become enshrined in legend – and many a drag show – the reality was more complicated, with the pair’s frosty but generally respectable working relationship moulded into the cat-fight of the ages by savvy marketing. It also exemplifies the limiting roles offered to women past a certain age, both in the movies and real life. Listen before the Ryan Murphy show comes out.