Today is a good day for fans of the You Must Remember This podcast. After a four-month hiatus that allowed producer Karina Longworth to write her next book, the award-winning podcast returns this Monday with the first of series of episodes she’s calling “Dead Blondes.”
If you haven’t listened to the show, it’s a good time to start -- as Auntie Mame said, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” And while it's a podcast full of great stories from the golden age of Hollywood, it also contains lessons that can be applied today -- such as Longworth's riveting series on the impact of Hollywood’s blacklist, and an episode about actress Frances Farmer, a tale of purposely deceiving the media, which almost seems prescient in today’s world of “alternative facts.”
We spoke over the phone last week about Hollywood’s mastery of media manipulation, as well as what listeners can expect from the new season. (Note: Interview edited for length and clarity.)
What’s the new season about and where did the idea come from?
The topic of the season is “Dead Blondes,” and it came from a few different places. Part of it is that I did a Twitter poll a few months ago where I asked my listeners, “What are you interested in for the new season? Here are four options: Sex, Murder Politics or other.” Murder won by a landslide.
I started thinking about how I could talk about these Hollywood tragedies in a way that wasn’t so morbid, and wasn’t necessarily like the way I did the Charlie Manson season, which were catalyzed by a single murder. To be honest, as much as Hollywood has this reputation of being Babylon, this place where Noir comes to life, there’s not that many stories of really famous people being involved in horrible crimes. So I thought it would be interesting to turn the fascination that people have with dead stars and also this idea of the “perfect victim” -- the beautiful blonde woman who was taken too soon, like her own demerit let her potential slide away. I wanted to see if I could take that concept and turn it around, humanizing these idealized victims.
Will this be a mini-season like the Joan Crawford series?
It’s a full-fledged season. It’s going to run until the end of April and I’m going to talk about 10 different women, but there’s going to be more than one episode about a couple of them. And there are a few topics where I am going to re-frame a past episode we did. There’s one actress, Barbara Payton, who was the subject of half an episode in the Joan Crawford series. I’m going to take that half episode and turn it into a full episode. There’s a couple things like that. I’ve done episodes on Marilyn Monroe in the past and we’re going to do more.
That episode about Marilyn Monroe is shocking. I could not believe what she went through and how she underwent something much more intense than the male gaze.
That episode I did about her early life, I mean a lot of that stuff was news to me too. It was like a 1930s and '40s-Californian version of a Dickensian childhood. She self-consciously used her sexuality because she was emulating Jean Harlow, so there you have this trajectory of two dead blondes… [Laughs] It sounds so vulgar whenever I say dead blondes, but there really is a pattern. Some of them were molded in the bombshell style and some of them weren’t, but Hollywood provides plenty of examples of the perfect victim.
You've touched on more modern topics in past episodes, such as Madonna and Brandon Lee. Will you be going more recent with a subject in this upcoming season?
If you look at all the episodes I've done about events that happened in the '80s and '90s, they've all had a relationship to the past. Those Madonna episodes are basically about her use of classical Hollywood imagery in her work and her embrace of these ideas of what it was like to be an old Hollywood star, and her relationship with Warren Beatty. [Laughs] And the Brandon Lee one is about his relationship to his father, Bruce Lee, and the Lee family mythos. That's also an episode that starts in the '50s and '60s.
That is the way I feel most comfortable when talking about more modern things. The latest that this upcoming batch of episodes is going to go is with somebody whose career began in the late '70s and she dies in the early '80s.
To be perfectly honest, I have some issues with conflict of interest. I can't really talk about people I know in real life, and it gets tough when you get into people that worked in the '80s and '90s because I need to sidestep various things involved with my real life.
That's the humblest humble brag I've ever heard. But I appreciate how concerned you are with the ethical implications of your reporting. Recently I listened to the episode about Frances Farmer and I was shocked to learn how willing her biographers were to make up her life story. Though in today's world of "alternative facts," it seems prescient.
With alternative facts and what we're seeing with the president right now, it's very reminiscent of what I study, in terms of Hollywood. Hollywood has never had an incentive to tell the truth about anything. When you're reading so-called "news" from either history or today, you have to be reading it with a critical eye.
How long has Hollywood used the media to deceive people?
From the beginning of there being a movie press. I'm not joking. It was there as soon as there starts to be people in a role of publicist, or even before that. The original movie stars did not use their real names; they were labeled like "the girl with the curls," which is how Mary Pickford was first billed. They had personas that were crafted for them. The idea of knowing anything at all real about a movie star came later.
No wonder people don't trust the media.
It should be different for politicians and the press. It was actually a shock for me when I went to go work at a newspaper a few years ago because I was so used to publicists withholding access to people who made movies. I was having to read between the lines of press releases, and figure out what I could ask the director or movie star to get them to say the thing they weren't supposed to say. It's just a completely different game. Then people at the newspaper who were covering local politicians or people who had stories that they actually wanted to have told -- they expected those people to give full access and tell the truth. That wasn't my experience! [laughs]