Skip to main content

Former 'Spy' Magazine Editor Tony Hendra

Hendra was the editor in chief of Spy magazine and an original editor of National Lampoon. He also played Ian Faith in the mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap. He has written an unlikely new memoir about his lifelong friendship with a Benedictine monk he was brought to when he was 14 years old, after getting caught in an affair with a married woman. Hendra writes in his new memoir Father Joe: "His was the wisdom I craved though it was never what I expected; his judgment alone I feared though never once did he pass judgment on me."


Other segments from the episode on June 14, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 14, 2004: Interview with Tony Hendra; Review of the film "The Stepford wives."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Tony Hendra discusses his new book, "Father Joe"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Tony Hendra, is a great satirist who performed with John Cleese when
they attended Cambridge University, went on to edit the National Lampoon and
Spy magazine, and did a great send-up of John Lennon on the National Lampoon
album "Radio Dinners." In the heavy-metal mockumentary "This is Spinal Tap,"
Hendra played the band's manager.

Hendra's new book is a memoir, and although at times it is very funny, it is
also sincere and emotional in ways that we don't expect from a satirist. The
book is about his long relationship with Father Joe, a Benedictine monk. They
met in 1955 when Hendra was 14 and in deep trouble. The young Hendra had been
having an affair with a married woman, Leila(ph) Bootle, until they were
discovered by her husband, Ben Bootle. Mr. Bootle was a recent convert to
Catholism and had been giving Hendra religious instruction in the couple's
home. Hendra had also helped with some chores like clearing out the rotten
lumber outside the couple's trailer.

Here's a short reading from "Father Joe," when Hendra is involved with Mrs.
Bootle and she is trying to resist temptation. Her nickname for Hendra is

Mr. TONY HENDRA (Author): `"Hedgehog, these impulses sometimes come over us
and we mustn't give in to them. I believe even discussing what happened could
bring on the impulse again, which is why social contact between us may itself
be sinful." I nodded dutifully, desperately disappointed. "Being together
like this is an occasion of sin, and we'll have to avoid being together alone
in the future until these impulses pass. You do understand, don't you,
Hedgie? Now I expect you want to get started on the wood." Then she got up
and just stood there. Her eyes turned all wide and tragic, and she shook her
head operatically. "Oh, my love." She rushed 'round the table and cradled my
head in her arms. "I can't help myself and I don't care." I stood up. This
time I was ready. I kissed her, eyes closed, grinding away on her lips as I'd
seen Victor Mature and Burt Lancaster and Stewart Granger and Errol Flynn do
so effectively. She flopped her face on my chest sobbing, "I love you, I love
you, I love you. I want ordinary, corrupt, human love. Go before I do
something rash, something unforgivable." I did go, in a glorious glow of
love. I was in love, she was my lover, I was her lover, possibly a great
lover. I had handled a love scene. Love was great and I was in it.'

GROSS: That's Tony Hendra reading from his new memoir, "Father Joe."

Tony, how did you end up having an affair when you were 14 with this married

Mr. HENDRA: Well, this liaison was completely unforeseen on my part. This
rather odd Catholic couple had shown up at our local Catholic church, and they
were rather mysterious. She was rather French in carriage and demeanor, and
he was very English and much taller than Lily, his wife. And I think what
actually happened was that this gentleman, Ben Bootle his name was, was a
mathematician and a very cold fish. He was also a recent convert to
Catholicism and, as we Catholics know, the converts tend to be more Catholic
than the pope.

And they had, as it later transpired, a very difficult marriage. And I
suppose this rather lonely, unhappy woman that lived alone in a trailer down
near the river--and this rather, unhappy, lonely, trapped woman fell for an
awkward adolescent and that was me.

GROSS: She seems to have almost been exhilarated by the illicit nature of
your relationship. Did you find that exhilarating?

Mr. HENDRA: Well, I mean, I was 14 years old and, you know, I had the sort of
self-identity of your average mollusk. So I was entirely delighted to have
someone be in love with me, which she repeatedly said. And, I mean, she was
really quite pretty so it wasn't like, you know, I was just by chance falling
in love with a woman because I was 14 years old and desperate. So there was
that to it, too.

I think her exhilaration came, as much as anything, because her husband was,
as I say, extremely devout, so devout that he took what was known as the
supererogatory path in marital matters, which meant that even though having
sex for the purpose of procreation is good, the better part, the
supererogatory part, is to not enjoy sex while you're having it for
procreative purposes. And so he would very carefully remove any possibility
of pleasure, either for himself or his mate by various means, but the most
Draconian being insisting on praying on their knees before they got down to
business. So this woman was, obviously, looking for a way out.

GROSS: Right. How did her husband find out what was going on?

Mr. HENDRA: Well, we mostly kissed, but the time came when things went
further and, needless to say, as always seems to happen in those situations,
he walked in on us.

GROSS: And what did he do?

Mr. HENDRA: Well, rather than beating me up or running me over with his car
or something that normal husbands would do, he decided that we should go on
spiritual retreat to a monastery in the Isle of Wight, which is a small
island off the south coast of England, and there meet with a scary-sounding
monk called Dom Joseph Warrilow--Dom being the Benedictine shortening for
Dominus or Lord--and consult with this monk to see if what he referred to as
this unfortunate situation could be resolved in some spiritual way. Evidently
he and his wife, Lily, had consulted this monastic gentleman earlier on some
other crisis in their obviously rather tumultuous marriage.

GROSS: But when you went to the monk, who became known to you as Father Joe,
and his reaction is a really surprising one. What did he tell you when you
confessed to him what happened?

Mr. HENDRA: Well, Father Joe was surprising in every way. I mean, I--since
most of my experience of discipline or retribution or punishment in the
Catholic Church in the late '50s was of a physical nature or of a terrifying
nature--in other words, the hell sanction--and Father Joe turned out to be a
very funny-looking man. He had a sort of groundhog nose and big flat feet
like a duck, almost cartoon looking. But he was--he had this extraordinary
stillness about him that he sort of folded you into. Peace sort of came off
this man almost as tangibly as aftershave. And he was absolutely the opposite
to anything I had ever experienced before. He was not judgmental. He
listened to my story without contradiction or cross-examination. He used no
words like `hell' or `punishment' or `mortal sin' or any of that. And at the
end of my story and his consideration of what had happened, he said, `Well,
Tony, dear, the only real sin that you've committed is the sin of
selfishness.' And I realized that that indeed was the sin that I had
committed. The sexual aspect of it was not very important to Father Joe. It
was the fact that I had done and acted selfishly on this obviously vulnerable

And as I grew to know him and really throughout my very long relationship with
him, which lasted almost 40 years, I realized that selfishness to him was the
core failing. It was the one behind every other thing that we call sin. For
Joe, selfishness was--and by this I mean not just sort of selfishness in the
petty sense but really living in a universe in which `me' is the center, in
the `me' universe. And to him that was the sin behind all sins ancient and
modern, whether it was greed or abuse of any kind or bigotry or pride, envy,

GROSS: Well, underlying that is really, I think, the very kind of profound
notion of the self and the ego and a transcendence beyond that, notions that
must have been pretty hard for a 14-year-old to grasp. So what did all this
mean to you, that what you had done was committed the sin of selfishness and
yet the sexual part of it--he didn't seem fazed by that?

Mr. HENDRA: No, he wasn't. And as I later learned, he, in fact, quite the
contrary, did not think of sex as--and remember, this was the late '50s, so
these kinds of thoughts were quite--especially amongst Catholics--were quite
subversive almost. He thought of sex as--he once said to me that he thought
sex was a tremendous idea of God's, because it gave physical manifestation to
the most powerful force in creation, which is love. And he even said that he
thought sex was a kind of sacrament and that was an idea which not only
appealed to me on the level of not being a sanction, not being a put-down of
sex, but it also appealed to me because I had never heard a priest--I'd never
heard any kind of religious person, a priest or as I sometimes call them,
Cathoholics, people who, you know, are pious, devout people. I had never
heard anyone speak like this of sex. Sex was always a sin. Even thinking
about it was a sin.

GROSS: Something he told you that I thought was really interesting--he said,
`Poor Lily.' I mean, he felt sorry for the woman who had seduced you. What
did that say to you?

Mr. HENDRA: Well, it was actually his initial reaction. He had nothing to
say to me before he had commented on this poor woman's predicament. And what
it showed we was that, yes, I had indeed--I had--exploited is perhaps a rather
hackneyed word, but I had--and I'm not sure I had exploited her exactly
because I wasn't awfully sure what was going on during our so-called affair.
But it did show me that this woman was a real person and I had never thought
about that. To me, she was really just a wonderful, a miraculous appearance
of something that would be of satisfaction to my nerve endings. But she was
indeed a lonely, trapped woman and a real person. And when it really came
down to it, that was what Father Joe wanted everybody to understand.

GROSS: Including her husband?

Mr. HENDRA: Yes, indeed. Absolutely. Father Joe had no--I mean, her husband
obviously was an unappetizing fellow and, in his way, a very selfish fellow,
but still one had to reach out to him, too. As he would put it, `If we live
in the prison of self, you have to reach out over those walls and over your
own walls and into the prison in which other selves dwell,' and that that's
the beginning of understanding. And that is really love. It's a conscious
act. It's an effort you have to make. It's not some sort of mushy, hippy
feeling, you know. And that really was at the core of his thought.

GROSS: So was there any punishment or any actions that were proscribed for
you by Father Joe?

Mr. HENDRA: Any penance you mean?

GROSS: Penance. I guess that would be the word. Yes, thank you.

Mr. HENDRA: Right. No, none at all, except that I was not to see her again
because it wouldn't be fair to her. And that was really it. And as I say, I
was not only enormously swept up by this man's stillness, by his sense of
peace, but completely captivated by his approach. And it wasn't long before I
wanted to become like him and enter his monastery.

GROSS: My guest is Tony Hendra. His new memoir is called "Father Joe."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tony Hendra and he's best known
as a satirist, but his new book is a memoir called "Father Joe." And it's
about a Benedictine monk who Tony Hendra formed a close relationship with over
the years. The book is called "Father Joe."

How often would you see Father Joe and visit the monastery?

Mr. HENDRA: Well, I was going to school and it was about four or five hours'
ride away, so it wasn't that frequent. But, you know, every--almost every
school holidays, I would get down there for at least a couple of days and
every Easter I would spend my Easter holidays at the monastery.

GROSS: One Easter you had a religious awakening at the Sunday service. You
really felt that you'd been in the presence of God. What did that feel like?

Mr. HENDRA: Well, it was literally an epiphany. I had actually--the main
reason I had become involved with this couple that we were talking about
earlier was that the man, Ben, had been giving me religious instruction, which
Catholic children are supposed to have if they're going to a non-Catholic
school. And he was a mathematician, a very brilliant mathematician from
Cambridge, and he was also a philosophy major, I suppose you'd call it. And
he had inculcated me with all these extremely erudite theological proofs of
the various doctrinal mysteries of the church, none of which had ever really
convinced me. I mean, I understood what they meant intellectually, but they'd
never meant anything to me.

But after meeting Father Joe and really, I guess, having suddenly understood
that there might be something divine in the world, that this man, it seemed to
me, was on very good terms with God, it suddenly--this all suddenly became
real to me. It all fit together. The evidence of the divine that Father Joe
provided me with was the key to understanding all these intellectual exercises
which I'd been--which had been sort of pumped into me. And it was almost as
if they were all in black and white and suddenly, in this one moment, Easter
Sunday Mass in Father Joe's monastery, they all sort of burst into living
color. And I became a passionate Catholic.

GROSS: But a few weeks before your 16th birthday, you woke up in a panic,
thinking, `There is no God.' You were wrong. And you went to Father Joe and
you told him what had happened and what did he tell you?

Mr. HENDRA: He said that the romantic part of my affair with God was over and
that it happens to us all and that now mere feelings would be replaced by a
much deeper kind of belief. And he was right. It took me quite some time to
understand the force of what he was saying because, with no more feelings to
support my belief, I was in despair. But he showed me that feelings are not a
bad thing, but they're not something you can build on because they do come and
go. And obviously in this case they had disappeared very arbitrarily. The
experience I'd had of what I thought was losing my faith and being plagued by
doubts was, in fact, just a kind of just a way stage toward a deeper
understanding of what I actually believed. If one's belief in things is
involuntary, just like a spell of good weather, then obviously it doesn't have
very much depth. And as I spent more time with Joe at this particular time, I
began to understand that at a much deeper level that your faith had to be
earned like anything else.

GROSS: What I find really interesting about that is here you are, you're not
quite 16. You have this crisis of faith. You wake up believing you were
wrong, there is no God. You're in despair and he interprets that in such a
way so that you could see this as progress, as a moving forward, because
everybody goes into this stage and now that means you're ready for a deeper
faith. It's so interesting the way he handled that and made you feel that you
were further along the road.

Mr. HENDRA: Yes. Well, one of the constant aspects of my relationship with
Father Joe was that I would go wanting one thing or expecting one thing and
would always come away with something far profounder and more rewarding than
I'd ever expected. And that sort of curve, if you like, of our meetings or
encounters and his imparting his wisdom to me never failed, from the earliest
moments I saw him when I expected some hooded, sinister figure to take me down
in a crypt and do who knows what, and instead met this wonderfully gentle,
funny, sweet, captivating man to the very end of my relationship with him, he
always had these magnificent surprises. And it was something at a much deeper
level than simply having a positive attitude, you know, or being cheerful or
taking, you know, the glass is half full approach. It was--he truly led me to
an understanding that I had not had minutes before.

GROSS: Tony Hendra's new memoir is called "Father Joe." He'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Coming up, the price you pay for mocking people. We talk with Tony
Hendra about giving up on the monastic life and entering comedy. And David
Edelstein reviews the new movie "The Stepford Wives."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with satirist
Tony Hendra. His new book, "Father Joe," is about the Benedictine monk who
became Hendra's mentor when Hendra was 14. When Hendra was a teen-ager, he
expected to become a monk, but then he got a scholarship to St. John's College
at Cambridge University.

You got a scholarship to St. John's College at Cambridge University, and you
were thinking of not going because your real desire at that point was to be a
monk, and Father Joe said, `No, the scholarship's a gift from God. You have
to take it. You have to go.' And he pushed you to go, so you did.

Mr. HENDRA: Right.

GROSS: And then when you got there, you went to see the satirical review
"Beyond the Fringe," and you said, `I went into the theater a monk, I came out
a satirist.' What changed you? How did seeing "Beyond the Fringe" affect

Mr. HENDRA: Well, perhaps I should explain what "Beyond the Fringe" was,
because it was rather an exceptional show. "Beyond the Fringe" came from the
Edinburgh Festival, "The Fringe of the Edinburgh Festival," which is kind
of the more radical part of it. Hence, it's called "Beyond the Fringe." And
it came out in 1960, and it was a landmark satirical review. It starred
Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and a man called Alan Bennett, who
is now a great English playwright.

And the point about "Beyond the Fringe" was that it was the first time really
in anyone's memory that all the sacred goods of the English nation, what we
used to call Great Britain, had been gathered in one place and mercilessly
satirized: the royal family, the BBC, the Church of England, World War II,
Shakespeare. It was all there in that show. And when I went to see it one
night in Cambridge, I was absolutely transported by this experience, and I'd
never laughed so much before or since, I don't think, and, of course, I was
living a monastic life so maybe there was an element of release to it, but
what most stayed with me was this extraordinary stuff called laughter, and the
theater was absolutely electric with this energy, which united 500 people
sitting in their seats every time another truth was revealed satirically,
which is really what was going on here. And the force of this just bowled me

GROSS: You know, in describing the show, you used the words, `It was the
first time that the sacred goods of England were ridiculed and mercilessly,'
so you're using these conspiritual terms to describe what happened. But I'm
wondering if you were at all appalled by how the sacred goods were mercilessly
ridiculed, you know?

Mr. HENDRA: Yes. No, I understand. But that's the nature of satire. I'm
sure if they hadn't been very good at it, I would have been offended, but they
were very good at it, and as Lenny Bruce would say to me much later, the best
laughter is the laughter that comes from laughing at stuff we're not supposed
to laugh at. And that was exactly what was going on here. The very
sacredness of these things was what gave them their explosive--what gave the
satire its explosive force.

And at the time, I was not even aware really that I was doing anything
apostate. It wasn't as if I was rebelling against anything. There was a
spiritual element to this. I mean, there we were sitting in what were, in
effect, fairly comfortable pews, and up on the stage or altar were four young
men in black dealing with sacred matters and releasing an enormous amount of
energy doing so. There wasn't a sense that this was that much different.
There was something transformative about laughter in much the same way that I
had been taught that grace and prayer were transformative.

GROSS: Had you been exposed to much comedy before?

Mr. HENDRA: Well, yes, I mean, certainly nothing like this, but, you know,
like most kids in the '60s in England, I listened to, you know, the great
radio shows at that time, most notably "The Goon Show," which was
extraordinarily funny.

GROSS: So what was your entrance into doing satire yourself?

Mr. HENDRA: Well, as you said, I went into the theater a monk and came out a
satirist and believed that, you know, I would be changing the world through
laughter rather than prayer for the rest of my life, and the first place I
headed was a place called Footlights, which is a sort of rough equivalent
of the Harvard Lampoon, I suppose, except at Footlights, we do a review
rather than a parody. And as it happened, I entered at the same time as two
other young undergraduates named John Cleese and Graham Chapman. And Graham
and I hit it off, and we, in fact, within a year or so had a comedy team. It
was the only time in my life when I was the straight man. But, you know, that
was really how I got started and how a lot of people got started actually.
Footlights was a hotbed of comedic talent at that point.

GROSS: And then you ended up writing for the National Lampoon and performing
with the Lampoon people, you know, and working in the United States. So all
of this is happening, this is like the late '60s, the early '70s, so you're
entering satire instead of the monastery, and you're doing it at a time when
the counterculture is at its peak, you know, so there's like drugs and sex
and, you know, no taboos, so did your behavior go from one extreme to the

Mr. HENDRA: Well, there is a common syndrome apparently in monastic life,
which is called going over the wall, and quite often, when monks leave the
monastery, for whatever reason, they go sexually and every other way nuts.
I'm not sure that's exactly what happened to me, but certainly I lost my faith
quite quickly, and looking back on it, considerably quicker than I would have
expected. And to that degree, I suppose I became just another modern person.
Certainly by the time I got to the Lampoon in 1970, '71, you know, my
attitudes were no longer monastic in any sense. They were pretty much--you
know, my values, if you like, were the values of the counterculture, whatever
that means. But I never lost a sense of loss. I always had a sense that I
had been privileged to experience something not better than this exactly, but
very different. And I never lost touch with Father Joe, through what might be
called apostasy, I suppose. And I never lost touch with him, even though the
formal aspect of his life and world view no longer meant very much to me.

GROSS: Why do you think you lost your faith? I mean, you could have become a
satirist and still had faith, but just not become a monk.

Mr. HENDRA: Yes. I think--well, these are mysterious waters to navigate.
I'm not terribly sure why I lost my faith either. I mean, there were
perfectly quotidian reasons for it, which is that I discovered sex and stopped
going to Mass, which is a pretty good way to start. But I also think that
perhaps because I had reached a rather deeper level of faith, one that
depended considerably more on effort and belief--I mean, it wasn't the kind of
faith as I said earlier that rested on feelings. Perhaps it was once I lost
the impulse to make that effort, it was much easier to lose it. But to tell
you the truth, I haven't really thought about that very much. The only thing
I know is that I did as others did, and then did the drugs and the sex and all
the rest of it. What...

GROSS: Did you feel any guilt about it?

Mr. HENDRA: Well, once again, I mean, the guilt I felt was not really guilt
in quite the sense that I would have thought of it earlier. I always had--in
the back of my mind, I always worried about what Father Joe would think about
this, but he would always surprise me, once again. He never seemed to think
that these things were half as bad as anyone else did, even many of the people
who were doing them. And that, in itself, was very encouraging. And at the
Lampoon, certainly, which was actually quite heavily populated with Catholics,
we did a lot of Catholic material, some of it which was condemned by various
organizations like the League of Catholic Decency and the Knights of Columbus,
so forth, Columbu--as blasphemy. You know, that was a very
interesting experience.

GROSS: My guest is Tony Hendra. His new memoir is called "Father Joe."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is satirist Tony Hendra, former editor of the National
Lampoon and Spy magazine. His new book, "Father Joe," is about the
Benedictine monk who became Hendra's mentor.

We did actually talk to Father Joe at one point about doing satire, and he was
actually a little worried about you. What were his concerns about what
writing satire might do to you?

Mr. HENDRA: Well, this was another of those occasions where Father Joe
absolutely, absolutely amazed me with this kind of reservoir of intuition that
he seemed to possess. The proximate cause of this particular crisis, which I
took to Father Joe, as I took all my crises, was a satirical show that I'd
helped create in England called "Spitting Image," and "Spitting Image" was
actually a wonderful show. The idea of it was that we had these sort of
Muppet-sized puppets which were actually caricatures of the great and near
great, and we then made these puppets do outrageous things. I mean, they were
people like the royals and Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and so on. And
anyway, it was a wonderful show to work on and, as it turned out, ran for 10
or 11 years in England.

But that I was going through a couple of major crises, the normal midlife
crisis and a wrecked marriage, and so I quit the show after the first season
and went to Quarr Abbey to see Father Joe, and we had these series of
conversations about satire where he just exhibited this extraordinary
understanding of what I did for a living. And, you know, this is a man who
spent almost all of his very long life in a cloister. I mean, he entered at
the age of 17 and he died when he was 89, and he never saw a movie or watched
a television show or had a driver's license or anything like that.

But he still understood at a level even greater than mine what it was I did.
And as usual, he sort of put me at my ease in a way. He would always smooth
away the fear in any situation. That was the first thing he would do. And
all my agonies about what I was doing, he said, `Well, you know, my dear,
there is a certain similarity between the satirist and the monk. They both
see something awry with the world and both set out to do something about it,'
which I thought was a very kind thing to say.

But he was also very interested in the dynamic of satire or humor, and I
remember one particular exchange we had was--really caught me up short, really
opened my eyes. We were talking about, as I say, the dynamic of satire, that
in order to make fun of something or somebody, you have to distance yourself
from it. If it's a person, in a way, you have to dehumanize them to some
degree, push them away so that they can be ridiculed. And he said that there
was always this us-them dynamic to satire and perhaps to all humor. And, you
know, it's the `we're good, you're evil; we're rich, you're poor,' or the
other way around, `We're English, you're Irish,' you know, whatever--there's
always this aspect to it. And he said, `So that means, dear, that in order to
be a satirist, you must divide the world into two kinds of people.' And I
said, `Well, yeah. You know, I mean, that's how the world works. Everyone
thinks in teams,' and which I think was not something that I thought of as
anything but morally mutual.

And we talked a little further about that and then he got very silent and he
walked on through the monastery grounds where we were having our little walk,
and he stopped and he said, `But, you see, dear, I think there are two kinds
of people in the world, those who divide the world into two kinds of people
and those who don't.' And in that one stroke, he made me realize that I had,
in fact, become a rather inhuman person in my quest to change the world
through laughter.

GROSS: Wasn't he also concerned about what it would do to you to mock people,
to spend all your time mocking people?

Mr. HENDRA: Yes, very much so. And, in fact, I mean, the net result of this
visit in which I had expected him to ameliorate my crisis in some way or
alleviate it, was to actually--I left questioning at a very profound level
whether, in fact, there was much point in going on with this. But this was
another conversation we had in which I was explaining that satire involves--at
least true satire involves taking on the sort of coloration of your enemy or
your target and becoming your target and then exaggerating his or her worst
aspects in order to destroy them.

And his only concern here was that if one did that--and in this case, if I did
that on a regular basis, wouldn't I therefore become that same kind of person,
which is not something I thought of at all. I'd always thought I could, you
know, maintain obviously the objectivity between me, Tony Hendra, the pure and
wonderful satirist, and whoever it was I was criticizing, the execrable
target, but he didn't see it that way, and he was mostly concerned with the
effect it had on me.

GROSS: But that didn't make you give up satire.

Mr. HENDRA: No, but it certainly made me a lot more careful about my targets.

GROSS: Well, but if your targets are all nice people, there's no point in
targeting them.

Mr. HENDRA: No, no, no. I didn't mean nice people at all. I only meant the
people who deserve it, really deserve it.

GROSS: Oh, I see what you're saying. I understand. OK. OK.

Mr. HENDRA: Yeah.

GROSS: So does religion have any place in your life now?

Mr. HENDRA: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I certainly am--you know, I'm a
practicing Catholic. I'm not sure that the big doctrines are--that I
subscribe to all of them. But my wife and I are bringing our children up as
Catholics. Of course, they're properly skeptical. And after Joe, you know,
died, it was very much harder for me to--I must say, for me to have a sense of
the divine. I realized after he died that he really was my lifeline to that
and that if the divine is the inconceivable, it's very hard to experience
unless you know someone like Father Joe who has touched that inconceivable
thing himself. And without him around, it certainly makes it much harder.

GROSS: Tony Hendra; his new memoir is called "Father Joe."

Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "The Stepford Wives." This is

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Paul Rudnick's "The Stepford Wives"

The second film based on Ira Levin's novel "The Stepford Wives" takes a very
different approach from its 1975 predecessor, which was a grim horror movie
about men who killed their wives and turned them into subservient robots.
This one's a dark comedy written by Paul Rudnick and starring Nicole Kidman as
a TV network president turned housewife in Stepford, Connecticut. Film critic
David Edelstein has a review.


"The Stepford Wives" was a horror story with a satirical edge, a critique of
the '50s in which a lot of unnatural things were presented as normalcy. Levin
created a town in which men would do anything to turn their working,
back-talking, self-actualizing spouses into doll wives, not what they had been
in the '50s but what the culture had tried to mold them into. There's a
sadistic sexual component in Levin's tales of female victimization that
cancels out the feminist thrust and then some. But he was able to get under
people's skin. And the original film, poor as it was, became a touchstone.
Suddenly, you heard, `Oh, she's such a Stepford wife.'

The new film is--How can I put this?--a desecration, a travesty? The writer,
Paul Rudnick, appears to have concluded that we've had so many '50s parodies
horror movies and even serious deconstruction, like Todd Haynes' "Far from
Heaven," that only a raving lunatic could long for the way we supposedly were.
The new "Stepford Wives," directed by Frank Oz, is not just making fun of '50s
nostalgia, it's making fun of making fun of '50s nostalgia. It says, `You
can't even take those fantasies seriously enough to critique anymore.'

This picture will not be widely admired. Reportedly, several endings were
shot and tested, and, boy, do the scenes show. It took considerable ingenuity
for me even to get in to see it in advance. The audience laughed both with
the film and during the ridiculous climax at it. I can envision people who
expected genuine thriller throwing things at the screen, but I had a fabulous
time. Well, I did once I accepted it as a camp fest, a great Provincetown
drag show of "The Stepford Wives."

Nicole Kidman plays the heroine, Joanna, a celebrated woman's network
president who makes reality shows in which men get emasculated. When one
participant, played by the actor/screenwriter Mike White, flips out and shoots
at her at an affiliates conference, this destroyer of the nuclear family gets
the boot. She has a breakdown, and her husband, played by Matthew Broderick,
with posture that squashes down his neck, buys a house in Stepford,
Connecticut. You know what Joanna finds: a Disneyland of suburban affluence
where dumpy men are married to men who dress and act like '50s garden party
ladies or flight attendants. There's also--and this is a subversive twist--a
gay couple. Yes, the men of Stepford have no problem sympathizing with the
gay, quote, unquote, "husband's" inability to control his queeny wife. The
non-robotic people--Kidman's Joanna, Bette Midler's Jewish author Bobbi
Markowitz and Roger Bart as a gay architect--form a club and dish about a
Stepford wife who appeared to be short-circuiting at a square dance.

(Soundbite of "The Stepford Wives")

Unidentified Woman #1: Do I really look OK?

Unidentified Woman #2: Can I be honest?

Unidentified Woman #1: Mm-hmm.

Unidentified Woman #2: You look kind of like Betty Crocker.

Unidentified Woman #1: I know.

Unidentified Man #1: At Betty Ford.

Unidentified Man #2: We need milk. We need milk.

Unidentified Woman #1: Thank you. Look, I'm trying to make an effort to
change. I mean, last night, my husband was a different person. He was
strong, he was forceful, he was commanding.

Unidentified Man #1: Like your refrigerator.

Unidentified Woman #1: Well, nobody said it was going to be easy being a
homemaker and a stay-at-home mom. Toughest job in the world, right?

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, that may be, but these Stepford women, they're a
whole other dimension.

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, like yesterday, that poor lady, Sarah Sunderson.

Unidentified Woman #1: Walter said she's fine.

Unidentified Woman #2: But you said she was shooting off sparks from her

Unidentified Man #1: No, that's the first sign.

Unidentified Woman #1: Of what?

Unidentified Man #1: Cheap jewelry.

Unidentified Woman #1: We should go see her.

Unidentified Woman #2: Why?

Unidentified Woman #1: Because we need to be supportive. That's how people
behave outside of Manhattan. They care about each other. I mean, if you're
in New York and one of your neighbors got sick, what would you do?

Unidentified Man #1: We'd call her.

Unidentified Woman #2: To see if she was going to die.

Unidentified Man #1: So we could get the apartment.

EDELSTEIN: Come on, this is a scream. And I don't even like camp. Kidman
looks great with a dark bob, and she gives herself completely to the material.
Watch her get the news of her firing and maintain her demented poise and smile
while moving past a gauntlet of well-wishers. Midler is delicious. Roger
Bart will become a star. Glenn Close stops the show as the town's ferociously
chirpy den mother. And Christopher Walken is in a method zombie league of his
own as her icily affable husband.

Rudnick is a funny writer, one of the funniest. But it must be said that he's
too comfy in his camp little universe. His targets are obvious, and when he
writes broad comedy, real emotion can seem beyond his reach. Don't expect
logic, dramatic or any other kind, especially in the desperate finale. Even
the movie's central idea is dated and unconvincing: these flight attendants
who keep perfect houses and cook and scream with joy in the sack. What man
would want that? OK, maybe for a weekend, 10 days at the outside. Every
third day?

GROSS: David Edelstein is the film critic for Slate.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Has Tucker Carlson created the most racist show in the history of cable news?

The NY Times did an exhaustive survey of the Fox News hosts' broadcasts. Reporter Nicholas Confessore says Carlson's show is based on ideas that were once "caged in a dark corner of American life."


British 'Office' co-creator Stephen Merchant isn't afraid to fuse comedy with tragedy

Merchant co-created the British Office and Extras with Ricky Gervais. His new show, The Outlaws, is about people court-ordered to do community service for low-level crimes. He spoke with producer Sam Briger about what inspired the new series, his best writing advice, and how being very tall (6'7") has informed his personality.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue