25 Years Later, 'The Singing Detective' Still Shines.
The British musical private-eye drama, which first aired in 1986, starred Michael Gambon as a novelist hospitalized with a horrible skin condition who tries to write a Hollywood screenplay in his mind. David Bianculli explains why the miniseries is "TV's most polished, audacious masterpiece."
Other segments from the episode on February 24, 2012
February 24, 2012
Guests: Dustin Lance Black- Barney Rosset
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. "J. Edgar," the movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI, is now out on DVD. The film was directed by Clint Eastwood and written by today's guest, Dustin Lance Black. Black also wrote for the HBO series "Big Love" and won an Oscar for his screenplay for the movie "Milk," about the assassinated gay activist and San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk.
"J. Edgar" portrays Hoover as a man who transformed law enforcement but became so paranoid about communism that he spied on anti-war and civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King. Hoover, in Black's movie portrayal, collected secrets about others and used those secrets against them while keeping his own secret, his relationship with Clyde Tolson, whom Hoover promoted to the position of the bureau's assistant director.
You may have heard the interview Terry recorded last week with journalist Tim Weiner, who has just written a new biography of J. Edgar Hoover. Weiner remains unconvinced by the accounts of other written and film biographies, including "J. Edgar," that the FBI director conducted a long-term homosexual relationship with Tolson.
Other biographers have concluded that the two men were engaged in what in essence was a sexless marriage. In the movie "J. Edgar," the relationship between Hoover and Tolson, with implied sexual overtones, is at the heart of the story. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hoover. Armie Hammer plays Tolson.
Before we get to Terry's interview with Dustin Lance Black, recorded last December, let's play a clip from "J. Edgar." Here's DiCaprio from the film's opening.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "J. EDGAR")
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As J. Edgar Hoover) Communism is not a political party, it is a disease. It corrupts the soul, turning even the gentlest of men into vicious, evil tyrants. What we are seeing is a pervasive contempt for law and order. Crime rates are soaring. There's widespread, open defiance of authority. Mark my words: If this goes unchecked, it will once again plunge our nation into the depths of anarchy.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Dustin Lance Black, welcome to FRESH AIR, welcome back. Before we talk about writing the screenplay for "J. Edgar," would you just mind giving us a little bit of your assessment of Hoover before we get into what his sexual orientation was and what we know about that?
DUSTIN LANCE BLACK: Sure.
GROSS: But just in terms of like the FBI and our country, what are a couple of things you really give him credit for and a couple of things you think were really harmful to America?
BLACK: In my research, I found the story of J. Edgar Hoover is a story of two men, in a way. If you look at his youth, he was so brilliant and so promising, and I give him credit for a lot of things. He helped organize the Library of Congress at a very young age.
He had a belief in science that a lot of people did not share and believed that science could help solve crimes in a way that hadn't been used before, that this sort of evidence, like fingerprinting, some of the forensic science, could help solve crimes that before you could not solve because all people really believed in was firsthand accounts of a crime.
And also probably the biggest thing he did was to understand that in this country we needed federal laws. We could no longer put up with criminals robbing a bank in Texas and crossing into Oklahoma and being able to mock the police right across the border. And he knew that needed to end because it had created this air of lawlessness.
Now, he did all these things before 1940, and I think if he had retired, he would be seen as a great hero in this country. But he didn't, and he became a dinosaur, and he started using the tools, the methods that he learned in his youth, to do great harm to this country and to rob people of their civil liberties and to rob people of their right to privacy.
He was really a man who should have retired much earlier, and I think his legacy would have been set.
GROSS: But your film wouldn't have been nearly as interesting.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLACK: No, it wouldn't.
GROSS: So what led you to do a film about Hoover? Was that your idea, or were you asked to write a screenplay?
BLACK: I had been interested in Hoover for some time. It was actually my little brother, I think in 2007, might - gave me a Christmas present, a book called "Young Hoover." And you read this book, it really only goes through the time up until Hoover starts creating the FBI, and it was not the man I knew.
The J. Edgar Hoover I grew up with was this monster, and that was not the person portrayed in this book, and I started to do a little bit more reading, and really I found that all of these biographies out there about J. Edgar Hoover contradict each other.
And certainly none of them seemed to get into what I was really interested in, which was why, and how is it that we have this man who shaped this country in the 20th century, arguably the most powerful man in this country in the 20th century, and we might know what he did, but we have no clue why.
GROSS: The emotional story you tell is of, you know, a man who is very sexually repressed and is probably in love with the person who he makes his number two, the associate director of the FBI, Clyde Tolson, but can't physically express that love because he is so repressed and because of the way his mother brought him up.
I mean, his mother would probably rather see him dead than gay. Your film kind of says: Is this maybe why he was so paranoid about other people and about whether there were communists, and is this maybe why he spied on people, including spying on their sexual liaisons? So do you...
GROSS: ...think that, that sexual repression might have been behind what made him, as you describe, a monster?
BLACK: I do. I mean I think that one of the symptoms is that he understood the power of secrets, and I think he used that against many people who he knew also had secrets in their personal life. For me, what became clear was this was a young man who from a very early age was never given the right to love.
If you read his mother's writings, it was very clear that she did not feel this was something he could do. Some of the quotes in the film about I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son are slightly changed from her own writings, where she said she'd rather have a dead son than a lily for a son. And...
GROSS: When did she say that? I didn't know that there were writings that she left behind.
BLACK: Yeah, there's not a ton, but she and her son did keep journals, thankfully, and so you can read some of the things she wrote. She was a very ambitious person in Washington, D.C., at a time when you needed a man to take you to the parties. And if you were going to be involved in the social life of Washington, D.C., you needed that man to take you so you could be on his arm.
And her husband was quite ill, mentally ill, and I think she saw it as a great gift that she had a son who was not particularly interested in women, and she could help him along in his career and encourage that and say, you know, probably the most important thing is your career, and it is the admiration of your fellow man in Washington, D.C., and I think that's what he was left with.
And I think that's actually where the darkness comes from because if that's all you have is political admiration and public admiration, that is fleeting, and when it starts to fade, as it always does, as it does with any political figure, you'll do anything to hold onto it, and I think you'll lose your moral compass.
GROSS: So you were in the position of writing a movie about the most secretive part of Hoover's life.
GROSS: I mean, that's not all the movie's about, but that's the kind of central part of it. It's the - that's like the core of the film. I mean, no matter how much research you did, and I know you did a lot, that's the part of his life that he kept secret.
So how do you find out like: Did he really love his associate director of the FBI, Clyde Tolson? Did they really have an intimate relationship? Did they ever consummate that relationship? How do you get insights into that?
BLACK: Well, I started by reading everything I could on the man, and for me it's important to try and get firsthand sources. And thankfully there are still a lot of FBI guys who are around that knew him, and a lot of them have settled down here in Simi Valley in Southern California.
And a lot of them will talk in a way about J. Edgar Hoover that I don't think they would have 20 years ago. I don't think that even folks from that generation feel that being gay means you can't be an American hero, and that's a huge shift.
But even some of his closest associates will say, you know, we don't know, and it's possible. And when you start to look at the facts surrounding Mr. Hoover and Mr. Tolson, they beg a lot of questions.
These men showed up to work together every day in the same car and went home together in the same car. They went to lunches together every day and dinner every night, all of their vacations together, shared hotel rooms. These things are easily found and easily provable.
GROSS: Shared hotel suites, so they could theoretically each have had their own room.
BLACK: Yes, well, sometimes - in Miami, they didn't share hotel suites.
GROSS: Oh, okay.
BLACK: But there were - you know, that wasn't sort of a one-time thing when they went on vacations together. And this is a time before carpooling was popular, and they certainly could have afforded their own rooms.
And some of the evidence that gets more personal are things like the collection of photographs that J. Edgar Hoover has that he took of Clyde Tolson sleeping. As you get closer to them, you find that there's a very, very personal relationship there.
Now, that's not proof in any way, but as you start to learn about the rules of the time, which was the next layer of research for me, and I went to Washington, D.C. and I talked with many men who are now in their 80s and 90s who spent their time working for the government in a time before you could come out, pre-sexual revolution, pre-Stonewall, they described the rules to me, and they described the behavior to me.
And all of a sudden, J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson snapped into very sharp focus.
GROSS: Give me an example of some of the rules that they were telling you that helped bring Hoover and Tolson's relationship into focus.
BLACK: Well, a lot of it was very heartbreaking to me. I thought I knew the history of gay people, and some of it I didn't know. And a lot of it was what you couldn't say and what couldn't be discussed, what couldn't be said even in the privacy of your own home, just the danger of ever acknowledging that you had these feelings.
And certainly one of the things that I found really heartbreaking and that it really informed, I think, the way I portray their relationship in this film, is that oftentimes, if the relationship was consummated, that was the signal for the end of the relationship. It was just too dangerous.
And so a lot of these relationships weren't consummated, and if they were, it was never discussed, and you would absolutely need to take on, you know, a wife of some sort if you wanted to continue to rise in your position in the federal government.
GROSS: Well, let me play a scene from "J. Edgar," and I think this will give us a good sense of how you've handled their relationship. This is a scene at lunch, at a very nice restaurant. Hoover and Tolson are already very close and already working together. This is the scene in which Hoover offers Tolson the job as his number two, the associate director of the FBI.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "J. EDGAR")
DICAPRIO: (As Hoover) Clyde, I've been meaning to ask you something.
ARNIE HAMMER: (As Clyde Tolson) Feel free.
DICAPRIO: (As Hoover) I need someone who understands what's at stake here, you understand? Someone who I can trust, an associate director of the bureau. Now, I know you've only been in your current position for, what, 12 months now...
HAMMER: (As Tolson) Almost 18 now, sir.
DICAPRIO: (As Hoover) You're missing my point, Clyde. I want you to be my number two man.
HAMMER: (As Tolson) I'm not much for the spotlight, Edgar.
DICAPRIO: (As Hoover) I need you, Clyde. Do you understand? I need you.
HAMMER: (As Tolson) On one condition: Good day or bad, whether we agree or disagree, we never miss a lunch or a dinner together.
DICAPRIO: (As Hoover) Well, I would have it no other way.
GROSS: Okay, so in that scene Clyde Tolson accepts the position under the condition that they always have lunch and dinner together, even if they're angry with each other. Is that how you imagined it, or is there an evidence that it actually happened that way when Hoover offered the job to Tolson?
BLACK: Well, it's all rooted in fact and discovery. They did have these lunches together from then on, every single day, and it only changed locations because the one restaurant closed.
And certainly the fact that Clyde had only been there for 18 months before he got the number two position - he was not qualified for the position, at least not in the way that Hoover defined qualified for everyone else that he hired at the FBI - these two had a very personal connection, and they would admit as much.
And there were effusive letters that went back and forth between them. And so at a certain point for me, I like to ground everything I can in some sort of reality, especially on this movie, where there's so much myth out there about him and such a lack of clarity about the truth.
But then at a certain point, when it's two men alone who are both gone, and you can't get a firsthand account, you have to fill in the blanks. And that's why I try and spend as much time as possible, in this case about a year and a half, researching them, understanding how they talk and the sort of words they would use and so that it's as close to accurate as possible. That is my goal when I'm writing these things.
GROSS: You know, one thing I find so paradoxical about Hoover, at least about Hoover the way you've portrayed him in "J. Edgar," is that on the one hand, like, he and Tolson, assuming they had an intimate relationship, were so closeted. At the same time, they were so out.
I mean, they had these public lunches and public dinners together all the time. They drove to and from work together all the time. They vacationed all the time. They shared hotel rooms. Like...
BLACK: But according to the FBI - well, actually not the current FBI but the sort of older generation of agents, they were just married to the FBI. But you bring up a great point, which is these two lived what today would appear to be a gay relationship. It checked all the boxes.
But one of the things I found in my research of that time is that as long as you were polite about it, as long - and that's the word from the time - as long as you were a polite homosexual, and you didn't throw it in people's faces, and you didn't discuss it, and you didn't bring it up, people would look the other way.
BIANCULLI: Dustin Lance Black, speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Dustin Lance Black. He wrote the screenplay for "J. Edgar," the movie about longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. The film is now out on DVD.
GROSS: So the movie is written from J. Edgar Hoover's point of view. The movie's seen through his eyes. So you had to figure out how to write in his voice.
GROSS: Did you find tapes, like extensive tapes of Hoover speaking - not just making speeches, but speaking extemporaneously?
BLACK: Yeah. You know, there's a lot there, and it was wonderful to do that research and to dive into his very strange accent, which isn't one, I think, you would find today; it was an amalgam of a lot of different sort of East Coast accents, and he invented his own words.
And he loved animal metaphors. He liked slippery, slimy, snaky sort of word choices to describe criminals. And so it was fun, in a way, to mine that from both his public speeches, which were slightly different than, say, his phone conversations and thankfully, we have some of those tapes because the presidents, you know, from Nixon to Johnson would tape those conversations.
GROSS: What was it like working with Clint Eastwood? Did he want to talk with you about the script and your motivation for writing certain scenes? Did he ask you for insights and ask you about subtext and things like that? Or did he just like take the screenplay from you, wave goodbye, and direct it?
BLACK: No. It was - thankfully, our introduction was over the phone - once he agreed to do it, we had one meeting in person - because then I wasn't just staring at Clint Eastwood, and that would have been rather intimidating, at least at first.
And so, it was over the phone, and he would call and we would spend quite some time going through the script. He wanted to know where everything came from. He wanted to read all of the books I'd read. He wanted to hear the interviews I'd done. And he wanted to make sure that things were grounded in fact. And I really respected that.
GROSS: I'm wondering if he asked you about this: Part of the experience that you could write from in writing the story of J. Edgar Hoover is knowing what it's like to be closeted because you grew up in a Mormon family and didn't want to admit to yourself that you were gay for a while, let alone to anybody else. I mean, you were afraid you were going to go to hell.
GROSS: So, I mean you know what it's like to have this secret that scares you and that you know would scare other people even more - and that you could lose everything if they found out. So did Eastwood ever want to know from you, what is it like to be in the closet and to be afraid of your own feelings?
BLACK: You know, Clint never asked, and we had long conversations. We spoke for hours and hours and hours on end over the phone and then in person and then on set. I was there each day, and he had every opportunity to, and he just didn't need to. And I think Clint knows plenty of gay men who - of his generation - and I think he's heard the stories now. He knows what that was.
And it was one of the great benefits of doing this with Clint is I didn't have to describe everything. He lived the history. He got the Post Toasties box with the FBI badge in it when he was a kid, so I didn't have to describe that.
For me, the challenge was not projecting my own feelings onto it. And I knew that would be a challenge. I knew I did not want to project my pain of having been closeted onto J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson. And so I had to constantly ask myself, am I doing that, and make sure that I wasn't.
At the same time, as it became clearer and clearer to me who these men were, you know, I do draw on my own personal experience, and I do probably understand it on a level that many wouldn't, especially of my generation, because I grew up in an atmosphere, in the Mormon Church, in the military, where I also had to stay closeted for my own survival.
GROSS: So did you and Clint Eastwood agree on your interpretations of Hoover and his motivations, the reasons behind his paranoia?
BLACK: Yes, we did. And yes, we do. But we have a generational divide in terms of vocabulary, which is often fascinating in the interviews because people ask him, well, do you think J. Edgar Hoover was gay? And he says, I don't know.
And for a man who just directed this film, that's a surprising answer because I think the audience walks away with a clear impression. But for Clint Eastwood and his generation, and - to be gay means a sexual act. And for him to know, it means he would need proof of that sexual act.
And I've had this conversation with him, and I said well, you know, for my generation, you don't ever have to have sex to be gay or lesbian. It's a part of your nature. It's who you are. It's who you are attracted to, it's who you bond with, who you fall in love with. And so we had a divide in terms of vocabulary. But we were always absolutely talking about the same thing.
GROSS: Well, Dustin Lance Black, it's really been great to talk with you again. Congratulations on the film, and thanks so much.
BLACK: Oh, thank you for having me.
BIANCULLI: Dustin Lance Black, speaking to Terry Gross in December. He wrote the screenplay for "J. Edgar," which has just come out on DVD. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Over in England right now on BBC 4, the British are getting weekly primetime doses of the TV miniseries that's daringly original, loaded with controversy language and nudity, and is more than 25 years old. It's Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective," which is being rebroadcast in the UK as a slightly belated Silver anniversary salute. It was shown in the '80s here in the states too, but not nationally.
"The Singing Detective" is the story of a writer of pulp-fiction novels, hospitalized for a horrible skin condition that has his entire body flaking and raw, and his mind slipping in and out of fever dreams.
Some of those hallucinations have the people around him breaking into song, or shifting into other places and times and characters, or both. He tries to maintain his sanity by rewriting, in his head, one of his old novels into a Hollywood screenplay - and, in his mind, he's the healthy, good-looking protagonist - the singing detective.
Meanwhile, the hospital staff tries to treat both his body and his mind, especially when the staff suspects his psoriatic arthritis may be psychosomatic, and that the key to his cure may be buried in his own past.
I know, it sounds strange and complicated, and maybe even off-putting. But you have to admit: It sounds like nothing else you've ever seen on TV. That was true then, and it's just as true now.
One way to measure just how far ahead of its time Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective" was, in 1986, is to read the reviews by British critics today, confronted by the decades-old musical private-eye drama. In The Guardian, they said it meshes the finest bits of "Glee" and "Smash" with the edgy darkness of "Dexter" and "Breaking Bad."
And from the same review, check out this quote: "Dennis Potter's masterpiece is 25 years old but still feels avant-garde. It's got the kind of confidence in the audience and the medium that American writers are only just discovering."
Back in the '80s, Dennis Potter had it in his contract that his dramas had to air unedited. PBS and basic cable, back then, were too spooked by the show's language and nudity, so it ended up being televised by some brave local PBS member stations instead. What viewers saw then, and what the British are seeing again now, is television's most polished, audacious masterpiece.
Potter, the writer, had the same skin condition as his fictional counterpart, so the hospital scenes have the loud ring of specific truth. And in the leading role, as Philip Marlow - spelled almost the same as Raymond Chandler's fictional detective - Michael Gambon became a star.
Here's an early in which Gambon, as Marlow, is laid out on his hospital bed, fully exposed except for a kind of adult diaper. His skin is red, raw and flaky, like translucent fish scales - and he's immobilized by pain and stiffness. When the doctors on rounds ask condescendingly about his condition, Marlow finally cracks.
First he honestly, and tearfully, describes his fragile mental state. And then, when the doctors respond by suggesting a long list of medications, Marlow hallucinates them breaking into song - and watches in horror as the entire ward becomes, in his mind, a low-budget musical.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SINGING DETECTIVE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) What is it you wish to say?
MICHAEL GAMBON: (as Philip Marlow) I just think that listen - just listen to me. I've reached the end.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Of what?
GAMBON: (as Philip Marlow) My tether.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh hush now.
GAMBON: I'd like, Christ, I'd like to get out of it. I can't stand. I truly I cannot stand it. I can't get on top of it. I can't see clear of it. I can't find my way through it. And if I don't tell someone, if I don't admit it I'll never, never beat it. I'll never, never...
Oh, tears. Even bloody tears. Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. The shame of this - even tears, oozing bloody tears hurt the skin on my face and...
(Laughing) Laugh, it hurts my jaw.
God. Talk about the Book of Job. I'm a prisoner inside my own skin and bones and I... (sobbing)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Librium.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Valium.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Antidepressants.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: And a barbiturate.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (finger snap) Barbiturate.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (finger snap) Antidepressants.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (finger snap) Valium.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (finger snap) And Librium.
ACTORS: (Singing) Ezekiel cried, dem dry bones. Ezekiel cried, Dem dry bones. Ezekiel cried, dem dry bones. Oh, hear the word of the Lord.
BIANCULLI: And while the doctors and nurses are tending to him physically, the psychologist, played by Bill Paterson, is treating him mentally. In one episode, the doctor probes the writer's psyche by playing a word-association game - a game that eventually gets so raw, and cuts so deep, that we have to bleep a word or two - just the sort of thing that kept "The Singing Detective" off PBS in the first place. Again, Michael Gambon plays Marlow, the reluctant patient.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SINGING DETECTIVE")
BILL PATERSON: (as psychologist) Fly.
GAMBON: (as Philip Marlow) Crash.
GAMBON: (Bleep) (Bleep) Dirt.
GAMBON: Stop. Good game.
PATERSON: Do you think so?
GAMBON: That's what you called it and we agreed. No diagnostic value.
PATERSON: None at all? None whatsoever?
GAMBON: I mean it's words. Just words.
BIANCULLI: And it's brilliant. Just brilliant.
"The Singing Detective" has never been televised nationally in the United States. Next year, on the 25th anniversary of its arrival on these shores, it ought to be. Meanwhile, there's always the DVD.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Singing) If you go out in the woods today you're sure of a big surprise. If you go out in the woods today you'd better go in disguise. For every bear that ever there was will gather there for certain, because today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic.
BIANCULLI: Coming up, a salute to publisher Barney Rosset, who died earlier this week. This is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: Barney Rosset, the bold risk-taking publisher who shook up the book world in the 1960s and '70s, died Tuesday at age 89. Charles McGrath in today's New York Times summarized Rosset's impact perfectly: "He published the books that nobody else would, McGrath wrote, because they were too risque or avant-garde. Often, that meant the same thing, or to unprofitable. And his imprint, Grove Press, quickly became a badge of coolness and sophistication."
Through his publishing house, Grove Press, and his magazine, the Evergreen Review, Rosset introduced American readers to such writers as Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Jean Genet, as well as many of the writers of the Beat generation. He fought to landmark First Amendment battles in order to publish the uncensored versions of D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer." He published "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," "Waiting for Godot," "The Naked Lunch," and "Howl" and imported the sexually provocative Swedish film "I Am Curious Yellow." After you sold Grove Press, Barney Rosset continued to run it, then was forced out in a dispute, which was settled out of court.
Terry Gross interviewed Rosset in 1991, shortly after he launched another publishing company, Blue Moon Press. Terry asked about the first books he put out on Blue Moon, a line of erotic Victorian novels.
BARNEY RUSSET: Well, that animated from something I finally christened at Grove Press as though Victorian library, which originally started out with Victorian books, like "Man With A Maid" and "My Secret Life," and went on from there until we began receiving new manuscripts.
GROSS: This is Victorian erotica or pornography.
RUSSET: Yeah. In the Victorian spirit of that time. And so when I left Grove about the easiest thing for me, the simplest road was to start again with those books and try to introduce into it gradually contemporary literature.
GROSS: The titles that you're publishing with Blue Moon are titles like "Lustful Memoirs," "The Rites of Sodom" "Professor Spender and the Sadistic Impulse," by authors like Anonymous. I mean some of the books are written by Anonymous. Why is that
ROSSET: Well, that actually isn't my doing. Be Anonymous is quite accurate and true of the Victorian writers. We don't know who wrote "My Secret Life" and we don't know who wrote "Man With A Maid" and a number of other books. But that was sort of a commercial channel that I was routed into actually buy the chains. I have authors with names both real and pen names. But I was told by the chains that no, it was much better to put Anonymous on the books and so, and I now think foolishly I did that. They said well, that way they can be grouped together. You can see them all; people will go in the store and get them. So I did that until the chains were frightened out of buying.
GROSS: Well, Donald Wildmon, one of the conservative Christian lobbyists, and his group had petitioned Waldenbooks, one of the chains, to remove their books, to remove your booksâ¦.
ROSSET: True. That's right. Mm-hmm.
GROSS:...from their stores. And they eventually did remove the books.
ROSSET: They did indeed. In this case it's Reverend Wildmon and American Family Association threatened K-Mart that if they didn't stop letting their subsidiary Walden sell specifically our books they would be boycotted. And the first thing that happened was Walden, K-Mart caved in - I think with a tiny fraction of people but they did. People say well, Walden can sell any books they want. Absolutely. I totally agree with that. But the point is they were selling our books. They were selling them very well. They said so publicly and then they stopped.
GROSS: Is this a battle you thought had already been won?
ROSSET: No. No, no. I never thought any battle has been won. But it takes different forms. This is one that I think we're singly unequipped to deal with. You have to have a constituency, it seems to me, in this kind of, you know, situation and I don't know where the constituency is in my case. I certainly know where the other constituency is.
GROSS: What was the first book that you published that ended up getting taken to court over obscenity charges?
ROSSET: "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and that was very deliberate, clear idea that actually, I mean, we planned a battle plan, which was to get the post office to take action against us, as opposed to local government or whatever so that we could keep it as simple as possible - win or lose at a federal level. And it, you know, it turned that way and we won.
GROSS: So the postmaster general accused it of being smutty pornography.
GROSS: What were the grounds that you argued that case in court?
ROSSET: Well, my grounds has always been that anything can be published. In this case judicial or legal wisdom was that it should be argued on the basis that it was a good book and therefore, not subject to any kind of censorship. And on that basis we won very clearly.
GROSS: There the trial I think demonstrated "Lady Chatterley's Lover" had redeeming literary merit. Did you feel that books should have to prove that they had redeeming literary or social value in order to...
ROSSET: No, I donât. I certainly donât think so.
GROSS: And why not?
ROSSET: I think that if you have freedom of speech, you have freedom of speech.
GROSS: Was there a period in which you, or writers and publishers who you knew, were testifying about a book's literary and social merits, even if you didnât really like the book very much, but you felt the book had the right to exist so you would testify on the grounds that were needed?
ROSSET: Well, I mean, I donât think that happened with our books, but what I was really aiming at was publishing "Tropic of Cancer" - which I had read in 1940 when I was a freshman at Swarthmore College and it made an enormous impression on me. And I kept it in the back of my mind for many years, that some day, somehow, that book would be aired to the rest of the world. So my way of getting to "Tropic of Cancer" was through "Lady Chatterly's Lover."
GROSS: How did you use "Lady Chatterly's Lover" to publish Henry Miller's book?
ROSSET: To show that a book of literary merit, whatever, could be published and go from there to showing that Henry Miller had the same merit, but I felt that it would be more difficult to start with Miller.
GROSS: Because he didnât have the kind of literary track record that Lawrence did.
ROSSET: Right. Thatâs right. And it worked out that way.
GROSS: So how difficult was it to prove for Henry Miller?
ROSSET: Very difficult.
GROSS: What did you have to do?
ROSSET: There we had hundreds of court cases, hundreds in one state, I mean, 11 in one city. It was a very strange chaos, but ultimately it worked out all right.
GROSS: What spoke to you about the book? Why did you want to publish it so much?
ROSSET: Well, when I read it, it somehow â the sex part of it I didn't even notice, which is amazing. To me it was a tract about the United States. Miller had a very unusual and cynical viewpoint of modern American life of his time, of the '30s, '40s. I was living in it. Everything he said struck something inside of me, excited me, made me want to be creative and do things like run away from Swarthmore.
[Soundbite of Laughter]
ROSSET: But other things â I thought it was a marvelous expression of one human being.
GROSS: An expression of alienation.
ROSSET: Of alienation. That I think is a good way to put it. And so I just remember that from 1940 until whenever it was we published in the '60s.
GROSS: Let's go back to the very beginning when you started to publish. You've told us that part of how you made your choice of who to publish was who was available, who was already taken. And some of the first authors you published are now celebrated authors: Jean Genet, Ionesco, Samuel Beckett. These were, I think, among â these were the first three authors you published, aren't they?
ROSSET: No, they weren't. The first author I published was Henry James.
ROSSET: I republished "The Golden Bough" of James and another old English novel, "The Monk" of Matthew Lewis. And eventually worked up to Samuel Beckett and Ionesco and Jean Genet, but it took a few years. These people, though, I had learned about them, I had read things by them, I admired them, and the mainstream - so-called mainstream of American publishing - had bypassed them.
GROSS: No one wanted to publish Beckett or Genet or Ionesco in the States?
ROSSET: No, no, no. No.
GROSS: You must've felt really lucky to have a field to yourself, you know, untouchables who you thought were very, very important.
ROSSET: I certainly did. I certainly felt that â exactly that way, that it was very fortunate for me in a certain sense, that these people whom I felt were amongst the greatest of the living writers of our time, somehow were overlooked by the American establishment.
BIANCULLI: Publisher Barney Rosset speaking with Terry Gross in 1991. He died Tuesday at age 89. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new comedy "Wanderlust." This is FRESH AIR.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: In the new comedy "Wanderlust," an unemployed Manhattan couple - played by Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston - stumble onto a hippie farming commune where they meet characters straight out of the '60s, played by Justin Theroux and Alan Alda. One of the movie's co-producers is Judd Apatow. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In sophisticated comedy, what's funny is the tension between proper manners and the nasty or sexy subtext. Whereas in low comedy, there are no manners, and the nasty or sexy subtext is right there on the surface. And then there's "Wanderlust," in which the subtext is blasted through megaphones - the characters say so insanely much you want to scream.
The satire is as broad as a battleship and equally bombarding. But it takes guts to do a comedy this big without gross-out slapstick, and the writers and the actors are all in. Amid the zanies, Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston have more or less the straight roles, but they're so innocent they're borderline crazy.
They play George and Linda - he's in finance and she's an aspiring documentary filmmaker - who sink their money into an itty-bitty Manhattan apartment and go bust. As they're en route to Atlanta to move in with George's crassly materialistic older brother and his suffering wife, their GPS sends them to the Elysium Bed and Breakfast - a hippie-dippy farming collective out of a time capsule.
It's not fresh terrain, but this tribe of hippies is also a tribe of marvelously inventive comic actors doing a fair amount of inspired improvisation and grooving on the mindset. Alan Alda plays the commune's last remaining founder, who rolls around in a wheelchair, fulminating against capitalism. He's there when George and Linda prepare to take their leave after a consciousness-altering night's stay.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WANDERLUST")
PAUL RUDD: (As George) Incredible night.
JENNIFER ANISTON: (As Linda) Really.
RUDD: (As George) Do you take credit cards?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, no. We all decided that you paid us last night with your friendship and honesty and your stories.
ANISTON: (As Linda) That's so...
RUDD: (As George) I mean...
ANISTON: (As Linda) ...so kind. Thank you.
RUDD: (As George) ...do we get change back?
ANISTON: (As Linda) And you know what? If we didn't need the money so badly, we would insist.
RUDD: (As George) Mm-hmm.
ALAN ALDA: (As Carvin) Just remember money buys nothing.
ANISTON: (As Linda) Hmm.
RUDD: (As George) Well, nothing important, right?
ALDA: (As Carvin) No, no. Money literally buys nothing.
RUDD: (As George) I think you mean metaphorically.
ALDA: (As Carvin) No, literally. Nothing.
RUDD: (As George) Well, literally money buys most things.
ALDA: (As Carvin) No, nothing. Like, are you saying that--
ANISTON: (As Linda) Well, you know...
RUDD: (As George) Well, I'm saying literally you would--
ALDA: (As Carvin) Yeah, but I'm saying literally money buys nothing. I don't know what you...
ANISTON: (As Linda) It buys nothing.
RUDD: (As George) You're right. Money â money pays for nothing.
ANISTON: (As Linda) That's right.
RUDD: (As George) But not literally.
ANISTON: (As Linda) (whispers) Honey.
EDELSTEIN: Holding jokes a beat too long - two beats, three - that's a big technique of director David Wain, who co-wrote "Wanderlust" with Ken Marino, and it works because you get to watch Paul Rudd writhe. Rudd is not the subtlest straight man in movies, but he might be the best.
His deadpan is never dead - the body is twitching too madly, working to project easygoingness while his insides clench. And if Jennifer Aniston remains a sitcom actress who overworks her mushy smile, that mushiness works beautifully for the impressionable, overeager Linda.
George and Linda flee back to Elysium after a nightmarish stay with George's brother, whereupon they learn how the place really works. Malin Ackerman plays the willowy blond Eva, who unceremoniously offers herself to George. More eager than Eva, is Seth, the hairy, hippie, he-man played by Justin Theroux, who is mentally undressing Linda from the moment he lays eyes on her.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WANDERLUST")
JUSTIN THEROUX: (As Seth) So George, I hear Eva asked to intercourse with you.
ANISTON: (As Linda) What?
RUDD: (As George) Yeah. Thanks, Seth. Uh, that was, uh, what I was going to tell you.
ANISTON: (As Linda) Mm-hmm.
RUDD: (As George) Apparently, at Elysium they practice free love. And, uh, Eva suggested that we try it.
ANISTON: (As Linda) What did you tell her?
RUDD: (As George) Uh, no. I said â I said no. I mean, we didn't finish the conversation, but I was about â and I will and did say no.
THEROUX: (As Seth) It's just biology. Homo sapiens weren't meant to be monogamous creatures.
ANISTON: (As Linda) I don't know. It just â that just all sounds to me like an excuse for everybody just to get into bed together.
THEROUX: (As Seth) If you want to pick a fight with your body's sexual chi, it's just going to drive it inwards. And that invites disease and death.
RUDD: (As George) Man, I'm not a fan of death.
LAUREN AMBROSE: (As Almond) People treat sex like it's this huge deal with crazy life consequences.
EDELSTEIN: That last voice was red-haired ingÃ©nue Lauren Ambrose as a woman nine months pregnant. The joke is, yes, that free love has consequences and it's not one that gets old.
Justin Theroux was barnstorming as a psychotic wizard in last year's maligned "Your Highness," and he's just as inventive as Seth, homing in on the character's self-righteous cool and making beautiful music with the other actors, among them Kerri Kenney-Silver as a trippy nonstop talker and rubber-faced Kathryn Hahn as a woman whose feelers are way oversensitive to bad vibes.
"Wanderlust" has a bum last 10 minutes, a lame coda and inadvisable outtakes over the closing credits. The misses are, frankly, big - but not nearly so big that they bust your groove. The movie renews your faith in communal comedy.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
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