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The Impossible Juggling Act: Motherhood And Work.

Anne-Marie Slaughter left her position as the State Department's director of policy planning to spend more time with her children. Slaughter, now a Princeton professor, details what needs to change both in workplaces and in society to create equal opportunities for all working women.

35:55

Other segments from the episode on June 21, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 21, 2012: Interview with Anne-Marie Slaughter; Obituary for Andrew Sarris; Review of television program "The Newsroom."

Transcript

June 21, 2012

Guests: Anne-Marie Slaughter – Andrew Sarris

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Anne-Marie Slaughter used to tell her woman college students that they can have it all: motherhood and a high-powered job. Then she got the high-powered job she dreamed of, the State Department's director of policy planning. She was the first woman to hold the job. After two years she left because she found it was unexpectedly hard to do the kind job she wanted to as a high government official and be the kind of parent she wanted to be when her sons were 12 and 14, especially since her sons and her husband had remained at home in Princeton while she spent her weekdays in Washington. So she left the State Department and returned to her tenured position as a professor at Princeton University, where she previously had been the dean of the university's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.Slaughter's new article, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," is the cover story of the July/August edition of The Atlantic. She writes that if we truly believe in equal opportunity for all women, which she certainly does, there are things in the workplace and the larger society that have to change.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, welcome to FRESH AIR. It sounds like you were almost afraid to write this article, afraid that women like you would see you as betraying feminist ideals. What ideals were you afraid they'd see you as betraying?

ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER: It's hard to articulate exactly that sense of taboo, but effectively in my generation, when we're in public, we say women can have it all, and we don't acknowledge difference between men and women. So we would not talk about differential pressures in terms of having kids, much less different feelings about work and children.

But when the doors are shut, there is a tremendous amount of discussion of the difficulties. When I say the doors are shut, I mean without men present. Then a very different conversation goes on. And I felt very strongly that the last thing I wanted to do as someone who has pursued a career my whole life and is enormously grateful to the women ahead of me, I didn't want to be the poster child for anyone saying women should stay home, women aren't the same as men, women can't cut it, none of that.

At the same time, I felt like there are issues that need to be discussed and cannot be discussed unless we open up the space.

GROSS: One of the other thing I would be afraid of, if I was you, would be that, you know, I'm sending a message to men: Don't hire woman in high-stress, high-work, high-powered situations because if they have children, they're just not going to be able to manage it.

SLAUGHTER: Yes, that too, definitely. And again when I say when you're kind of breaking the taboo, that can be used by men, it can be used by women who really reject the idea that women should be working outside the home. It can be used in all sorts of ways. And frankly, it can also be interpreted against me. It can be read as, well, she couldn't cut it, and so now she's writing an article about why.

GROSS: So give us a sense of what your work schedule was like and how, you know, when you were in the State Department. And again, like you were living in Washington, D.C., five days a week, working in the State Department. Your family was in Princeton. You'd go back to Princeton for the weekend. So give us a sense of what your daily and weekly schedule looked like.

SLAUGHTER: Well, my week would start at 4:20 every Money morning when the alarm would go off, and I would wake up and think: Why am I doing this? And I would, you know, leave the house at 5. I'd kiss all three men goodbye - or my two sons and my husband - and head off to the 5:30 train, get down to Washington by 8:15 in time for the first meeting at 8:45.

And then from Monday through Friday, often late, sometimes mid-afternoon, but I would be working - pretty much I would leave the house between seven and eight in the morning, often getting up earlier and working in my apartment but then leaving the house between seven and eight and then working all day in the State Department, often so much you never came outside and saw the daylight and rarely got home before 10 or 11 at night. And when things got truly intense, much later than that.

And then I'd go home on Fridays.

GROSS: And what were your weekends like?

(LAUGHTER)

SLAUGHTER: Well, I explain to people that I only - I never left the State Department early enough to go to any store other than an all-night, you know, 24-hour store, which meant my weekends were everything that needed to be done with the kids, all - any games, any lessons, any recitals, any of that, any family time, trying to have a couple of meals together.

But of course also I needed to do personally, like get my hair done every week or any kind of personal care. I gave up on doctors because they don't meet on the weekends, but all that you would normally do that is not during your week had to happen in two days on the weekend. And we had an incredibly wonderful housekeeper, but it also meant a tremendous amount of, you know, writing notes and figuring out household stuff that I could try to get done when I was home.

GROSS: So your sons were 14 and 12 when you started the job, or when you left the job?

SLAUGHTER: When I left the job. They were 10 and 12 when I started.

GROSS: So your oldest son started to have problems while you were working at the State Department and commuting there for the week. Do you think he was angry with you for not being around more?

SLAUGHTER: I do. He was wonderfully responsible when I first said I was going to go. In fact he - you know, as the older son, sort of, stepped up and said, you know, mom, I'll take on various things that you normally do in the mornings. And I think he felt proud of me.

And at one point, early on, when I said, you know, that I was so frustrated, the job was very hard, he said, you know, mom, you can't quit. You're a role model. So, on the one hand he really felt proud of me. On the other hand, and that is the nature of being 12 to 13, you know, there was still a little boy there. And that part of him, I think, felt quite abandoned and quite angry.

GROSS: But it sounds so much as a division you had. Yes, you're a role model, you're doing great work for the country, you're a powerful woman. At the same time, you're leaving your family five days a week. I mean, you had that same division he did, in a lot of ways.

SLAUGHTER: Well, that's part of what the article came out. I never expected to have that division because I have always been able to integrate work and family. I've always worked a tremendous amount, and I've always traveled a lot as dean of the Woodrow Wilson School and even as a law professor before that. But I'd always managed to make it work.

And so I didn't realize I would feel torn in two. I didn't expect to feel torn, but I truly did.

GROSS: Well, how come you didn't expect to be torn, because the difference here is that you were actually not only working really hard but living away from your family five days a week, which you didn't have to do when you were teaching, and even if you were traveling, they're, like, they're trips. You're going to be home afterwards.

SLAUGHTER: Well, in retrospect I think of course I should have foreseen that, but that was part of the revelation was I thought to myself, well, I'm going to work very hard, but I'll be home on weekends, and we can talk on the phone, and, you know, we can manage this. I did not anticipate the problems of adolescence, and again, what the parents of any teenager will tell you.

I spent two years with monosyllabic cell phone conversations. You know, how was school? Fine. Anything going on? No. How are you doing? Fine.

(LAUGHTER)

SLAUGHTER: You know, just - and that I did not anticipate. In some ways, I think had they been littler, it would have been much easier to do, because it was much more predictable. And I should have - you know, I knew that I would be away more, but again, I didn't anticipate the relentlessness of it, and frankly, I didn't anticipate what it was to have a boss.

I'm very fortunate, as an academic, that until age 50, I managed to work in a way that I was always in charge of my own time. And I had a boss, you know, I would walk through fire for. You know, I have tremendous respect and admiration for Hillary Clinton, but she of course was still my boss, and she needed things done. So I was of course not on my own time, and that made for stress that I did not anticipate.

GROSS: You say something interesting about Hillary Clinton, which is that she tried to be - she tried to limit her time in the office when possible so her staff could spend time at home. So she'd come in around seven in the morning and leave around eight at night. Do I have that right?

SLAUGHTER: No, actually, she would come in between eight and 8:15, although she would have been up and working and often had breakfast meetings. But she would come into the office around 8:15, and she would leave the office around - between 6:30 and 7:30 but really very conscious of not only her chief of staff, who had twins, but many of the people around her who had children.

So she actually, by Washington standards, had a short workday in the office. Again, as I said, she herself was working both before she came in and after she went home, but she - that meant her staff could go home and work from home during those periods, too, which is absolutely...

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anne-Marie Slaughter, and she has cover story in the new edition of The Atlantic called "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," and it's about all the conflict she faced in her position as director of policy planning in the State Department from January 2009 to February 2011. She was the first woman to hold that position.

And she had to move to Washington for those two years. Her family remained in Princeton, where her husband still teaches at Princeton University. She resigned after two years. Let's take a short break here; we'll talk some more afterwards. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anne-Marie Slaughter, and she has a new article, it's the cover story in the new edition of The Atlantic. It's called "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," and it's basically about the tough decision that she made to leave her position as director of policy planning at the State Department, the first woman to hold that position, so that she could spent more time with her family. She is a professor at Princeton, the former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs there.

Were there other women in the State Department in your predicament of having trouble balancing parenting with the schedule, with the work schedule, or other women in your position at national security meetings, or other men in your position?

SLAUGHTER: There were, and indeed in the article, I describe that Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Lynn both had young children and both stepped down after two-plus years. And I should say here that I served my full term as director of policy planning, which is to say two years is kind of the minimum term.

And for academics, two years is the normal term because after that you lose your tenure if you don't go back. So these are not cases of stepping down early, but it's cases of people, myself included, not taking a possible promotion and going home after a two-year-plus term.

But there were a number of people who made the same choices I did, and there were many women whom I talked to in the State Department, many of whom were commuting because it is much harder for a woman who is working in government who is based elsewhere to move her whole family to Washington when her husband's working, and her kids as in school and have doctors and play dates, than it is for a man who has a woman, who has a wife who is not working outside the home to move the household to Washington.

It's not easy in any case, but when the woman is the one who is moving to Washington, there's just nobody, there's nobody else to move the family. So many of these women are commuting, and all of them that I knew had the same kinds of stresses I did.

I mean, in fact, we got together at one point, and people were saying how difficult this was, and finally someone said: Why are we doing this? And someone else said: Well, because we're role models, and it's important for other people to do that. And I think we all believed that, but we also recognized that something had to give.

GROSS: So, in a way, I mean, would it be fair to say that you took this position in the first place knowing that if you did it for two years, you would have done your job. And in fact, if you did it for more than that, you would have lost tenure at Princeton University. So in some ways, maybe you set out just to do it for two years, and it wasn't such a shock when you resigned after that.

SLAUGHTER: Well, so that's - in some ways. But this was a dream job for me. This was a job that, even in college, if you'd asked me what would you love to be doing 20 or 30 years down the road, I would have said being director of policy planning. It's just a fabulous job. It's a big-think foreign policy job. Secretary Clinton very much wanted a woman in the job because there'd never been a woman in that job, and she wanted there to be, you know, a woman who could do the sort of big, strategic thinking.

I loved the work. I'm very proud of the work we did. And although, yes, I had a two-year period, and that's what I anticipated. What I never would have anticipated was that if I was doing well, and I think I did do very well, and if I had a chance of promotion, I think I would have told you I'm going to make it work, I'm going to make it work with my family because this is the work that I, you know, am passionate about doing, and it's an incredibly important time.

So what was really revelatory to me was that after two years, I very much wanted to go home, and I felt very strongly that no matter how much Loved the work, I would not go back to it while my children were still at home because it was not allowing me to be the kind of mother I wanted to be, and I really thought it was inflicting harm on my children.

GROSS: I wanted to point out that in some ways, you have had it very easy in the sense that you were a tenured professor at Princeton University. You have two years to go off and do something. You took those two years, and then you came home. So you were guaranteed a safety net if you wanted to come home.

Most women who leave for a higher stress, higher powered position, no one's holding their former position open to them if they want to return. They don't have that option.

SLAUGHTER: No, that is certainly true, and believe me, I have been, you know, day-in, day-out in the State Department, I was aware of just how privileged and blessed, really, I am to be a tenured professor. I will say, though, in some ways that's deeply connected to where I am now because I did not start trying to have children until after I got tenure.

And this is one of the big differences between my generation of women and the women coming after me and the pioneering women who were ahead of me, because many of them had kids in their 20s. So by their mid-40s, their kids were out of the house, and they could then take up professional opportunities that were in many cases just opening up to them, as judges if they'd been lawyers or partners, or even in many cases, starting careers.

My generation of women knew we wanted to be career women. We went to graduate school. And then many of us faced: Are you going to try to make partner? Are you going to try to be a, you know, a board-certified physician? Are you going to try to be a tenured professor? Are you going to do that first?

If so, it's going to be very hard to have kids then. So delayed childbearing - I had my second child at 40. And that, as I said, I got tenure when I was 35, and then started trying to have children, it took awhile. So the result is, that in my mid-50s, when in many cases you would think, you know, I'd be free to take the best, biggest job I possibly could, that's exactly when my kids are teenagers. So I'm very privileged to be in academia, but in part, I worked very hard to be in a tenured position before I had kids.

GROSS: So looking back on your life, do you think you made the right choice about the timing of your children, you know, consciously trying to time it 'til after you had tenure?

SLAUGHTER: I think I did, but that's because I was fortunate in the end to have children when I spent three years trying to have children, as many, many, many women I knew did. And in the end, you know, we had children. Now, maybe if at that point if we hadn't been able to have biological children, we could have adopted, and that could have worked very well also.

But what was clear to me at some point as some point in my - you know, around 36, 37, when I was a tenured professor, but it didn't look like we were going to be able to conceive, I really worried about whether I'd made the right choices. And at that point, I would have said: Look, this is so important to me. As much as I care about my job, maybe I really should have done this in the reverse order.

And I talk to - I offer some advice, and I often talk to young women whom I mentor and teach at Princeton about those kinds of choices. I don't think there's one path. I think every woman, you know, faces different choices, but it's tough, because biologically, you know, there's a range where women can have biological children, and if that's what you want to do, then you are going to probably have to make some tradeoffs either then or later.

GROSS: So your husband isn't here to speak for himself, but how did he feel being left alone to be a single parent five days a week while you were at the State Department?

SLAUGHTER: Well, he's a fabulous husband. He's a professor also. Again, the two of have always worked like crazy but been able to control our own time, and he knew that at some point I was going to want to do this. And he was not excited to do it, but he knew it was going to happen, and nobody in the family thought it would be a good idea for us all to move to Washington.

So, he essentially gritted his teeth and was a single parent five days a week. Both of us came out of this with just incredible respect for single parents and the challenges they face. And, you know, now that I'm home, I have two years of getting the boys up and out for breakfast, at breakfast in school every single day because that's of course what he did for two straight years.

And he did the very best he could, but I think neither of us expected, again, the challenges of teenagers, because, you know, we'd never had teenagers before. Now with our second son, we're a whole lot more experienced, and we know sort of what to worry about and what not to worry about.

GROSS: Ann-Marie Slaughter will be back in the second half of the show. Her article, "Why Women Still can't have it All," is the cover story of the July/August edition of The Atlantic. She's a professor at Princeton University and the former dean of its Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs, and she's the former director of policy planning at the State Department. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about the difficulties of balancing parenthood with a high-level job, or really any job. My guest, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote the article "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." It's the cover story of the July/August edition of The Atlantic.

She realized she couldn't have it all after two years in her dream job, the State Department's director of policy planning. Taking the job meant spending weekdays in Washington, and on the weekends returning home to her husband and two sons in Princeton, New Jersey. She left the State Department after concluding that it was impossible to do the kind of job she wanted to as a high government official and be the kind of parent she wanted be to her two teenage sons. She returned to her tenured position at Princeton University, where she'd previously been the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

You reached the conclusion in your article that women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are either superhuman, rich or self-employed.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Or maybe all of them. And you say, you know, if we want women to be able to be ambitious and have high-powered positions and be mothers if they choose, things have to change, and there's things we can change. So your article isn't saying to women: Give up.

SLAUGHTER: No. Definitely not.

GROSS: It's not possible unless you're superhuman. Your article is arguing for certain changes in the way we handle parenthood as a society and in the workplace. So let's start with maternity leave. I think we're doing - and paternity leave. I think we're doing much better with that as a culture than we used to be. I'm not saying we're there, but I think there's been improvements. What's your take on that, and what's your take on how much that affects the equation of being able to be a working mother?

SLAUGHTER: I think, in general, we are getting better in terms of recognizing the needs of parents when our children are first born. You know, we, I don't think we still recognize what it is to be equal caregivers. But I think the real problem set in after that initial period, and there are much more cultural problems of assuming A, that the worker who works longest is most committed. And second, that that time has to be spent at the office.

And those two things mean that the parent who is the primary caregiver, still mostly the women, is constantly facing a choice between being seen as less professional if she goes home early, or, you know, unable to get the work done because she's supposed to be doing it at the office. Whereas, if you let women work at their, you know, when they need to get the work done so they can leave the office, but then go back to their computers later, if they're in that kind of work, they'll get the job done. But they'll do it when they need to do it, juggling, you know, what's most important. You know, kids play games at a specific time. They eat dinner at a specific time, and they go to bed at a specific time. And you need to be able to work around that.

GROSS: So you want to caution against making all these exceptions for working women...

SLAUGHTER: I do.

GROSS: ...because that kind of penalizes the women, in a way. It means if you hire a woman, this is the kind of stuff you have to put up with.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You know, so what's the way around that?

SLAUGHTER: Well, again, the first thing I would suggest is that's an assumption about what you have to put up with. But if you started to say, look, what I want is to privilege time management. So I'm going to look at my employees not in terms of who logs the most hours in the office, but I'm going to look at who gets the most work done in the shortest amount of time, the most and highest quality work done in the shortest amount of time.

I think you'd be very surprised in terms of who's actually doing the best work. So I think the - a lot of this needs to shift in terms not of well, gee, I shouldn't be hiring women. But I should be thinking about, you know, what are the norms of this office, and how can I allow people to lead the lives they need to lead and do the best and highest quality work?

GROSS: Do you think that all the needs you're describing women as having for parenting should be applied to men, as well - both to encourage men to have an equal share in parenting, but also to enable men who want that equal share, as many men do now, to be able to have it?

SLAUGHTER: Absolutely. Absolutely. And interestingly, I say in the article that Martha Minow, who's the dean of the Harvard Law School, says that over 30 years of thinking about these issues and teaching young men and women at Harvard Law School, the only change she's really seeing is that young men are starting to ask these questions of the firms that they go to. I think many of them would love to have these changes, but they don't dare ask.

If these pressures are on women, you know, not to do anything that could look like special treatment, men feel even more inhibited, in many ways. But we would be much better off as a society if all caregivers could benefit from a number of these changes.

GROSS: So you always saw yourself as something of a role model, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs at Princeton University, the first woman to be the director of policy planning at the State Department. Then you left that position, you know, after two years, to be back with your family and resumed your position as a professor at Princeton University. You write: Only recently have I begun to appreciate the extent to which many young professional women feel under assault by women my age and older. And what you're saying there is that instead of being like a role model to younger women, you think you were kind of misdirecting them. So what's your change of thinking there?

SLAUGHTER: Well, that may be a little too strong. And I - many, many younger women tell me all the time that I'm a role model, as I'm - as a woman in foreign policy. Foreign policy, particularly national security, has very few women in it, and I'm one of them. And many younger women who want to go into that field look to me.

But I think what I realized was that when I would give a lecture, and younger women would always ask about work and family. And I would say, well, you know, you can just make it work. You can make it work. I've made it work. You can make it work. Other women have made it work.

What I've realized after going to Washington was that just wasn't good enough. And, in fact, that is not going to be true for, I think, the considerable majority, even of very talented young women with lots of professional opportunities because I was ignoring the fact that I've been able to make it work because I can control my own time. I think if I could wave a magic wand and allow all working parents to control their own time, they could make it work, too. But that's just not the reality for the vast majority of people - which, of course, I knew intellectually, but I didn't know it in the way I know it now.

And now what I want to say to these younger women - and they know it, because they were looking back at me and saying: That's not really good enough. That really doesn't track with the experience of so many women I am seeing who either never see their families - and that's not a choice I'm prepared to make - or who are having to step out and take time to be with their families, but then can't get back on the career track.

And so what I say to them - what has changed is what's in this article, which is to say, actually, we need to have a conversation about what you can do and what's realistic when you - you know, over the 20 years you may be having children. And particularly importantly: How do we think about the arc of a successful career?

And what - the other thing I think that needs to change so dramatically is we need to stop assuming that, you know, your career has to go straight up as fast as possible. And we should be thinking about a career that has stair steps and plateaus and that allows you to sort of take a pause when you need to, and then pick back up and still have every bit as much of ambition as you did when you started.

GROSS: You write that the proposition that women can have high-powered careers - as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share parenting equally - assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children as long as their partners are home with them.

And you question whether that's true or not. And I'm trying to - whether questioning that is conforming to gender stereotype, or whether you're getting to something that's really there. So tell me what your reservations are.

(LAUGHTER)

SLAUGHTER: This was - this is treacherous ground. And I say, you know, this is very hard to generalize about, anybody listening will be thinking, no way. You know, I know a man or my husband or my father changed jobs or, you know, spent - so he could spend more time at home, you know, when needed.

But in my experience, I - there are many women I know, even when they have husbands who are sharing the load, who say I refused a promotion because it would've meant that I had to travel all the time or I - simply the job was too big. I would not have time to be at home with my kids. Even when, you know, the kids are being cared for and e.g., you know, the other spouse is there. Whereas, I think in most of those cases, the man takes the promotion.

And a lot of that has to be socialization. Men are socialized that they have to provide for their families. That's, you know, their kind of primary function traditionally. Women were socialized to be caregivers, and men were socialized to be material providers. Men are also much more rewarded for ambition. So the idea that you wouldn't take that kind of a promotion would be - really would be questioned.

I'm not, you know, I'm not about to make biological or even social generalizations, but in my experience - and that's certainly true for me personally - there's a sense that even if I could do it, I don't want to do it. I want to be home with my children. It isn't just about somebody taking care of them. It's about, you know, being that person, being close to them, being, you know, being a mother.

GROSS: Well, Anne-Marie Slaughter, thank you so much for talking with us.

SLAUGHTER: It's my pleasure.

GROSS: Anne-Marie Slaughter's essay "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" is the cover story of the July/August edition of The Atlantic. You'll find a link on our website, freshair.npr.org. Slaughter is a professor at Princeton University. Coming up, we listen back to a 1990 interview with film critic Andrew Sarris. He died yesterday at the age of 83.This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The film critic Andrew Sarris died yesterday at the age of 83. Some of his fellow critics regarded him as the dean of American film critics. He wrote for The Village Voice from 1960 to 1988, and then for The New York Observer. His former colleague at The Voice, film critic J. Hoberman, writes that more than any individual, Sarris educated American moviegoers on the history of the medium. Hoberman describes Sarris' book, "The American Cinema," as a bible for countless cinefiles.

In 1962, Sarris became the first American film critic to write about the auteur theory. The idea was that the director of a movie was the person most responsible for it, and that movies could be better understood if they were seen in the context of a director's complete body of work. I spoke with Andrew Sarris in 1990. Here's an excerpt of our conversation.

You wrote a now-famous article in 1962 about the auteur theory of film.

ANDREW SARRIS: Yeah, right.

GROSS: And you became the leading American exponent of the auteur theory. Explain what you meant back in 1962.

SARRIS: Well, many people have complained - with some justification - that it wasn't a theory at all. It was something called the politique des auteurs, which Truffaut had coined in 1954 in "Cahiers du Cinema," and it was more a policy. It was that certain directors, you studied their works as a body, you know. And what was new was that I took a great many American action directors, genre directors much more seriously than they had been taken in the past. And that was the big debate I had with Pauline Kael over that at that time.

You know, there was a lovely film directed by Max Ophuls called "One Woman's Story." And when Bosley Crowther reviewed it, he didn't even mention the director's name in the review. And that would be unthinkable today, that you wouldn't mention the name of the director of anything.

GROSS: When you started to think about movies in terms of the auteur and in terms of the director as the auteur, what kind of different reading did you come up with than mainstream film criticism had? For instance, what were some of the recognized masterpieces of the cinema at the time that you didn't think were that good? And what were some of your alternative choices?

SARRIS: Well, in 1960, for example, I thought one of the great films of the year was "Psycho," the Alfred Hitchcock movie. And very few critics would, you know, list that as one of the best movies of the year, although many of them liked it. But they didn't think it would be important enough, it certainly wasn't as important as an Ingmar Bergman movie, for example.

And I felt it was just as important and, in many cases, better than many of the Ingmar Bergman movies. Mainstream critics - if you came up with a film that had a serious subject - the war or poor people, "The Grapes of Wrath" or something like that, not that there's anything wrong with "The Grapes of Wrath." But "The Grapes of Wrath" isn't any greater than other John Ford films that are not about poor people and their problems.

GROSS: When you started writing about genre films, about Westerns and crime movies, what got you to take them seriously?

SARRIS: Well, I always like them, and then I decided that that was a great genius of the Hollywood system. That it wasn't a realistic art form, it was a mythological art form, and particularly the film noir. I once said, you know, that only a good film teaches you how to live, but even a bad movie can teach you how to die. And the dark films I thought particularly in Hollywood had long been underrated.

I think, for example, now I think some of the most interesting films being made today are in the horror genre. I think a film like "The Fly," the new version, is much more interesting than something like "Terms of Endearment." You know, something like "Arachnophobia," I find it much more interesting than a lot of so-called humanistic films.

GROSS: Video has given us access to film history in a way that we've never really had it before.

SARRIS: That's true.

GROSS: So let me ask you to name a few of your favorite films. And you could go as far into the past as you want to, films that you might want to recommend to us to see if we haven't already seen them.

SARRIS: Yeah. Well, my favorite film of all time is probably "Madame de...," the Max Ophuls film with Danielle Darrieux. It's a French film, subtitled. Among American films, films I admire is Orson Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons," Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," and John Ford's "The Searchers," "The Great Dictator" to modern times by Chaplin.

GROSS: Chaplin.

SARRIS: Buster Keaton's "Steamboat Bill Jr." particularly, and Sherlock Jr., and Bunuel's "Belle du Jour." Oh, "Red River," Leone's "Once Upon A Time in the West." Hundreds. I'm not much on, you know, desert island. You know, if you were going to a desert island, what 10 pictures would you take? I would never go to a desert island and I would never take just 10 movies. I think I'd just get sick of them.

(LAUGHTER)

SARRIS: I'd have to have hundreds of movies and keep seeing new things all the time and changing them. Also, one of the things that I find that I get frustrated sometimes, and people sometimes don't fully appreciate about movies, is that there's so many bad movies.

GROSS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SARRIS: And you have to have some feeling about how bad a movie can be...

GROSS: To appreciate the good ones?

SARRIS: ...before you can appreciate why people like the good ones.

GROSS: You and your wife Molly Haskell are both film critics.

SARRIS: Yeah.

GROSS: And I wonder what the rules of the house are about discussing movies before you've written about them, if you're worried about influencing each other's opinions. And, you know, that sometimes you...

SARRIS: Well, there was only one brief period in our lives when we had that problem. I was reviewing for "The Voice" and Molly was first string critic for New York Magazine. And we were going to the same screenings and we couldn't talk to each other and we couldn't use each other's insights.

And it was very difficult for us because one of the things that got us together - we were a very strange couple in this respect. We're both doing the same things. There aren't many married people that are doing exactly the same thing. But Molly comes from a different vantage point. She's become very much a feminist film critic, and she's dealt in that thing. But the problem with us, and the reason that we haven't started the Siskel-Ebert thing, you know, is that, you know, we...

(LAUGHTER)

SARRIS: You know, if I could come on as a male chauvinist pig, you know, and Molly as a, you know, a feminist, you know, and that we'd screech at each other, you know, that would be very good television. But we are disgustedly in agreement. People say, oh, you're in agreement because you're married. We say no, we got married because we were in agreement, because we do have the same sensibility.

GROSS: Film critic Andrew Sarris recorded in 1990. He died yesterday at the age of 83 of complications from an infection after a fall. Coming up, our critic-at-large John Powers reviews Aaron Sorkin's new HBO series "The Newsroom," a drama about a fictional cable news show. This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who won the 2011 Oscar for Screenplay for "The Social Network" may be best known for creating the Emmy Award-winning TV series, "The West Wing."

His new series, "The Newsroom," which premiers Sunday on HBO, is about the workings of a cable news program. It stars Jeff Daniels as a larger-than-life anchorman and Emily Mortimer as the executive who tries to wrangle him. Our critic-at-large John Powers says, he approached the show with the highest of hopes.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: If anyone in Hollywood wears his idealism like a boutonniere, it's Aaron Sorkin. As "The West Wing" made clear, Sorkin loves telling stories about principled individuals, especially liberals struggling with institutions that might compromise their integrity.

He's at it again in "The Newsroom," a breezy, preachy, exasperating new HBO series set inside an imaginary cable network. Jeff Daniels stars as crusty but decent Will McAvoy, a once-Olympian anchor who's begun playing it so safe, he's known as the Jay Leno of news.

After he has a public meltdown, his twinkly-wise boss, played by Sam Waterston, hires a new executive producer for Will's nightly newscast. Her name is MacKenzie McHale - that's Emily Mortimer - a Peabody-winning reporter back from Iraq who wants to rekindle Will's faith in TV journalism. Trouble is, the two of them have a past.

Even so, MacKenzie wants him to accept the quixotic challenge of doing an honest, truthful, old-fashioned news show like Edward R. Murrow or David Brinkley. Here, the two argue about whether that's even possible nowadays.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NEWSROOM")

EMILY MORTIMER: (as MacKenzie McHale) And where does it say that a good news show can't be popular?

JEFF DANIELS: (as Will McAvoy) Nielsen ratings.

MORTIMER: (as MacKenzie McHale) We're going to do a good news show and make it popular at the same time.

DANIELS: (as Will McAvoy) That is impossible.

MORTIMER: (as MacKenzie McHale) So bring your brains, charm, looks, and affability. And my acceptance...

DANIELS: (as Will McAvoy) Refusal to live in reality.

MORTIMER: (as MacKenzie McHale) ...in producing you...

DANIELS: (as Will McAvoy) It's impossible.

MORTIMER: (as MacKenzie McHale) Oh, ugh.

DANIELS: (as Will McAvoy) The social scientists have concluded that the country is more polarized than in any time since the Civil War. The Civil War.

MORTIMER: (as MacKenzie McHale) Yes, people choose the news they want now. But we...

DANIELS: (as Will McAvoy) People choose the facts they want now. So what you've just described is impossible.

MORTIMER: (as MacKenzie McHale) Only if you think an overwhelming majority of Americans are preternaturally stupid.

DANIELS: (as Will McAvoy) I do.

MORTIMER: (as MacKenzie McHale) I don't. And if you let me, I can prove it. You know what you left out of your sermon? That America is the only country on the planet that since its birth has said over and over and over that we can do better. It's part of our DNA.

POWERS: Eventually, their argument is interrupted by the news itself - in this case, the beginning of 2010's Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It's part of the show's structure that each week, Will, MacKenzie, and their staff cover real-life events, like the rise of the Tea Party or the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. And they do it in a way that Sorkin clearly thinks our TV news shows should have covered them.

Now, if you're a news junkie like me, "The Newsroom" could hardly appear more alluring, for it promises to do two fascinating things: take a smart look at how someone might try to do serious news in our current unserious culture and explore the complex lives of the men and women who try to do it.

I'd like to say that the show lives up to this promise. But after seeing the first four episodes, I have my doubts. Yes, Sorkin knows how to write sharp, highly watchable scenes. Yes, Daniels is believable as Will, who physically resembles that shambly bear Chris Matthews. And, yes, the cast boasts some terrific young actors - in particular Alison Pill, John Gallagher and Thomas Sadoski - as producers who get caught up in a romantic triangle.

Yet for all its virtues, "The Newsroom" often feels shockingly dated, as if Sorkin had never seen shows like "The Wire," "Mad Men" or "Girls," shows that have raised the level of the TV game. Far from portraying his reporters and producers as adults with rich, dark, complicated souls, Sorkin turns them into overgrown teenagers.

Nobody is married, for instance. Instead, their personal lives are all about dating, and the show's filled with wacky, cute public embarrassments, as when right before a live broadcast that's in serious trouble, MacKenzie has the sort of silly, unprofessional freak-out about a mis-sent email you might expect from Ally McBeal, not from a Peabody-winning reporter wounded in Fallujah.

Sorkin's take on TV news is equally callow. Although supposedly devoted to honest, truthful, old-fashioned news, Will quickly morphs into a version of Keith Olbermann, a prosecutorial anchor on the warpath against the Tea Party, whose members are all portrayed as dopes, dupes or ignoramuses. "The Newsroom" makes it clear that Will's not merely telling the truth, but that any intelligent, right-thinking person knows he's telling the truth.

In fact, the show's so riddled with disapproval toward those who watch Fox News, read the tabloids or enjoy reality TV that it feeds the cliche of liberals as smug elitists who reflexively look down on anyone who doesn't agree.

Like many of us, Sorkin is driven crazy by what's going in our stridently divided culture, yet he's not quite sure what to do about it. And so, rather like a fly caught in a bottle, he buzzes around and around, touching on lots of things, sometimes quite intelligently, but never escaping outside to get a bigger picture.

Trapped inside the bottle, he's created a show that replicates much of what it thinks it's opposing. It's partisan. It's sermonizing. And it's terrified that if it's too brainy or complex, the audience won't find it entertaining. "The Newsroom" may think it's grappling with the crisis in American culture, but in the end it's just another symptom.

GROSS: John Powers reviews TV and film for Vogue and vogue.com.

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.

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