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Melissa Leo: Discovering The 'Fighter' In Alice Ward
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Melissa Leo, won the Best Supporting Actress Award this week
from the New York Film Critics' Circle for her performance in the new
film "The Fighter," which opens wide tomorrow. That performance also
received a Golden Globe nomination this week.
Leo received an Oscar nomination for her starring role in the 2008 film
"Frozen River," as a mother who turns to smuggling immigrants across the
Canadian border to support her two children. In the '90s, she co-starred
as a detective on the NBC series "Homicide." She's now shooting the
second season of the HBO series "Treme."
Her new film, "The Fighter," is based on a true story about two boxers
who are brothers. Melissa Leo plays their mother and manager. She's
tough, crass and small-time, but she has big ambitions for her sons.
When the older son becomes a crack addict, she focuses on getting fights
for her younger son, played by Mark Wahlberg, but it's sometimes the
wrong fights, ones he can't win.
Wahlberg's girlfriend, played by Amy Adams, thinks he shouldn't let his
mother manage him anymore. In this scene, after Wahlberg took a beating
in the ring, Melissa Leo and her seven mean-looking daughters pay an
unexpected visit to Wahlberg and his girlfriend.
(Soundbite of film, "The Fighter")
Ms. AMY ADAMS (Actor): (As Charlene Fleming) Hi.
Ms. MELISSA LEO (Actor): (As Alice Ward) Well, well, well, look at this.
Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) Look at what?
Ms. LEO: (As Alice) Are you hiding from us, Mickey?
Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) He's not hiding.
Ms. LEO: (As Alice) I wasn't talking to you. I was talking to my son.
What are you doing, Mickster, huh?
Mr. MARK WAHLBERG: (As Mickey Ward) I'm right here. I ain't hiding from
Ms. LEO: (As Alice) What are you gonna do, turn your back on Dicky next,
huh? All we ever wanted for you was to be world champion.
Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) Mickey's a grown man. He can think for himself.
Ms. LEO: (As Alice) Shut your mouth, skank.
Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) Don't call me skank. I'll rip that nasty hair
right out of your head.
Ms. LEO: (As Alice) I'm his mother and his manager.
Mr. WAHLBERG: (As Mickey) You're not my manager anymore, and I'm not
waiting for Dicky, okay? I'm not getting any younger.
Ms. LEO: (As Alice) Who's gonna look after you, sweetheart? I mean, come
on. I know you don't understand it, but I had nine kids, and I love
every one of you the same.
Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) You've got a funny way of showing it, letting
him get beat up, letting him get his hand broken.
Ms. LEO: (As Alice) You're crazy.
Unidentified People: (As characters) (Unintelligible).
(Soundbite of screaming)
GROSS: I love that scene.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Melissa Leo, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your
nomination for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress and on winning
the New York Film Critics' Circle Best Supporting Actress Award. Good
Ms. LEO: Oh, thank you so much. And now I get to be here talking to you,
GROSS: Would you describe how you look in this film?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. LEO: Well, I'm not very recognizable. I show up at lots of parties
after the film has been screened and nobody has any idea who I am in the
room. She does not look like me.
She looks like Alice Ward. She has a very stylish hairdo, very short,
very white-blonde, very teased and hairsprayed and some fabulous
costumes provided by Mark Bridges(ph), who actually had the family
albums, as did the whole production company, to make reference for Alice
and the family during the years that our film takes place.
GROSS: And you look so tough and hardened. Even the way you smoke your
cigarettes, it's like you are puffing on them so hard. You are attacking
those cigarettes. Everything in you is just, like, it's so aggressive.
Even, like, there's something aggressive about your hair even. I mean, I
can't explain it, but...
Ms. LEO: Yes, I see what you're saying and I really think that, you
know, having walked in Alice's shoes, she's actually a very gentle and
loving lady, do you know?
But she saw an opportunity for her boys and rose above whatever she felt
she might be inside of herself and made careers for the two of them.
Now, the fight game is a ugly game, and I don't mean what happens in the
The management, the horror stories of fighters being duped by their own
management, stolen from, put in life-threatening situations by their own
people, it's just an extraordinarily nasty game. And I think if Alice
has a little rough about her and a little aggressive about her, I think
that it's something she had to learn, or how she could have gotten Dick
in the ring with Sugar Ray? How could she have begun Mickey's career?
GROSS: How did you get the part of the mother in "The Fighter"?
Ms. LEO: Well, ordinarily, I'll get a script first and sort of begin my
decision-making, you know, off the page. For "The Fighter," I had been
told that David O. Russell wanted to see me. I found out later that Mark
Wahlberg was very interested in me playing Alice Ward.
And so David and I met, and I have to say within about five minutes of
meeting David, it was as if the part was mine already. He believed I was
his Alice, believed in me so greatly that I found myself believing that
with him and forgetting my very desperate and important question about:
Aren't I too young to play Mark and Christian's mother?
And on we went, and off to the costume shop and the hair department and
all the rest of it.
GROSS: Too young, I hadn't thought of that. How old are they compared to
Ms. LEO: I don't know. There's not 10 years between us, I'll tell you
GROSS: Wow. So what did you do to compensate for that?
Ms. LEO: Honestly, I just - I remember it being an enormous hesitation
on my part to begin with. And I remembered that at some point, I saw
that that question had sort of vanished and just plowed on ahead, I
guess, and believed myself to be their parent and the parent of the
seven other girls, as well.
And that's probably the biggest secret of acting. If the actor believes
it themselves, I can make you believe it.
GROSS: There's a scene in "The Fighter," after you've caught your son,
who's played by Christian Bale, you've caught him at the crack house.
You're trying to drag him back to your home. So you're driving him back.
You're really angry with him and basically not talking with him.
And then to try to win you over, he starts singing the Bee Gees' song,
"I Started a Joke." And you eventually just kind of like, warm up, and
you start singing along with him.
Now, I have no idea whether that's a story that you or the screenwriter
was actually told by a member of the family or whether that song was
arbitrarily chosen. So I'm wondering if there's any back-story for that
Ms. LEO: Yeah, it's a scene that's very dear and precious to me. We
almost didn't shoot it. And we shot it with very little light left in
the day, and it's an exterior scene in the car there. You have to have
God's light. God's light goes down at a certain time, whether we want it
to or not.
And it was really looking like it was getting (unintelligible) out, and
the producers were kind of relieved because David really wanted that
particular song, which might turn out to be rather expensive, and if
they didn't shoot it, they wouldn't have to worry about it.
And I said, you can't not shoot this. I've been sitting here for five
hours waiting to shoot this, what I think is a very important scene.
It's important because it says so much about the relationship between
Dick and Alice, which is an important element in the story, where you're
dealing with not only this exciting boxing triumph in the end, but
you're also dealing with a very complicated family that both, as much as
they might be detrimental to each other along the way, really can't live
without one another.
And I love that you bought that scene in the film. I love that it ends
up being in the film. And I, not being a singer, loved having a duet
with Christian Bale.
GROSS: So how did David O. Russell choose that song? Why that one?
Ms. LEO: That is something you would have to ask Mr. O. Russell. All I
knew was that it was ideal, perfect. Like, why wonder? It was just so
perfect. How could you have thought of anything else? What a perfect
song to sing right then, right there, and tell a story of many, many
years of history and many times the song might have been sung before in
jollier moments. There's just so much there and such irony in the lyric
of that song.
GROSS: Yeah, and you know it means that they have their duets, and they
have their in-jokes, and he's just trying to kind of get back on that
track with her.
Ms. LEO: And that she still sees, crack addict or not, she knows who
that boy is, and she loves him. She's really mad that he lied to her,
but she's not making judgment about him.
GROSS: You have great scenes with Christian Bale and great scenes with
Mark Wahlberg. Do they both approach acting differently and get into
Ms. LEO: Well, I think that it's fairly obvious that Christian goes in a
very deep, method-type way into his character. I met him, the day he was
meeting Dick Eklund for the first time, and I actually watched this
process of Christian morphing into this other man that he plays in the
Mark comes with four years of training and getting his body in the right
shape and his boxing abilities in the right shape, to be able to really
sell the fighting in the movie the way that he does, but it doesn't come
with a set of ideas of how the scene might play.
Because I am this person, this is how I might do this is the kind of
question Christian might ask himself going into it. Now, that's an
assumption on my part. I don't know the inner workings of Christian.
Then Mark shows up and, on a dime, can offer you the same moment in the
film with laughter, with fear, with hatred, with regret, with anything
that David Russell asks in a single take, and Mark delivers. It's an
extraordinary thing to watch.
When you have an actor like Christian, and you want to adjust the
performance, you've got to work a little harder because he's already
done all this other work that you have to re-work to get the - right?
It's two very, very different ways of acting that really suited the
characters that they were playing and my relationship to them then.
GROSS: So what's the difference for you as an actress working against
each of them?
Ms. LEO: The easiest way for me to describe it, Alice's Dicky was right
there. And Alice's Mick she had to reach for.
GROSS: So, Dicky's Christian Bale, and Mick is Mark Wahlberg. So you had
to reach for the Mark Wahlberg performance or for...
Ms. LEO: Alice has to work harder to communicate with Mickey, and
communication with Dick just happens.
GROSS: Well, but that makes sense because you're on the same wavelength
with Dicky a lot, and Mark Wahlberg's really alienated from you. He
wants to get away from you. He thinks you've been hurting him.
Ms. LEO: Exactly, so in fact, the acting techniques of each of them
aided my performance because of exactly that.
GROSS: My guest is Melissa Leo. She stars with Mark Wahlberg, Christian
Bale and Amy Adams in the film "The Fighter," which opens wide tomorrow.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Melissa Leo, and she just
won the New York Film Critics' Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress
for her role in "The Fighter," and she's also nominated for a Golden
Globe for her role in that, and the film is nominated for a Golden Globe
for Best Film.
Two years ago, you were nominated for an Oscar for your performance,
your leading performance in the independent film "Frozen River," in
which you played a woman trying to raise a couple of kids on her salary
from a part-time job at a dollar store.
Your husband is a gambling man who's run off with the money that you'd
save for a new double-wide trailer home. The home that you and your
family do have is falling apart. So to get some income, you team up with
a Native American woman who had stolen your car, and together you
smuggle immigrants across the Canadian border to the U.S. And that
requires driving over the frozen river that the movie is named after.
Let me play a scene here. In this scene, you're confronting your son
about damage he's done to the house while trying to repair frozen pipes
with his father's blowtorch. You'd warned him against using that
blowtorch, and he's damaged what's left of the home. So here's the
(Soundbite of film, "Frozen River")
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) What do you want? Did
something happen to dad?
Ms. LEO: (As Ray Eddy) No.
Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Then what do you want?
Ms. LEO: (As Ray) Did you have a fire here last night?
Unidentified Man #1: (As character) The pipes froze. So I fixed them.
Ms. LEO: (As Ray) You fixed them?
Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Yeah.
Ms. LEO: (As Ray) Did you use a blowtorch?
Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Dad did it before.
Ms. LEO: (As Ray) So you used the blowtorch. Look at this. We can't live
Unidentified Man #1: (As character) So what, it's just (Unintelligible).
Ms. LEO: (As Ray) No, this was our house.
Unidentified Man #1: (As character) So we're getting a new one, right?
Ms. LEO: (As Ray) That's it. Damn it, son of a bitch. Don't touch it.
GROSS: Melissa Leo in a scene from "Frozen River." I think it's great
that you started really getting the accolades you deserve in I guess
your late 40s, at a time when a lot of actresses are considered to have
already reached their expiration date, which is so unfair.
Ms. LEO: Exactly right, exactly, totally right. And it is with great
pleasure that I share this recognition, that I share the recognition
about "Frozen River" with all of those women. I know many of them. I
know many of them, and they are fine, fine actresses that maybe they
weren't even ousted out of the business, but their hearts and bodies,
souls couldn't take it anymore. They're kind of like oh, yeah, no, sort
of, you won't - you know, it's just such a judgment place.
You know, it makes me then think of the relationships I had with both of
my parents' mothers. And it was their age and their wisdom and what they
had seen in life and what they had been through and things you couldn't
do in a couple of years, you could only do in 60, 70, 80, 90 years. It's
a very important part of living, getting older. Anti-aging, (makes
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: One of the things I really appreciate about your acting is that
you're not vain about looking older. As far as I can tell, you haven't
done Botox or plastic surgery. And I think a lot of actresses, once they
turn 40 or even younger, are starting to get work done.
So this is one of the reasons why I love watching you because I feel
like I'm watching a real face that shows signs of some age, like a real
face. Are there pressures in the industry to get work done when you're
Ms. LEO: I have not encountered that. I was blessed with a mother who
refused to raise a vain daughter, and it's really assisted me in my
acting career. I don't really think so much about how pretty or how sexy
the character is unless it's applicable to what she's got going on in
GROSS: Now, you're very good at playing tough women, whether, you know,
it's like the mother in "Frozen River," who is taking a lot of risks and
being really tough in order to raise money for her family and for a home
or, you know, in the tough mother in "The Fighter" or going back to
"Homicide," where most people first became, a lot of people first became
aware of you, where you played a detective, like the only...
Ms. LEO: She was a whole other kind of tough mother.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Okay, very good.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Did you ever play the ingenue? Were you even in a teen comedy or
anything like that?
Ms. LEO: No, I was not in a teen comedy. I don't know that I have a rom-
com to my credit.
GROSS: Which means a romantic comedy, for anybody who doesn't know the
Ms. LEO: I was nominated for a Daytime Emmy in the ingenue category in
GROSS: Is this for "All My Children"?
Ms. LEO: For "All My Children."
GROSS: And your hair, which is so often long and red, did you have long,
red hair when you were a teenager?
Ms. LEO: I had - yes, pretty much. Pretty much, I've had the head of
hair that has preceded much of me through much of my career.
GROSS: Was red hair a good thing or a bad thing when you were growing
up? Some kids get teased for it.
Ms. LEO: I had so little contact with other children when I was little
that I don't really know. They might have had an issue with it. If they
did, I didn't notice.
As I got - you know, there was one opportunity many years ago that I
dyed it brunette. And that experience taught me something about myself
that I would not have learned without dying my hair brown, which is that
As a brown-haired woman, I walked out of the hotel in Rhode Island, and
people looked me in the eye and greeted me good morning. And for me,
that was astonishing. It had never happened in my red-headed life.
GROSS: Why not?
Ms. LEO: Because people judge a book by its color, and if I wasn't sure,
by the time I'd done these two blondes of Lois Riley and Alice Ward and
walked in the world not just in costume but, you know, on off days as a
blonde, people not only look you in the eye and say good morning, men
and women both come up and touch you and ask you very intimately how are
GROSS: Wait, so...
Ms. LEO: A redhead, on the other hand, is someone who will steal your
husband, has a fiery temper, and people tend to cross the street when
they see a redhead coming.
GROSS: Okay. So you said when you were growing up you had little contact
with other children. How come?
Ms. LEO: Oh, poor me. I was a shy, introverted, awkward child. I had my
older brother and two boys next door. That's who I remember for the
first 10 years of my life.
And then I had a hard time making friends, but when I started to, I make
a friend, I make a friend for life. I've got a half-a-dozen women I've
collected over the years who are very close, dear friends.
But I still remain a little awkward amongst people, if you must know. I
like the world of pretend much more than the real one outside, and as
far back as I can remember, two, three years old, I thought the same
GROSS: Does having acted a long time and having gotten acclaim for your
acting given you a degree of self-confidence and comfort that makes it
more comfortable to be yourself?
Ms. LEO: Absolutely. That's absolutely what's happened. You're a very,
very smart lady to see and know that. And the recognition a couple years
ago by the academy, this by the extremely fussy Hollywood foreign press,
with the Golden Globe. The New York Critics, my God, aren't they the
fussiest ones in the country, recognizing me, it's really, it's quite
remarkable. And I can, I am happy to say, take it in and feel extreme
gratitude and a little sense of pride.
GROSS: Melissa Leo will be back in the second half of the show. Her new
movie "The Fighter" opens wide tomorrow. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Melissa Leo. This
week, she won the Best Actress Award - Best Supporting Actress Award
from the New York Film Critics Circle and a Golden Globe nomination for
her performance in the new film "The Fighter," which opens wide
tomorrow. She was nominated for an Oscar for her starring role in the
2008 film "Frozen River." In the '90s, she played a detective in the NBC
series "Homicide: Life on the Street." This year, she co-starred in the
HBO series "Treme."
So, as we speak, you've been in the middle of shooting "Treme," the
series set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, following characters
dealing with going on with life after the floods. And you're shooting
the second season, which will be shown in the spring. In the show, you
play a civil liberties lawyer, and you're dealing with several people
who have lost things or have been lost...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...or missing because of the flood, and you're dealing with
police issues and stuff. And your husband, who is played by John
Goodman, is a professor who has gotten very caught up in the idea that
the disaster part of the hurricane was really caused by man-made
problems, by bad levees, by a bad response to the flood. And he's become
absolutely obsessive about this and very - it's led him to become
paranoid, and he's kind of not in a good place. At the end of the
season, he kills himself. At what point did you know that that was going
Ms. LEO: I actually was lucky enough to know all along we would just
have John for a year. The more I worked with him, the sadder that made
me feel. He is a joy to work with, and I am grateful, too, that it
wasn't shocking to me, like most of Toni Bernett's life. I have episode
four, season two right here in my bag with me. I'm anxiously - when I
finish talking with you, I'm going to crack it open and read it and find
out what's happening next with her and what she's thinking and what's
she doing. Because by and large, we really truly don't know. That
particular thing I did know, and I have to say in retrospect, I'm very
glad I did know because it was devastating to me. And I spent the whole
summer, like, I think much of the country that watch "Treme," thinking
well, maybe he'll come back, though. But maybe he could come back. Maybe
it wasn't - he wasn't really dead, and he'll be there. And I found
myself sort of in that position. But there we are down there shooting
again, and Mr. Goodman is not with us, I'm sorry to say. He lives down
there and stops by the set from time to time, which is great.
GROSS: So this was a contractual thing that got - John Goodman was
willing to be there for a year.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. LEO: I don't know if - where the contract began. That I don't know.
Ms. LEO: But what I do know is that there was a story that David Simon
and that amazing bunch of writers wanted very much to tell. There was a
man who did come to enormous renown post-Katrina, when YouTube was very,
very young, with - I don't know if I can say on your radio, but his tag
line is the same as Creighton's: F-you you F-ing F's, I'll say on the
radio. And that's not what he said on YouTube.
And that that man did, for whatever his own reasons were, and on, you
know, history and so on, kill himself at some point shortly after
Katrina, and that that was the story that they wanted to tell. So
whether it was as things tend to be in my business, you know, sort of
contractual and, oh, why'd you use that person for the part? Well,
that's who got us the money. I think that John's limited stay was
actually more carefully designed than that. I work for some very, very
smart people down there.
GROSS: So after you left "Homicide," which is the first series that you
did with David Simon, the creator of "Treme," what kind of work did you
Ms. LEO: Well, here's the ugly truth about that. I was fired from
"Homicide." I really needed the job. I had a small son and a fair amount
of rather public strife going on at that time. I really needed the job,
and they let me go - whether it was because I was having such a hard
time personally or whatever, I shall never actually know. But it was a
hard job to lose, and it was even harder once I got home and I could not
get hired to save my life. I had been working by then for more than 10
years, closer to 15, and I wasn't even getting auditions. And the
scuttlebutt I began to hear - of course, nobody ever says it to your
face - had to do with, well, we don't want that.
And I had gone for the last three years of "Homicide" without any makeup
on. It seemed to me a reasonable thing to do. I was working with male
actors who weren't using any makeup. We were all playing police
detectives. Why did I have to put makeup on? Aren't there women in the
world like myself that don't wear makeup when they go out every day? Can
we show that on national television? That might have had to do with why
I was eventually fired from the job. But as I say, I'll never know - and
very, very hard. There was something about the way Kay Howard landed
with people that there was a truth in her that made producers and so on
feel that was me. And, you know, they didn't want to see that again, or
something like that. Eventually - well, it's really not until "21 Grams"
came around that there seemed to be an actual career afoot again.
GROSS: Well, the fact that you had such a hard time after "Homicide"
makes it all the more sweeter, is that you're getting such recognition
now. Congratulations on all the recognition that you're getting now.
It's really been a pleasure to talk with you.
Ms. LEO: Thank you. Thank you so much. A joy to talk to you.
GROSS: Melissa Leo won the New York Film Critics Circle Award this week
for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the new film "The
Fighter," which opens wide tomorrow. She's now shooting season two of
"Treme." Here's the theme.
(Soundbite of theme song, "Treme")
Mr. JOHN BOUTTE (Singer): (Singing) Hanging in the Treme, watching
people sashay, past my steps, by my porch in the front of my door.
Church bells are ringing. Choirs are singing, while the preachers groan
and the sisters' moan in a blessed tone.
Down in the Treme, just me and my baby. We're all going crazy, buck
jumping and having fun.
GROSS: Coming up, as more financially strapped states turn to legalized
gambling to increase their revenues, how's it working out?
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
States Gamble On Casinos To Generate Revenue
TERRY GROSS, host:
For decades, Las Vegas was the only place in the United States where
casino gambling was legal. Atlantic City legalized gambling in the late
'70s, and since then, more and more state and local governments have
gotten into the game, lured by the promise of new jobs and tax revenues.
Forty states now permit some form of casino gambling.
We wondered how the rush to gaming has worked out for the state and
local governments that embraced it, especially since so many states are
suffering serious budget crises these days.
We turned to Richard McGowan, an economics professor at Boston College
who's studied and written about gambling for years. McGowan is also a
Jesuit priest. His latest book is called "The Gambling Debate." He spoke
with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES: Well, Richard McGowan, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's been
widely reported, of course, that states and local governments are in
fiscal trouble with the recession and the decline of tax revenues and
pension funds that are stressed by weak investment portfolios. Are more
state and local governments turning to expanded gambling now as a source
of new revenue?
Professor RICHARD MCGOWAN (Economics, Boston College; Author, "The
Gambling Debate"): Well, Ohio just approved it in the last election.
They usually use the gambling revenue, not so much to support, it's
usually used for a very specific purpose. So, for instance, in the state
of Pennsylvania, the slot machines and the casino gambling is used to
help support elderly pay property taxes. And in other states it's used
for education purposes. For instance, in Georgia, the lottery proceeds
go to support college students and paying tuition.
Gambling is always associated with a good cause, and that's how you get
the bill through. In other words, the good cause in Pennsylvania was the
elderly. In New Jersey, it's the same thing. In Massachusetts, the
lottery supports local towns and cities. So it's the good cause that
it's used for. So it's not usually just used for general revenue
DAVIES: Okay. Now in any place where there's a debate about whether
gambling will be legalized in an area, the boosters will claim that jobs
are created, economic activity will be generated, which you wouldn't
otherwise see in the region. Then, of course, after it comes, we see
statistics affirming that, indeed, jobs have been created and new
economic activity has been generated. To what extent are these
statistics and claims reliable?
Prof. MCGOWAN: Well, there - you do create jobs when you open a casino.
But the casino is a form of entertainment. So has the casino then
cannibalized other forms of other forms of entertainment? And that's
very tough to get statistically down. In other words, for instance, if
you open up a casino and it has a restaurant in it, will the restaurants
in the area be negatively affected because now people will go to the
casino and go to the restaurant in the casino? Will people go to movies
less because they can go to the casino and - rather than go to a movie
or other forms of entertainment? So I would probably say in all the -
it's sometimes just a wash. And in other words, people will shift their
entertainment funds from one form of entertainment to another.
DAVIES: Now, I wonder if there is not another effect. One of the things
you see about gambling is that it's far more heavily taxed than other
forms of entertainment, like bowling or movies. Does that have the
effect of transferring some income from the pockets of consumers and
from local areas to state government if people are now spending more
time in casinos as opposed to other places, and that activity is heavily
taxed? Is it, in effect, kind of a, you know, kind of a grab by the
state government for revenues that would otherwise stay in local areas
and in consumer's pockets?
Prof. MCGOWAN: Well, I couldn't agree more with you. I've often called
gambling the painless tax. In other words, people don't realize the
taxes they're paying on it. The tax rate, it does vary from a high in
Illinois of 51 percent - which is why, ironically, the neighboring
state, Indiana, has a much lower tax. And so they've actually opened up
more casinos than Illinois.
But clearly, I mean, your point is well taken: gambling, it is highly
taxed. It's highly regulated, and well it should be, but, you know, I
don't think consumers realize how much money they are giving to the
state. But the one thing is they seem happy to give the money to the
state. It's a - by the way, Thomas Jefferson always thought that the
lottery was the best form of taxation.
DAVIES: Is that right?
Prof. MCGOWAN: Yes, he did.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: And was there a lottery in Virginia in the 18th century?
Prof. MCGOWAN: Well, ironically, Thomas Jefferson was a great man in
lots of different ways, but he was a horrendous businessperson. So
Virginia allowed him to operate a lottery to pay off his debts. And
luckily, the lottery just finished before he died. And so he died just
about breaking even, but it was a lottery that he ran that helped him
DAVIES: Now when Pennsylvania was debating whether it would legalize
casino gambling - and this is a debate that went on for many, many, many
years - I was always skeptical of the arguments of new revenue and new
jobs because it would probably - I figured it would probably displace,
you know, other forms of economic activity. But there was one argument
that did seem compelling, and that was the fact that at the time,
thousands and thousands of Pennsylvania residents were streaming into
Atlantic City, New Jersey to gamble, and that's entertainment spending
that was lost to Pennsylvania that was gained by New Jersey. And to what
extent are states around the country expanding gambling to recapture
revenue that they've been losing to neighboring states that already had
Prof. MCGOWAN: I would probably say that is the primary reason why
states now legalize gambling. So, for instance, you just mentioned
Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In 2008, New Jersey made $4.5 billion on
gambling. Pennsylvania made $1.6 billion. And in 2009, then Pennsylvania
went from just having slot machines in the racetracks to opening up
full-scale casinos. Just to show you the difference: New Jersey went
down to $3.9 billion, Pennsylvania went up to almost $2 billion. So you
have a gain in revenue in Pennsylvania of around 20 percent. You had a
negative affect in New Jersey of around 13 percent.
So clearly, Pennsylvania declared war on New Jersey. It also declared
war on Delaware, by the way. Delaware had racetracks, and so it's an
arms race, by the way, about who is going to outdo - that's exactly the
argument: Ohio just approved it in their last election. And the reason
why Ohio approved it was because it's surrounded by states now -
everybody except Kentucky has casino gambling in it.
DAVIES: All right. So are we approaching the kind of detente in which
every state has all kinds of gambling and nobody is stealing revenue
from anybody else but nobody is really any better off?
Prof. MCGOWAN: Well, that's an interesting point. Right now there's 40
states that have some type of gambling. So, for instance - well, Hawaii
never has to worry about it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. MCGOWAN: Hawaii is sitting out there by itself. But yeah, there's
various ways states declare war on other states for gambling. California
basically cut a deal with all its tribes. They will let them open up a
series of Native American casinos all over the state of California and
then California got 25 percent of the revenue from the slot machines.
And clearly California was declaring war on Nevada and it's hurt Nevada.
There's no doubt it's hurt Nevada and you see this in state after state
I'm in a state right now, Massachusetts, the argument in the legislature
that's going to win the day is the fact that one third of the patrons in
the two Native American casinos in Connecticut are from Massachusetts.
And that's why Massachusetts, I mean right now, once again, the speaker
of the House in Massachusetts says we have to revisit this issue and he
and the governor have arguments about - it's not about having casino
gambling, it's where to have it and how much to have. So the argument
isn't about having casino gambling, it's just where and when.
DAVIES: You know, when you and I spoke before, you said you sometimes
think states get more addicted to gambling than problem gamblers do. And
I'm wondering in states that got in early and found that there was money
to be made by having this unique form of entertainment to offer, and now
that others have caught up, what's been the impact on those states? Has
that put them in more budget trouble than they would otherwise have been
Prof. MCGOWAN: Well, again, not to pick on New Jersey, but New Jersey
right now is immediately talking about OK, we have to revisit sports
gambling. In other words, they are going to up the - excuse the pun here
- they are going to up the ante on gambling. In other words, they're
DAVIES: So they don't allow sports betting now but they...
Prof. MCGOWAN: Right now they do not. But they'll say OK, to make the
Atlantic City casinos more attractive we will start sports gambling
there. Clearly, the two Native American casinos in Connecticut, I'm sure
they are thinking about sports gambling. So that's another whole area
that nobody wants to touch right now, but clearly they're going to have
to touch it. The Internet gambling issue and the sports gambling are the
two hot-button issues that haven't been touched yet.
But I think you, Dave, you've hit it right on the head, states, in order
to make up the revenue they're losing to other states, they are going to
up the ante. They are going to put other additional forms of gambling in
DAVIES: We're speaking with Richard McGowan. He's a professor of
economics at Boston College. He's written several books on government
expansion and regulation of gambling. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Richard McGowan. He's a
professor of economics at Boston College who has studied government
expansion and regulation of gambling in the United States.
You know, we've talked about issues of job creation and tax revenues,
but there are also other downsides to gambling. Generally speaking, what
are its drawbacks?
Prof. MCGOWAN: I would say the two major drawbacks are the compulsive
gambling issue, which would mean that families would probably suffer
from a higher divorce rate, there'd be - personal bankruptcies would go
up and even just crime might go up. And then the other would be the
cannibalization of local businesses. If a casino opens with a couple of
nice restaurants in it and with a hotel, you could very well negatively
impact the restaurants around where the casino is going to be located at
and even the local hotels and motels who were hoping that more people
would stay at those hotels and motels because the casino were there
won't because they'll stay at the casino.
DAVIES: Has that been a phenomenon people have reported? Hospitality
industry folks that were excited and then disappointed?
Prof. MCGOWAN: I would say for instance in the two Native American
casinos around Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, that certainly has been the
case. It's hurt the restaurants in those areas and the hotels and motels
in those areas are not doing well at all.
DAVIES: Yeah, that's Connecticut, right? Yeah.
Prof. MCGOWAN: It's Connecticut.
DAVIES: Let's talk about some of the kind of issues of principle and
morality that enter in the debate here. In Pennsylvania, where I live,
if you play the number in the lottery it pays 500 to one if you win. But
the odds of hitting the number are 1,000 to one against you. And I've
always just found it appalling that the state government spends a lot of
money to put cute ads on television with groundhogs and chipmunks and
whatever, encouraging people to bet their hard-earned money on this
game. Am I alone here? I mean should government be really - it's one
thing for government to permit gambling. Should they be encouraging it?
Prof. MCGOWAN: I mean I couldn't agree with you more. I've advocated for
many, many years now that the states should put the odds of the winning
right next to where all the machines are being sold. They should also be
- have to put out the percentage of winning that they get back to the
So for instance, there is no doubt about it that the lottery is -
certainly is for the mathematically illiterate. I mean you cannot win.
For instance, the daily number is by far the worst bet you can make.
Some of the instant tickets might pay back maybe 60 to 70 or 80 percent.
By the way, the worst casino game pays back around 90 percent. All
right, so it's not to advocate that casinos are fairer than the state
governments in lotteries, but clearly the lottery is something that the
state's trying to make you feel good by making a bad bet because you are
going to be giving it to a good cause. Now that has been an American
institution for a long, long, long time.
If I took you to Harvard Square - every building in Harvard Yard, by the
way, was built through a lottery, where Harvard University went to the
state of - the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and said please let us run
a lottery to pay this for this building. And again, they were 50-50
So, I mean, there is a long-term American tradition to use lotteries to
pay for things but I do think the state should be a lot more honest
about what it's paying back and yeah, the cute - I mean for instance,
New York uses if you don't play you can't win. Well, I might also say if
you don't play your odds are better keeping much - and so, yeah, we use
all kinds of cutesy - in Massachusetts, for instance, the lottery shows
the new fire engines that the town bought because of the lottery. So you
are supposed to feel good for being ripped off.
DAVIES: Right. Now, there's an argument that state-sanctioned gambling
displaces criminal gambling. That, you know, the mob used to run the
lottery, the state comes in, now it's clean, it's taxed, it's regulated,
it's honest, you know, at least it, you know, the number isn't fixed and
thereby, that, you know, diminishes the power of criminals and collects
taxes on the winnings. What about that?
Prof. MCGOWAN: There's a bit of truth to it. When Massachusetts first
opened its daily number games the state police went to the North End and
raided the bookies in the North End. Found out how the bookies set up
their number game, the state made sure that it paid a little better than
the local bookies. But it's an interesting argument to use that you put
- I mean, and by the way, that same argument is now being used to
legalize sports gambling - saying it's - right now it's a huge industry,
the mob is making the money from it, why not just legalize it and have
the state use it?
DAVIES: It sounds as if you're saying that the research generally shows
not an enormous benefit in terms jobs and economic activity from
gambling, and there are some troubling social impacts. But I know from
our conversations you've said you're not a prohibitionist. I don't know,
if I'm the governor and you're advising me on this issue, where do you
come down? What's your bottom line?
Prof. MCGOWAN: My bottom line would be if you're going - if you think
you need the revenue that badly OK, but make sure you provide for those
who are going to be negatively impacted. In other words, especially make
sure you provide enough revenue for those who are going to be addicted,
for the compulsive gambling commissions in your state. Make sure that
the local communities are going to be reimbursed because local
communities really, all of the sudden their traffic doubles, their use
of emergency equipment doubles or triples and so they have to be
But again, would I say absolutely no? No. It's how - make sure you
regulate it well. Make sure that people are aware of the dangers of
gambling. And - but would I say absolutely no to it? No.
DAVIES: I guess I should ask, are you a betting man? Do you enjoy
gambling at all?
Prof. MCGOWAN: Not at all.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. MCGOWAN: Basically I don't like playing a game where I know I have
to lose in the long run. Now, do I think it's a legitimate form of
entertainment? Yes I do. But no, I do not particularly like to gamble at
DAVIES: I'm sure you've gone into a casino just as a researcher.
Prof. MCGOWAN: Oh, many times and I'm overwhelmed by the noise. I can
see where people get fascinated by it. I don't particularly like
smelling all the smoke in lots of casinos and, but just think, all of
your senses. I mean there's the drinking, the smoke, the bells, the
whistles, it's a bit overwhelming I think. But again, but lots of people
really, really enjoy it. And so, you know, I'd sit there and say it's
not for me, it might be for them.
DAVIES: Yeah, and I think you said your dad likes to take a trip to the
Prof. MCGOWAN: Oh, sure. My father probably goes down once a month. Now,
there are 40 elderly people on a bus go down there. They go down there
at 8:30 in the morning, get down to Atlantic City by around 10, they
have their breakfast or brunch, play till around three or four o'clock,
hop on the bus and they're back in the Philadelphia area around 5:30,
six o'clock at night. And again, I, you know, my father gets - he -
that's a great day out of the house for him. I understand where it's
legitimate entertainment. I always ask him how he made out and he always
says well, I broke even, so I always kind of chuckle which probably
means he didn't break even. But, you know, it's a day of entertainment
DAVIES: Well, Richard McGowan, thanks so much. It's been interesting.
Prof. MCGOWAN: It's been great to be with you, Dave.
GROSS: Richard McGowan spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
McGowan is an economics professor at Boston College. His latest book is
"The Gambling Debate."
You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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