October 31, 2014
Guest: Stephen King
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. And David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. We have the perfect guest on today's Halloween show - Stephen King, who is still writing decades after crafting such horror classics as "Carrie" and "The Shining." King's new novel "Revival" comes out next month.
Terry spoke with King last year when his novel "Joyland" was published. It's set in the Joyland amusement park in 1973. Joyland has a horror house, a torture chamber and a fun house that may be haunted by a ghost, which may explain the dead bodies.
The main character is a college student who aspires to write for The New Yorker. After his heart is broken by his girlfriend, he wants to get away from his life in New England and takes a job at the amusement park in North Carolina, where he enters a different world.
The novel combines elements of crime, horror and the supernatural. It's published by the small press Hard Case Crime, which publishes new hard-boiled crime novels as well as lost ones from the past with original cover art in the style of old pulp fiction paperbacks.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Stephen King, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's really a pleasure to have you back on our show. I would like you to start with a reading from "Joyland." And there's probably an official word for this page. The detective books I used to buy when I was like, in my early teens used to have this kind of page. It's like a page with a lot of like, drama in it. I want you to read that page.
STEPHEN KING: Hi, Terry, it's a pleasure. And this is the tease for "Joyland." (Reading) I stashed my basket of dirty rags and Turtle Wax by the exit door in the arcade. It was 10 past noon but right then, food wasn't what I was hungry for. I walked slowly along the track and into Horror House. I had to duck my head when I passed beneath the screaming skull, even though it was now pulled up and locked in its home position.
(Reading) My footfalls echoed on a wooden floor painted to look like stone. I could hear my breathing. It sounded harsh and dry. I was scared, OK? Tom had told me to stay away from this place, but Tom didn't run my life any more than Eddie Parks did. Between the dungeon and the torture chamber, the track descended and described a double-S curve where the cars picked up speed and whipped the riders back and forth.
(Reading) Horror House was a dark ride, but when it was in operation, this stretch was the only completely dark part. It had to be where the girl's killer had cut her throat and dumped her body. How quick he must have been, and how certain of exactly what he was going to do. I walked slowly down the double-S, thinking it would not be beyond Eddie to hear me and shut off the overhead work lights as a joke, to leave me here to feel my way past the murder site with only the sound of the wind and that one slapping board to keep me company. And suppose, just suppose, a young girl's hand reached out in that darkness and took mine.
GROSS: That's Stephen King, reading from his novel "Joyland." So this is a crime novel that's set in an amusement park in North Carolina, but there's also an element of the supernatural in it. What did an amusement park that's kind of very carny seem like a good opportunity to combine crime and the supernatural?
KING: Well, I always wanted to write a novel set in an amusement park. And in the original concept of "The Shining," that was going to be a family that was caretaking an amusement park at the close of the season. And I had sort of an idea...
GROSS: Instead of an old hotel.
KING: Instead of an old hotel, yeah, and I had a title for the book. I was going to call it "Dark Shine." And I think I had a name for the amusement park, too. It might have been Skyhook or something like that, named after one of the rides.
Ever since I was a little boy and I went to the Topsham Fair, I've loved the rides and the barkers. I think those people in particular, the shy bosses, they're called. They're the people who turn the tips. They're the ones who stand out in front and tell you, you know, everybody wins, folks, everybody wins, come on over. It's just a quarter of a dollar and everybody wins.
Hey Mister, you want to win this big stuffy toy for your girlfriend? She's a beauty and she deserves - you know, that kind of thing. In a way it's a little bit like revival preachers but in a secular version. So I've always been kind of fascinated by those things and in love with it. And I just kind of wanted to visit that world for a while.
I had an idea for the story, which by the way has been in my head for about 20 years now. And all it was to begin with was an image of a boy in a wheelchair flying a kite on a beach. And that picture was just as clear in my mind as it could be. And it wanted to be a story, but it wasn't a story. It was just a picture, as clear as clear is clear. And little by little, the story built itself around it. And I thought, well, there's an amusement park down the beach from where this kid in the wheelchair is trying to fly his kite. And the name of the amusement park is Joyland.
Then I went to the Internet, which is every writer's newest crutch, and I looked at amusement parks. I wanted one that was nice and clean and sunlit, but wasn't too big. So I didn't want a Disneyworld. I didn't want a Six Flags park. And I settled on a place called Canobie Lake - just about the right size.
And I got a map of the place, and I printed it out. And then I started to think, well, this is going to be my funhouse. And it's going to be called Horror House. And this is going to be my Ferris wheel. And it's going to be called the Carolina Spin because it's going to be in Carolina on the beach there. And little by little, these things came together.
And then as I wrote the book, this thing happened where it became less and less like a standard amusement park, and more and more like the carnies I remembered from my youth. And the more carny it got, the better I liked it, actually. And I started to go to websites that had various carny language, some of which I remembered a little bit, pitchmen called shy bosses and their concessions called shies and the little places where they sold tickets and sometimes sat down and rested were called their dog houses.
And then other stuff I just made up, like calling pretty girls points. I can't remember some of the other ones. It's all mingled together now in my head.
GROSS: So you mentioned the boy in the wheelchair was the first image that came to you, and that boy in the novel is a 10-year-old named Mike who has muscular dystrophy. And his grandfather in the novel is a famous preacher, third to Oral Roberts - and who's the second one you mentioned? Jimmy Swaggart?
GROSS: And his grandfather says that the muscular dystrophy is Jesus' punishment. This preacher is not a generous person.
GROSS: He's not an emotionally generous person. And his name is Buddy Ross, and he hosts "The Buddy Ross Hour of Power" on TV. And I'm wondering if you watched preachers on TV when you were growing up and put some of that into this guy.
KING: Yeah, I watched a lot of them when I grew up, mostly because they were always running in the house where my family lived. My mother and my sister had a tendency to turn on people like Oral Roberts. And there was another guy, a real hellfire guy named Jack Van Impe. And I'm aware of people that are sort of in that same ballpark, if you will, in that same church pew today, like Pat Robertson. And they always strike me as a little bit on the shady side, people who are just as interested in making sure they get the collection plate filled as they are in saving souls.
And that's an interesting part of American life. And I've always thought that someday I would really like to write a novel about that kind of guy. And I think the reason that Buddy Ross is not a very sympathetic character in the book is that he never steps onstage in the course of the book. One thing that we do know is that Mike Ross, his grandson, likes him.
He says he's a little bit crazy on the Jesus stuff, but otherwise he seems like a pretty nice guy. And that's one thing about the characters in the stories I write. I always try to show that we all have our good side. Sometimes with some people it's very small, but it's usually there.
GROSS: Did you watch Oral Roberts for religion or for entertainment value?
KING: Mostly for entertainment and also because of the rhythm of speech. I enjoyed all those revival preachers because there's a certain poetry in the way that they speak, and I always enjoyed that. W.H. Auden said thou shalt not read the Bible for its prose. And I suppose you're not supposed to watch televangelists to enjoy the sound of their voice, but man, sometimes it's hard not to.
GROSS: Are you trying to make a connection in your book between the preaching that you say ends with the collection of the plate and the kind of carny pitchman?
KING: Yeah, I think it's there. It isn't overt in the book, but sure. We have a lot of carny aspects to life in America, everything from television and the movies to our religion. And we can see from the mega-churches that, my goodness, Terry, people love a show. So that you can have a nice Methodist church somewhere in Oak Park, Illinois if you want, and people are going to come, and they're going to sit there, and the organ's going to play. And that's all terrific. But what I want is down in the amen corner, Jesus jumping, I want that big choir with the people swaying from side to side, oh God, and I want the electric guitar. Then I want the preaching, you know, where the guy's going to walk back and forth and not just stand like a stick behind the pulpit. He's going to, you know, shake his fist a little bit in the air and then he's going to smile and throw his hands up and say God's good, God's great, can you give me hallelujah.
I just absolutely adore that. And it's really only about two steps from the carny pitchmen, because I like that, too.
GROSS: Is that what you had in church? What did you have in church when you were growing up?
KING: Oh no, I went to a Methodist church for years as a kid, and Methodist youth fellowship on Thursday nights. And it was all pretty - you know, think of a bottle of soda with the cap off for 24 hours.
KING: There weren't very many bubbles left in that stuff by then. It was pretty - it was Yankee religion, Terry, and there's really not much in the world that's any more boring than that. They tell you that you're going to go to hell, and you're half-asleep.
KING: What kind of preaching is that?
GROSS: But you always believed in God. You were just bored in church.
KING: Well, I guess that the jury's out on that.
GROSS: About, about - about which? About God?
KING: On God and the afterlife and all that. It's certainly a subject that's interested me. And I think it interests me more the older that I get. And I think we'd all like to believe that after we shuffle off this mortal coil, that there's going to be something on the other side because for most of us, I know for me, life is so rich, so colorful and sensual and full of good things, things to read, things to eat, things to watch, places to go, new experiences, that I don't want to think that you just go to darkness.
But as far as God and church and religion and the Buddy Rosses and that sort of thing, I kind of always felt that organized religion was just basically a theological insurance scam where they're saying if you spend time with us, guess what, you're going to live forever. You're going to go to some other plain where you're going to be so happy. You'll just be happy all the time, which is also kind of a scary idea to me.
BIANCULLI: (Laughter). Author Stephen King, speaking with Terry Gross last year. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2013 interview with author Stephen King. They're talking about his novel "Joyland," which was published last year.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GROSS: I remember you telling me the last time we spoke that you always believed in God, and it's a choice that you made, and you just, you choose to believe it.
KING: I choose to believe it, yeah. I think that - I think that that's - I mean, there's no downside to that. And the downside - if you say, well, OK, I don't believe in God, there's no evidence of God, then you're missing the stars in the sky. And you're missing the sunrises and sunsets. And you're missing the fact that bees pollinate all these crops and keep us alive and the way that everything seems to work together at the same time.
Everything is sort of built in a way that to me suggests intelligent design. But at the same time, there's a lot of things in life where you say to yourself, well, if this is God's plan, it's very peculiar. And you have to wonder about that guy's personality, the big guy's personality. The thing is, like, I may have told you last time that I believe in God. What I'm saying now is I choose to believe in God, but I have serious doubts.
And you know, I refuse to be pinned down to something that I said 10 or 12 years ago. I'm totally inconsistent.
GROSS: I'm all for that. (Laughter) Really. So is your interest in the supernatural connected to your interest in or questioning of God? Because they're both in some way about powers beyond our perception.
KING: Well, belief in the supernatural or belief in wild talents like precognition and telepathy and telekinesis and things like that, it seems to me that belief in those things is just very, very freeing. I can remember talking to the late Stanley Kubrick, who called when he was getting ready to start filming "The Shining." And whatever else you could say about him, he was a thinking cat.
You know, he really thought about what he was doing. He didn't just go out there and shoot film. So he said to me, Stephen, don't you feel that anybody who tells a ghost story is basically an optimist because that presupposes the idea that we go on, that we go on into another life? And I said, well, yes, I can see that, but what about hell?
And there's this long pause on the other end of the line. And then Stanley Kubrick said in this very stiff voice I don't believe in hell.
KING: And to me it was the voice - to me it was the voice of somebody who was denying their own maybe deeply-held belief in something that they were unable to root out. You know what the Catholic Church used to say? Give them to me when they're young and they're ours forever. And there might have been some of that in Stanley Kubrick's voice. So he said I don't believe in hell. And I said no, you choose not to believe in hell. And that was the only time I ever really spoke to him on subjects theological.
GROSS: Back to the question of whether your interest in the supernatural connects to your thinking about God - and some people I know will hate this question. I'm not trying to compare God to the supernatural. However, they're both about a belief in things beyond our powers of perception.
KING: Well, you have every right in the world to connect God to the supernatural because God is a tripartite being, and one of his beings is the Holy Ghost. We've rearranged that in our minds. I'm sure that Cotton Mather would be rolling over in his grave. So now that you go to church, and they'll say Holy Spirit, which comes down to the same thing. But to me that's a milk water way of saying what was the original Christian translation of that. God is a ghost. God is a holy ghost.
And he's there, supposedly, and watches what we do. And he is sort of the ultimate, what can I say, spook, because he's there. He watches you while you're doing this, while you're doing that. And I can remember actually being in a Boston movie theater about 12 years ago or so, going to the bathroom in the middle, and going into one of those stalls in the movie theater bathroom, and there were posters on all the inside of the stall doors that had Jeff Goldblum from "The Fly."
And it had this caption that said - Jeff Goldblum is watching you poop.
KING: And he had this horrible, intense look in his eyes. And I was thinking, well, it isn't Jeff Goldblum that's watching us have sex with people that we're not in relationships with or stealing stuff or this or watching us poop. It's God. So that is basically a supernatural theme. I have no problem with collating those two things together.
GROSS: So when you were in your formative years, what were your supernatural fears? And did you always wish you had some of the supernatural powers that you've given some of your characters?
KING: I think it's built-in. I think it's just part of human nature. I've been queried a lot about where I get my ideas or how I got interested in this stuff. And at some point, a lot of interviewers just turn into Dr. Freud and put me on the couch and say what was your childhood like?
And I say various things and I confabulate a little bit and kind of dance around the question as best as I can. But bottom line, my childhood was pretty ordinary, except from a very early age, I wanted to be scared. I just did. I was scared afterwards. I wanted a light on, because I was afraid that there was something in the closet. My imagination was very active, even at a young age.
For instance, there was a radio program at the time called "Dimension X." And my mother didn't really want me to listen to that, because she felt it was too scary for me. So I would creep out of bed and go to the bedroom door and crack it open. And she loved it, so apparently, I got it from her. But I would listen at the door, and then when the program was over I'd (laughter) - I'd go back to bed and quake.
GROSS: So you wanted to be scared, or, I mean, did you have a...
GROSS: ...avoidance thing with being scared? Or did you just want to be scared?
KING: Terry, I loved it. It was a classic attraction-repulsion thing. I wanted to be scared. I wanted that reaction. And, I mean, I can self-analyze to a degree. And it might be right and it might be wrong. But here's what I really think. I wanted an emotional engagement with something that was safe, something that I could pull back from. And I basically - I had a big imagination. I wanted to put it to work, even at an early age.
So I would ask my mother to take me to movies like "Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers" or "Them," where the giant ants came out of the subway drains in Los Angeles. And she was OK with that. She was down with that, because she liked it. I can remember her reading us - my brother and I - "Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde."
We would get the classics comic books with things like "Oliver Twist." And "Oliver Twist" was a wonderful story, but what I really liked was the death of Fagin, where, you know, he was just sort of ah, with his eyes bugging out, because the classics comic books, in a lot of cases, were just dressed-up easy horror comics. So I think it's built in. I think it's like a piece of magnetic steel that draws a needle.
BIANCULLI: Author Stephen King speaking with Terry Gross in 2013. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of this show. I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross back with more of Terry's 2013 interview with author Stephen King. He's famous for his horror novels and stories of the supernatural, including "Carrie" and "The Shining." In addition to discussing his latest novel "Joyland," they also talked about other things, including fear itself.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GROSS: Are there things that scare you as an adult that you were not aware enough of or smart enough for when you were a kid to understand that these were frightening things?
KING: Well, you grow up, and you become frightened of different things. And they have a tendency to be real-world things.
KING: It's been quite a while since I was really afraid that there was a boogeyman in my closet, although I am still very careful to keep my feet under the covers when I go to sleep because the covers are magic. And if your feet are covered, it's like boogeyman Kryptonite.
KING: So I'm not as afraid of that as I used to be. The supernatural stuff doesn't get to me anymore. But here's the movie that scared me the most in the last 12 or 13 years. The movie opens with a woman in late middle-age, sitting at a table and writing a story. And the story goes something like, then the branches creaked in the - and she stops. And she says to her husband what are those things? I can't think of them. They're in the backyard. And they're very tall. And birds land on the branches. And he says, why, Iris, those are trees. And she says, yes, how silly of me. And she writes the word. And the movie starts. That's Iris Murdoch, and she's suffering the onset of Alzheimer's disease.
KING: That's the boogeyman in the closet now.
GROSS: Why is that the thing you're most afraid of?
KING: I'm afraid of losing my mind.
GROSS: Losing your memory?
KING: Mm-hmm. Well, you don't just lose your memory. You lose your mind, basically.
KING: You lose your identity, your sense of who you are, where you are. If you're a block away from the house, you may forget how to get home. I think I could put up with a lot of things and a lot of pain. I have put up with a lot of pain. I got hit by a car in 1999 and got most of the bones on the right side of my body broken, and I bore up under that and I got better. But you can't get better if your mind is stolen away from you.
So here's what I'm saying - as we get older, our fears, in some way, sharpen and become more personal, because we can no longer - let's say take a book like "It" or maybe "Christine," and say these are make-believe fears. Instead, we have more of a tendency to focus on things that we know are out there. We fear for our families. We fear for our mental abilities. We fear for diseases.
You may see a dark spot on your arm or an irregular mole and say, gee, I better get that checked out. If you're woman, doing a self breast exam and you feel a lump that wasn't there before, these are very real fears. So when you ask me what I'm afraid of, I'd say I still go to see ghost movies when I get a chance or some sort of supernatural being, that kind of thing, but it doesn't scare me as it scared me when I was a child. But on the other hand, if I see a wonderful writer like Iris Murdoch losing her mind, I have more of a tendency to focus on that than how loving her husband was, which is supposed to be the uplifting part of that film.
GROSS: So, you know, you mentioned your car accident from 1999. Are you still in chronic pain as a result of that?
KING: I guess I am, but I don't think about it very much anymore. I exercise a lot, and I try to stay as mobile as I possibly can. I can remember the doctor saying to me - well, after the accident, I asked the guy will I ever be able to play tennis again? And he said no, but you'll be able to walk. Well, I can play tennis again, and I think that...
GROSS: Wow. Really?
KING: Well, you know it...
GROSS: I mean, your leg was crushed, basically.
KING: It was crushed. But I think that doctors have a tendency to lowball, so that if you get a little more than they say, you say, wow. I'm really beating the odds here. I'm doing a terrific job. But you just go ahead and you do the therapy and you bear the pain, because you're told that if you do the therapy and bear the pain, things will get better. And that actually seems to be the case.
GROSS: Do you think your writing has changed, or what you want to write about has changed in the years since the accident?
KING: I don't know. I'm on the inside.
GROSS: Because at first you said you weren't going to write for a while, but, you know, you're still writing.
KING: Yeah. But the thing is, when I said that I wasn't going to write or when I was going to retire, I was doing a lot of Oxycontin for pain. And I was still having a lot of pain. And it's a depressive drug, anyway. And I was kind of a depressed human being because the therapy was painful. The recovery was slow. And the whole thing just seemed like too much work. And I thought, well, I'll concentrate on getting better, and I probably won't want to write anymore.
But as health and vitality came back, the urge to write came back. Now, here's the thing - I'm on the inside, and I am not the best person to ask if my writing changed after that accident. I don't really know the answer to that. I do know that since then I've - that was close. That was really being close to stepping out - the accident. And a couple of years later, I had double pneumonia. And that was close to stepping out of this life, as well. And I think you have a couple of close brushes with death like that.
It probably has - somebody said the prospect of eminent death has a wonderful clarifying effect on the mind. And I don't know if that's true, but I do think it probably causes some changes, some evolution in the way a person works. But on a day-by-day basis, I just still enjoy doing what I'm doing.
GROSS: Since, you know, we've talked a little bit about your interest in the supernatural and in whether or not there is an afterlife, did you have any of those, you know, like near-death experiences that are, you know, sometimes described by people who came very close to dying, but were then revived?
KING: I never saw the white light. I'm sorry. I can't tell a lie. I never saw the white light. So, no, I can't say that I've ever had a near-death experience where, you know, angels rose fluttering from the end of my hospital bed or anything. I just felt really sick, and I had a couple of - my wife would say - bad drug interactions where I started to rave. And I don't remember any of those things. And that's it, man. I'm just glad to be alive now. And I'm very curious about what, if anything, comes next. But I'll wait. I'll wait.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I hope you'll be waiting a really, really long time.
KING: Yeah. From your lips to God's ear.
GROSS: (Laughter). If there is a God, right? (Laughter).
KING: If there is a God.
GROSS: I want to point out to our listeners the cover of "Joyland," which is your new crime novel on the Hard Case Crime press. First of all, I want to ask you - this is not - you're the kind of successful writer that can get a really large advance for a book. I doubt Hard Case Crime can pay you the kind of advance that you get because, I mean, they're this really little press devoted to a certain type - like a certain niche of, like, the hard-boiled crime novel. They love those, like, old-fashioned pulp covers. Your book has one of those.
GROSS: They do, like, original paperbacks and I think some, like, republications of paperbacks. Why did you want to write for them? It's not going to be - you know, it's not going to be your biggest moneymaker. Because of...
KING: It's - it - Hard Case Crime is a throwback to the books that I loved as a kid. We lived way out in the country. And my mother would go once a week shopping and she would go to the Red and White or the A&P to pick up her groceries. And I would immediately beat feet to Robert's Drug Store, where they had a couple of those turnaround wire racks with the hardboiled paperbacks that usually featured a girl in scanty clothing on the front.
She'd usually, you know, be kind of dressed like a cigarette girl and it'd be a Lucky Strike hanging from one corner of her mouth. And she'd have an automatic pistol in her hand.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.
KING: The line - the teaser line that I always loved the most was for a novel called "Liz," where it said she hit the gutter and bounced lower.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's great.
KING: I love that. And, you know, the one on the front of "Joyland" says who dares enter the funhouse of fear?
GROSS: And I want to mention there's a teaser line. There's a limited edition hardcover version of the book though the book is largely paperback.
GROSS: And the teaser line on the hardcover version is beyond the lights, there is only darkness. I like that.
KING: I wrote that line.
GROSS: Did you? I like that.
KING: Yeah, I wrote that line.
GROSS: And that's the lights of the amusement park that it's set in.
KING: What is it? Beyond the light there's only darkness.
KING: Read the line again.
GROSS: You like it that much you want to hear it again? OK.
KING: I didn't hear the end of it.
GROSS: Beyond the lights there is only darkness.
KING: Can I write or what? God.
KING: Just kidding.
GROSS: Stephen King, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been great to talk with you again. And I'm so glad to hear that, in spite of the car accident, like, you're playing tennis and stuff like that. That's great.
KING: Yeah. Yeah, it's good to be alive, Terry. And some time when you're up here we'll play doubles.
GROSS: Oh. (Laughter) Yeah. (Laughter) I'll tell you who will win that one.
KING: How about shuffleboard? Maybe shuffleboard.
GROSS: That's right. And ping pong. (Laughter).
KING: Pac Man.
GROSS: Pac Man - even better.
KING: It's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
GROSS: Thank you so much. Be well.
BIANCULLI: I'd pay anything to watch that game. Author Stephen King speaking with Terry Gross last year when his novel "Joyland" was published. His next book, a horror thriller titled "Revival," will be released next month.
Coming up, classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews two movie versions of the operetta "The Merry Widow" on DVD. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The Metropolitan Opera will be celebrating New Year's Eve with Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow," one of the most beloved operettas ever written, in a new production staring soprano Renee Fleming. Later, it will be telecast in theaters worldwide.
But classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz wonders whether any stage production could ever surpass the first two movie versions. Both films are now available on DVD.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MERRY WIDOW")
MAURICE CHEVALIER: (As Danilo, singing) I'm going to Maxim's where all the girls are dreams. Each kiss go on the wine list and mine is quite a fine list.
CHEVALIER: (As Danilo) Is she beautiful?
EVERETT HORTON: (As Ambassador Popoff) She owns 52 percent of Marshovia so she is beautiful. If you like her or not, you'll love her. This is cold-blooded patriotism. Did you ever have diplomatic relations with a woman?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character, singing in foreign language).
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Viennese operetta was originally intended for the intimacy of live theater, but the greatest incarnations of Franz Lehar's beloved "The Merry Widow" which premiered in 1905, have been on film. In 1934, Ernst Lubitsch directed a version starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier with English translations of the song lyrics by no less than Lorenz Hart of Rodgers and Hart. The film won an Oscar for art direction, but the whole look of the film is a manifestation of Lubitsch's masterly touch. Every detail is embedded with his sly sense of irony. It's a fantasy of black and white with dazzling Can-Can girls and one of the most breathtaking musical numbers ever filmed, an embassy ball with a narrow hall of mirrors endlessly multiplying the number of waltzing couples swirling through, as if they were in a glorious and terrifying dream.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MERRY WIDOW WALTZ")
SCHWARTZ: Lubitsch's adaptation is tighter, sharper, sexier and much funnier than the original operetta. In this movie, the king of the mythical country of Marshovia is afraid a wealthy young widow is going to destabilize the economy by taking her money out of the country so he orders the irresistibly dashing Captain Danilo to marry her. Danilo has already tried to make love to her, even though he has never seen her face without a mask. Unsettled by Danilo and depressed by her widowhood, she's determined to cheer up. Suddenly, her entire wardrobe, even her pet Pekingese turns miraculously from black to dazzling white and the now married widow heads for gay Paris.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MERRY WIDOW")
JEANETTE MACDONALD: (As Sonia, singing).
SCHWARTZ: At the famously indecorous Maxim's, Danilo mistakes the widow for one of the bistro's bevy of beauties all too eager for a one-night stand. Lubitsch gives their encounter a powerful erotic charge. Complications ensue, both hilarious and surprisingly poignant.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MERRY WIDOW")
CHEVALIER: (As Danilo) I love you, Sonia.
MACDONALD: (As Sonia) So I noticed, last night.
CHEVALIER: (As Danilo) Oh, please. I'm mad about you.
MACDONALD: (As Sonia) Everybody is. I've heard it at least 100 times tonight and everybody wants to marry me. There must be something wonderful about me. What is it that fascinates all these men? What can it be? Is it my charm? Or my beauty? Or, do you suppose it's my position?
CHEVALIER: (As Danilo) You mean your money?
MACDONALD: (As Sonia) Yes.
CHEVALIER: (As Danilo) I don't know about the other men, but with me, it's strictly your money and nothing else.
MACDONALD: (As Sonia) I believe you.
CHEVALIER: (As Danilo) I knew you would. That's why I said it. If you had only told me last night who you were, if I'd only known that I held in my arms the richest widow, I - what did you come to Maxim's for anyway? Oh, I see - just a rich woman looking for a thrill.
MACDONALD: (As Sonia) Goodbye, Captain.
SCHWARTZ: Finally, the two are trapped into admitting they really love each other. An earlier silent version of "The Merry Widow" from 1925 has a completely different tone. Its director, Erich von Stroheim, was not known for lighthearted comedies. This silent "Merry Widow" by necessity concentrates on the story over the music so von Stroheim invents a painful back-story about how the widow acquired her wealth.
A chorus girl spurned by Danilo's royal family, she marries a wealthy old baron, a crippled foot fetishist, who dies on their wedding night. The villain is Danilo's nasty cousin the Crown Prince, who nearly kills the Danilo in a duel over the widow and his assassination suggests that what's really behind the film's bitter irony is the first world war.
It's fascinating how many different ways Lehar's delightful music has resurfaced over the years. In Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow Of A Doubt," Joseph Cotten plays the Merry Widow Murderer and the famous waltz in a minor key becomes disturbingly sinister. Shostakovich in his grim 1940 "Symphony No. 7" which depicts the Siege of Leningrad, transforms "I'm Going To Maxim's," Lehar's jolly anthem of Parisian decadence, into a relentless and menacing march. Three years later, that same music turns up again in Bartok's "Concerto For Orchestra" where it seems to be an expression of satirical contempt for Shostakovich. So von Stroheim was prescient in his ability to see the chilling underside of Lehar's operetta. His very dark comedy and Lubitsch's brilliant musical perhaps more than any traditional stage production are what have really kept the whole operetta alive for me, each in its own way revealing something profound lurking under the trivial surface.
BIANCULLI: Lloyd Schwartz is senior classical music editor of the online journal New York Arts and teaches in the creating writing MFA program at University of Massachusetts Boston.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MERRY WIDOW")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Not in my wildest dreams.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Our face must not be shown there.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: And we are too unknown there.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: Joujou, cloclo, margot, froufrou - we promise to be faithful until the night is through.
BIANCULLI: Coming up, as TV critic I review the new miniseries "Olive Kitteridge" starring Frances McDormand. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. This Sunday and Monday HBO presents, "Olive Kitteridge," a two-part, four-hour miniseries. That sounds like the kinds of long-formed dramas TV used to make back in the '70s and '80s, when miniseries ruled. Like them, "Olive Kitteridge," covers an entire generation in the lives of its characters, a 25-year-span. But otherwise, it couldn't be more different. Most of those sprawling classic miniseries were set against major historical events and were as much about passion and romance and glamorous costumes as anything else.
"Olive Kitteridge," which stars Frances McDormand as a fiercely acerbic New England teacher, wife and mother, is just the opposite. It's all about family and friends and the tenuous relationships that make up life. There's no glamour whatsoever in "Olive Kitteridge," unless you count a wedding ceremony or two, but even those are layered not with pomp and circumstance, but with the tiniest most revealing bits of human behavior. "Olive Kitteridge" comes from an interrelated collection of stories by Elizabeth Strout, about the residents of a small town in Maine. It centered mostly around the title character, played by Frances McDormand, who so strongly responded to these stories and this character that she optioned it from the author the week before the book won a Pulitzer Prize - great timing.
Adapting the stories for television was a tough act to pull off. But star and executive producer McDormand, with her chosen on-screen and off-screen collaborators, does it superbly. The director is Lisa Cholodenko, who demonstrated her ability to film intimate family dynamics in "The Kids Are All Right" and "Laurel Canyon." The screenplay adaptation is by Jane Anderson, who wrote "Normal." Playing opposite McDormand in the equally crucial role of Olive's husband Henry is Richard Jenkins from "Six Feet Under." And the supporting cast, giving great support every step of the way is truly top-notch, including a late, but pivotal appearance by Bill Murray. "Olive Kitteridge" tells most of its story in a series of flashbacks. We first get to know the central family when Olive is a public school math teacher, Henry is a pharmacist and they have a young son Christopher. At the dinner table, tensions are high. Henry is infatuated with one of his young employees at work. Olive is dismissive of both the girl and of Henry, and as the son, Christopher, listens his parents discuss a neighbor with mental health issues. Olive doesn't exactly ease the already palpable dinner conversation tension.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "OLIVE KITTERIDGE")
FRANCES MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) Rachel Colson (ph) has depression. Do you know what that is?
DEVIN MCKENZIE DRUID: (As Christopher Kitteridge) No. Not really.
MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) You should. It runs in our family.
RICHARD JENKINS: (As Henry Kitteridge) No it doesn't.
MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) Henry, you nuts? What do you think's going on with my father.
JENKINS: (As Henry Kitteridge)That was a different thing.
MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) No it wasn't, my mother had it, too.
JENKINS: (As Henry Kitteridge) No, it's not the same. I mean, she had her moods.
MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) She was clinical, Henry.
DRUID: (As Christopher Kitteridge) What's depression?
MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) It's bad writing, makes your nerves raw?
DRUID: (As Christopher Kitteridge) Is that why you're so mean all the time?
MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) Absolutely.
JENKINS: (As Henry Kitteridge) Your mother is not depressed.
MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) Yes, I am, and I'm happy to have it, 'cause it's being smart.
JENKINS: (As Henry Kitteridge) All right, Ollie.
MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) Oh, we might as well discuss it Henry. He might have it, too.
DRUID: (As Christopher Kitteridge) But you don't think I'm smart.
MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) Of course I do.
DRUID: (As Christopher Kitteridge) No, you don't. You think I'm average.
MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) You are plenty complicated, Christopher.
BIANCULLI: This miniseries also is plenty complicated. Like "The Affair," currently running on Showtime, "Olive Kitteridge" sometimes returns to the same scene with a slightly different perspective. But most of the time it relies on its actors to convey all that's unsaid but implied, and they do it beautifully. As Henry, Jenkins at times almost oozes with longing and unrequited love, then at other times surprises you with his humor and self-assurance. And as for Olive, well, without an actress as strong and talented as McDormand, this miniseries simply would fall apart. It's as powerful a performance and as challenging and complicated as when Claire Danes stared in HBO's "Temple Grandin." If you don't care for Olive, even at her most abrasive and disconnected, then nothing works. But everything in "Olive Kitteridge" works just fine.
There's one scene in which Olive is shown accidentally overhearing some other characters discussing what they really think of her, and not just her personality but her style of dress, her relationship with her son, everything. McDormand doesn't have a line of dialogue in that scene - she just listens. But she reveals such quiet devastation that you're with her from then on. "Olive Kitteridge" allows its characters to age and their relationships to change. And it also allow some of those characters and those relationships to die, which somehow by the end makes you appreciate the small miracle of survival all the more. By focusing on the little things over a long period of time, "Olive Kittredge" reminds us that the little things add up in the end to the biggest things of all.
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