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Movie Monsters, Monster Movies And Why 'Godzilla' Endures

Unlike Jaws and Alien, whose creatures are soulless things to be destroyed, Godzilla resonates because of something that once defined the best monster movies — a sense of compassion for the monster.



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Other segments from the episode on May 2, 2014

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 2, 2014: Review of the film "Godzilla"; Interview with Steve Ryfle; Review of Billy Hart's "One Is The Other"; Obituary for Bob Hoskins; Review of the film "Ida".


May 2, 2014

Guests: Steve Ryfle - Bob Hoskins

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, stomping in for Terry Gross.


BIANCULLI: Godzilla was kind of the monsters, and in the 1950s, his movie was the king of all monster movies. But the Godzilla that most Americans saw then and since is considerably different from the original Japanese film. Ten years ago, in honor of its 50th anniversary, the original Japanese version of "Godzilla" was released for the first time in America, and now it's back to celebrate its 60th anniversary in a new digital restoration with new subtitles.

"Godzilla" is much more than a campier, scary monster movie. It's a very bleak, somber film with echoes of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and direct references to the perils of radiation. In a few minutes, we'll hear the story about the making of "Godzilla" in a conversation with Steve Ryfle, the author of Japan's favorite monster.

But first let's turn to our critic-at-large, John Powers, who says seeing "Godzilla" again has made him nostalgic for old monster movies.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: There have been hundreds of monster movies over the years but only a handful of enduringly great movie monsters. And of those, only two were created for the screen: King Kong, the giant ape atop the Empire State Building; and his Japanese heir, Godzilla, the city-flattening sea monster who's a genuinely terrific pop icon.

He not only stars in movies - Hollywood is bringing out a new Godzilla on May 16 - but he's even played basketball with Charles Barkley in a commercial for Nike.

It's been exactly six decades since Godzilla first hit the screen, and to celebrate the big guy's birthday, Rialto Pictures is releasing in theaters Ishiro Honda's 1954 original, in a restored, 60th anniversary edition. I've seen "Godzilla" many times since I was a kid, but watching it again, I was struck that it might be the best single film about the terrors of the nuclear age.

I suspect you know the plot. It begins when American H-bomb tests in the Pacific disturb the watery environment that's the home of Gojira, as the monster is called in Japanese. After sinking assorted ships, this enormous beast winds up in Tokyo, where he stomps on buildings, flosses with power lines and blasts citizens with his radioactive bad breath.

When the army is unable to stop him, the only hope is a new invention called the Oxygen Destroyer. But its idealistic creator is reluctant to reveal it for fear it will become a weapon; just look at the destruction that followed from splitting the atom.

Yet even as the inventor says this, the movie itself is offering us the seductive spectacle of violent ruin. And make no mistake: Destruction is great to look at. There's an amoral pleasure to be had in watching Godzilla reduce Tokyo to fiery rubble, rather like the beauty of seeing those napalmed palm trees flare like matches in Apocalypse Now or the illicit thrill of seeing the White House get obliterated in Independence Day, before 9/11, of course.

Quite clearly, it's this joy in destruction that helped make "Godzilla" influential, especially in Hollywood, which over the past half-century has fed the worldwide audience's appetite for images of spectacular violence. That said, "Godzilla's" real strength lies not in its effects, impressive for the time, but in its underlying emotional and cultural seriousness.

It's not simply that the music is often doleful rather than exciting or that we see doomed children set off Geiger counters. The movie has a gravity that comes from being created in a Japan that knew what it was to have children die from radiation poisoning and to see its capital city in flames. Both drawn to and terrified of the monster's power, the movie is steeped in Japan's traumatic historical experience. It has weight. It means something.

"Godzilla's" resonance is also inseparable from something else that once defined the best monster movies: a sense of compassion for the monster. Boris Karloff's Frankenstein may have been scary, but we also felt his frailty and fear of being hunted. King Kong was dangerous, sure, but his eyes were charged with almost human feeling when he gazed at Fay Wray. The same is true of Godzilla, who starts out wreaking havoc but, by the film's end, takes on a melancholy, sad-faced grandeur.

These days our pop culture doesn't encourage such identification. Ever since "Jaws" and "Alien" and "Predator," whose creatures are ruthless murder machines, our monsters have increasingly become soulless things to be destroyed. Consider today's favorite monster, the zombie. Although zombies could hardly seem more human - heck, they just were human - the walking dead have no individuality, and they run in packs. They basically exist to have their heads shot off in movies and TV shows that resemble video games.

BIANCULLI: Godzilla is not remotely like this. In his wonderful short story, "Gojira, King of the Monsters," Jim Shepard offers a fictionalized account of the making of the movie. At one point, Shepard has director Ishiro Honda explain why the vanquishing of Godzilla feels so sad, and his words sum up brilliantly what gives Godzilla its strange power. By the time the movie ends, Honda says, Godzilla is like a hero whose departure we regret. It's like part of us leaving. That's what makes it so hard. The monster the child knows best is the monster he feels himself to be.

John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: We're celebrating Godzilla's 60th anniversary today on FRESH AIR. When the film was first shown in America, about 40 minutes were deleted from the original Japanese version to make it shorter and to make way for new footage that was added to make the movie more marketable to American audiences. The new footage featured an American wire service reporter whose reports provided the narration for the story.

The reporter was played by Raymond Burr, who went on to play TV lawyer Perry Mason. Here's how Burr opened the film.


RAYMOND BURR: (As character) This is Tokyo, once a city of six million people. What has happened here was caused by a force, which, up until a few days ago, was entirely beyond the scope of man's imagination. Tokyo, a smoldering memorial to the unknown, an unknown, which, at this very moment, still prevails and could at any time lash out with its terrible destruction anywhere else in the world. There were once many people here who could have told of what they saw. Now there are only a few.

BIANCULLI: Our guest, Steve Ryfle, is the author of a book about the making of "Godzilla" and its many sequels. It's called "Japan's Favorite Mon-Star," spelled M-O-N-S-T-A-R. Terry interviewed him in 2004 on the film's 50th anniversary, which was the first time the original Japanese version was released in America. She asked him why Raymond Burr's character was added to the American version and why some of the film's message was changed.

STEVE RYFLE: Well, this was, you know, the mid-'50s, a decade or so after the end of the war. I don't think there was a lot of sympathy for Japan. So the underlying message of the film may not have resonated so well with American audiences at that time. That having been said, I don't know that the distributors of the film in the United States had purely political motives. I think they were driven more by capitalism than anything else.

And what they did was essentially disguise a Japanese film as an American one, and if you think about it, what they did was rather ingenious. They rented Raymond Burr for one day. The story goes that they paid him for one day's work, and they kept him at the studio for 24 hours in order to film all of his scenes, and they filmed everything in a little - on a little soundstage on Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles.

They hired Asian actors, some of whom posed as essentially body doubles for the Japanese actors. They used over-the-shoulder shots and whatnot to kind of pretend that Raymond Burr was actually speaking to members of the Japanese cast. And they rather effectively, if crudely, incorporated him into the Japanese film.

And what it did was it created a very marketable, giant monster movie of the variety that was so popular at that time.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Now the ending is really changed. In the original "Godzilla," the Japanese version, the movie ends with a paleontologist saying I can't believe that Godzilla is the only survivor of his species. If we continue testing H-bombs, another Godzilla will one day appear somewhere in the world. What's the ending in the American version?

RYFLE: Well, you know, giant bug, giant reptile, you know, atomic monster movies were extremely popular in the 1950s. I mean, I could run down a list of really wonderful titles like "Tarantula," "Them," "Black Scorpion," "Giant Claw," "Giant Gila Monster," "Giant Behemoth," "The Amazing Colossal Man," "The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman" and on and on and on.

And what was the normal pattern in those films, essentially in the American atomic monster movies, the monsters were stand-ins for Cold War invaders. And at the end of the movie, there would be much celebration, as the American military ultimately defeated these warriors, these monsters with new and more powerful military might.

Often there would be, you know, a new version of an atomic weapon that obliterated the monster, and the message was clear that no matter what the threat, you know, never fear, the American military is strong and will defend you. And what the American distributors of "Godzilla" did was essentially, if not completely, attempt to create an ending of that type. Raymond Burr's last line of the film was, you know, the menace was gone, but the whole world could wake up and live again.

I think even in the Raymond Burr version of the film, the rather downbeat and poignant ending still shines through, to a point. But in the original version, as you said, it's much more pessimistic. If we continue to test these H-bombs, another Godzilla is going to appear somewhere in the world someday.

To me what that essentially means is in our world that someday, you know, one of these bombs is going to be used again. And if you look around us today, I mean, it's never been more true. I mean, we're just, you know, one accident away from a nuclear tragedy. And incidentally, the scientists' prediction was correct, wasn't it? Godzilla came back again and again and again and again. That's why we're here talking about this today.


GROSS: You know, watching the movie as an adult, I was thinking, well, you know, it's the H-bomb that's responsible for Godzilla, but it's the atomic bomb that was actually dropped on Japan. Why is it the H-bomb that the movie is so concerned with?

RYFLE: Well, the H-bomb testing program was in full effect at this time, and there was an incident in early 1954, the Lucky Dragon tragedy, and this is really the incident that may have been, you know, the most responsible for the creation of Godzilla. The Lucky Dragon was a Japanese fishing boat that set sail from its home port in Yaizu in January of 1954, and its voyage was ill-fated from the beginning.

They were originally set to tuna fish in the waters off of Indonesia, but at the last minute the owner of the boat ordered the fishing master to set sail instead for the waters off of Midway because he'd heard that there was great catches of albacore tuna to be had there. So in late February, they began fishing there, and the morning of March 1st, 1954, in the predawn hours, a few crew members were standing on the deck when they thought they saw the sun rising in the west.

And what it turned out to be was an H-bomb test. Now the crew of the boat had not been warned that they were drifting dangerously close to the Pacific Proving Ground, the H-bomb testing zone at the Marshall Islands. And even if they had known that they were close to the testing ground, they certainly did not know that a test was going to occur on that date.

So as they stood there wondering what the heck this was, a few of the men who had served in the war started to get an eerie feeling, and the captain said let's get the heck out of here. And by the time they reeled in their nets, they were being rained on with this sticky, white ash that - this radioactive fallout. And by the time they got back to Japan, many of the men were sick. The radio man later died of leukemia that year. It became a huge international incident.

And in mid-March, after the boat had returned to port and was starting to be - this incident was starting to make waves in the press, Tomoyuki Tanaka, the producer of the film eventually, clipped a newspaper article and went to the head of production at Toho Studios and said what if these nuclear tests, what if these H-bomb tests, awakened an undersea creature that came on land and destroyed Japan. And that's really the genesis of "Godzilla."

BIANCULLI: Steve Ryfle, speaking with Terry Gross. Ryfle is the author of "Japan's Favorite Mon-Star." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're celebrating the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Japanese monster movie "Godzilla." A new digital restoration of "Godzilla" has just been released to celebrate the anniversary. Our guest is Steve Ryfle, the author of "Japan's Favorite Mon-Star."

GROSS: There are amazing scenes of destruction in "Godzilla." You know, Godzilla in the movie, he's not just a victim of the hydrogen bomb, a victim in the sense that he's become bizarre and radioactive as a result of this, but he also is a kind of like metaphor for the force of hydrogen and atom bombs. And, you know, he breathes fire, and he sets Tokyo ablaze.

And the scenes of Tokyo burning are really disturbing, especially if you're a child watching it. Can you describe how those scenes were shot?

RYFLE: Well, the miniature sets of Tokyo in some cases were so large that they had to be built outside to accommodate the width and the dimensions of them. They were basically shot using, you know, miniature buildings, constructed in one-25th scale, and of course Godzilla, as we all know, is a man in a Latex costume who tramples through the set.

You know, for instance when Godzilla destroys the clock tower in the Ginza, that is a very, very accurately detailed model. You know, often people will deride these films for being, quote-unquote, cheap simply because they do not use the stop-motion animation technique that other giant monster films before they did use. That being said, the amount of care and detail that went into the construction of the miniature Tokyo is just amazing.

When you witness Tokyo on fire, there's a great shot during the middle of Godzilla's long rampage. There's just amazing the destruction, the death toll is sort of unparalleled onscreen.

GROSS: One of the things that really intensifies all the effects of "Godzilla," the sense of danger, the sense of destruction, is the score. It's a fantastic score. And worked into the score are the sounds of the monster growling and the really frightening sounds of the monster's footsteps reverberating. Tell us something about the composer of the score.

RYFLE: Well, Akira Ifukube, boy what can I say? I think the score for "Godzilla," of course I'm biased, but I think it's one of the greatest film scores of all time. And of course the motifs in "Godzilla" were reused and reworked continually throughout the golden age of the series in the '50s and the 1960s.

Mr. Ifukube is a highly regarded classical composer in Japan. He scored many, many, many, many films, including several classics. And, you know, without Ifukube's music, I don't think "Godzilla" would have made the impact that it did. The music is synonymous with "Godzilla," as is Godzilla's roar, which by the way Mr. Ifukube created through the manipulation of musical instruments and sound effects.

GROSS: Why don't we hear part of the score? And we'll hear the monster's footsteps and the monster's roar worked into it.


GROSS: That's music from the soundtrack of "Godzilla." How was the monster's roar created?

RYFLE: The monster's roar, boy, isn't that one of the greatest sound effects in movie history? Every kid knows it. I remember when I was a child, we used to try to imitate it, not to much success. It was created by rubbing a gloved hand, a leather gloved hand, over the strings of a double bass, recording that sound and manipulating it, changing the speed. And that's what they came up with.

And Godzilla's roar basically was created using the same sound effects, even up until now. Now it's digitally altered, but it basically sounds the same. If you recall during the 1960s, Godzilla's roar became more of a high-pitched whine, but it's more or less the same sound.

GROSS: Do you think that the director of "Godzilla," Ishiro Honda, saw it as a monster film or saw it as, you know, a parable about the dangers of nuclear weapons?

RYFLE: I think it's a little bit of both. Mr. Honda had served in the Japanese military during World War II, and upon his return home after the war, he had visited Hiroshima and witnessed the aftermath of the destruction there, and he was deeply affected by that, and he said so on several occasion.

"Godzilla" is Mr. Honda's most personal film by far. And you can see the imprint that the war left on him. He worked personally on the script, you know, and he spoke many, many times over the years about how his desire for this film, while it was an entertainment film, by and large, but his desire was to send a message, not an indictment of America, the monster really - that's another difference between "Godzilla" and American monster movies of the same time period.

The American monsters usually are stand-ins, as I said, for Cold War enemies. Godzilla is not really a stand-in for America. It is more of an indictment of the nuclear age. And Honda's hope was that somehow this film would inspire people to think about disarmament. I think today if he were still alive, he'd be very disappointed that, you know, nuclear weapons are possessed by more nations than ever before.

GROSS: Well Steve Ryfle, thanks so much for talking with us.

RYFLE: Well, thank you for having me. I've enjoyed it.

BIANCULLI: Steve Ryfle, speaking with Terry Gross. Ryfle is the author of "Japan's Favorite Mon-Star." A new digital restoration of "Godzilla" has just been released to celebrate the film's 60th anniversary. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Drummer Billy Hart has recorded hundreds of records, backing, among many others, guitarist Wes Montgomery, pianists Shirley Horn and Herbie Hancock, saxophonists Stan Getz and Dave Liebman, and the co-op band The Cookers. Billy Hart sometimes records under his own name, too, especially now that he has a well-seasoned quartet. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews their latest.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Billy Hart's tune "Yard," paraphrasing Charlie "Yardbird" Parker's line, "Cheryl." In a way, to paraphrase is typical Hart. He knows this history, but puts his on the wobble on it. His band first assembled in 2003, as the Ethan Iverson-Mark Turner Quartet. But the drummer loved playing in it so much, his younger comrades had him the keys: Now we'll be your band. You can hear why Hart took to them. It's very tight yet fluid interplay. Billy Hart broke through in the 1960s when drummers really became part of the musical conversation and not the background.

This is saxophonist Mark Turner's "Lennie Groove," updating Lennie Tristano's long, snaky melodies.


WHITEHEAD: Drummer Billy Hart's Quartet, from their new CD "One is the Other." Their pianist is Ethan Iverson, whose other new album, with the co-op trio The Bad Plus, reworks Stravinsky. Iverson is one of jazz's true do-gooders, writing analytical essays for his excellent blog "Do the Math." There, he often draws attention to great drummers, as he does on the bandstand. He and this quartet's fine bassist Ben Street also play in trio with veteran drummer Tootie Heath.

Iverson's tune "Maraschino" for the Hart Quartet owes something to Thelonious Monk's halting ballads, and to the late drummer Paul Motian's tunes, built on catchy little phrases.


WHITEHEAD: The lone standard on Billy Hart's new album is Richard Rogers' "Some Enchanted Evening," a showcase for Mark Turner's rhapsodic tenor saxophone. Turner's sweeping solo is so grand, you could miss how gracefully the others circle him without colliding.


WHITEHEAD: Billy Hart's "One is the Other" is on ECM, whose productions are typically heavy on the reverb. That deep resonance is quite effective on much of the music the label records, but it doesn't do this band any favors. Nowadays, drummers usually record in an isolation booth, as Hart did here, and the sound needs a little softening. But too much echo on the drums obscures the clarity of his playing and undermines the illusion the players recorded in one room.

To my ears, the spacey mix gives the impression the quartet is less tight than it is. But you can still hear that this is a great band.


BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and Wondering Sound and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "One is the Other," the new album by the Billy Hart Quartet on the ECM label. Coming up, we remember British actor Bob Hoskins. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: British actor Bob Hoskins, who played a human detective in a world of cartoon characters in the acclaimed movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," died this week after contracting pneumonia. He was 71 years old.

Hoskins, born in London and raised as part of the working class, specialized in playing tough guys with soft underbellies, almost always with his natural Cockney accent. On British TV, his breakthrough role was as the star of 1978's "Pennies from Heaven," Dennis Potter's brilliant musical miniseries. On film, Hoskins first broke out in 1980's "The Long Good Friday," playing in East End gangster. His later movies included "Mona Lisa," "The Cotton Club" and "Mermaids."

Terry Gross spoke to Bob Hoskins in 1988, the year he starred in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," and asked him why he gravitated to such hard-boiled tough guy roles.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: You know, many of your roles have been underworld characters. In "Roger Rabbit," you're a hard-boiled detective. In "The Cotton Club" and "Mona Lisa" and "The Long Good Friday," you play people in the underworld. Do you gravitate to those kinds of roles?

BOB HOSKINS: No. I think they gravitate towards me.

GROSS: And why do you think they do?

HOSKINS: I don't know. Maybe people take me for an underground sort of a - I'm pouring some water out, by the way.



HOSKINS: I don't know. I think if you've got a face like mine you don't usually wind up with the parts that Errol Flynn played, you know?

GROSS: I want to talk to you briefly about "The Long Good Friday." And I want to play a scene here. Your character is trying to put together a deal with organized crime concerns from America.

HOSKINS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: While an American is a city your character in London, some of his English business associates are murdered. And your character gets the idea that they're being murdered because somebody's trying to mess up the deal that you're putting together with the Americans. And here's a scene where you discover a bomb was left in your casino.


HOSKINS: (as Harold Shand) I wonder how I got disconnected?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Well, I don't know why. I must've cut it loose when Lou opened it.

HOSKINS: (as Harold Shand) (unintelligible) Last night were there any peculiarities?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) The usual crowd. Regular parties. Nothing, really.

HOSKINS: (as Harold Shand) What, no strangers?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) A few Arabs. It's a good night. Nothing unusual.

HOSKINS: (as Harold Shand) Nothing unusual, he says. Eric's been blown to smithereens, Collin's been carved up and I've got a bomb in me casino, and you say nothing unusual?

GROSS: Did you try to hang out with any gangsters, mobsters before doing this role, to see what they're like?


GROSS: You did?

HOSKINS: Yeah. But I...


HOSKINS: I must've been crazy, really. I went down to these clubs, and I met a lot of gangsters, and said, teach me to be a gangster.

GROSS: What kind of clubs?

HOSKINS: Well, sort of gangster's clubs, where all the gangsters hang out.

GROSS: Well, what do you do? Go and say, hi, I'm an actor. I'll be playing a guy like kind of like you, so I have to see how you behave.

HOSKINS: I went in and said, I'm playing a gangster in a film. Can you teach me how to do it? And they thought it was very amusing.


GROSS: I guess it's kind of flattering to their ego, in a way.

HOSKINS: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Well, there were a lot of real villains, actually in the film. Like there's - what was it? There was one scene in it where, apart from the crew, and me and Derek Thompson, there wasn't one person in that room that hadn't, wasn't under suspicion of committing a murder. There was a very heavy mob. It was quite funny, actually because at one time, I was doing a scene, and I was shouting and screaming and doing a thing, and one of these guys came up and said, hey, you don't have to do that. I said, what do you mean? Said, you don't have to shout. They know who you are. And I, oh, all right. Fine. Fine. OK. So I was very quiet after that.

GROSS: That's great.

HOSKINS: And the scene worked.



GROSS: Did you get any cards or phone calls from any of the people who you apprenticed after they saw the movie?

HOSKINS: Well, one guy who was quite a famous villain in London escaped from prison just after I'd made the film. And someone - I was in a pub, and someone came in and said someone wants to see you. I said, oh, God, what's this? And they said no, it's OK. And this guy was on the run, and he was hunted by Interpol in all kinds of people. And I walked into the pub, and there he was, standing there. And he said listen, Bob, I seen the tape of the film, and I just want to say we're glad to see one of our own doing well.


HOSKINS: One of our - I've never hurt anybody in my life. What are you talking about? And certainly never killed anybody, you know.

GROSS: Could we talk a little bit about your background? I'm real curious about what kind of neighborhood you grew up in.

HOSKINS: Working-class.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOSKINS: Sort of a normal working-class area. There was, you know, a mixture of hard working people, layabouts, villains, gamblers. Like a normal area, you know, it was a mixture of everything.

GROSS: Which side were you gravitating to when you were a teenager?

HOSKINS: Survival, I think, like, you know, just doing a living. I was never a great one for - I was never very clever. By sort of what I mean I don't mean I'm stupid. What I mean is, like, street talk and the street kind of survival, where some people really thrive on the street. You know, some people become very rich on the street. I never did. I was sort of pretty ordinary, really. It was only when I was pretending to be on the street that I started to get rich, you know.


GROSS: But I guess having observed a lot of people who did well on the street helped you play characters like that?

HOSKINS: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It was a big help in the background. And so I suppose, actually, within an ordinary area, if you was brought up in Brooklyn or the Bronx or sort of, you know, these kind of areas. There are people there that are very respectable, very honest, ordinary people, but they're surrounded by sort of drug dealers or, you know...

GROSS: Right.

HOSKINS: ...all the other stuff. So they can't be off not living with it. You know, so my experience of the crime world was an everyday occurrence.

GROSS: I don't know if this is a true story or not, but the story that goes around - which I suppose is true - is that you got your first rule by accident.


GROSS: Right? Would you tell the story?

HOSKINS: Well, yeah. I was - God, it sounds so - it sounds terrible now.


HOSKINS: I was in a bar in an amateur theater, and there was a lot of people there sort of reading these what, at the time, were scripts. I didn't know what a script was. And this guy came down and said, right, you're next. And I, oh, am I? And I had enough drink to sort of think oh, OK, I feel a bit adventurous. Went upstairs, and they said have you seen the script? I said no. What does it look like? And they gave me the script, said do you want to read it? And I read it. And they said, well, do you want to read it out loud, so we can hear it? So I read it out loud, and I got the part. I was playing the lead in this play. And the first night an agent came to see it, and said you should take this up professionally. I said, well, go get us a job, and I will. And she did. And I've been a professional actor ever since.

GROSS: So what did you learn from? Did you learn from a lot of the actors and directors that you worked with when you started performing on stage.

HOSKINS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mainly learned from women.

GROSS: Why is that?

HOSKINS: Well, I realized very early on that like drama is about very private moments. Like most of the time people walking around hide behind a sort of shield of style or whatever, but drama is about showing those very private moments, those painful moments, those ridiculous moments that make up the human life.

And because women have had to keep their mouths shut for sort of thousands of years they developed this technique of making those private moments felt very clearly. You know, guys, who've - plenty of us have been talking for these thousands of years and saying exactly what they feel don't express themselves very well. They hide behind this shield of masculinity.

And those private moments are very difficult to get at through men. You know? Do you know what I mean?

GROSS: I think I do know what you mean.

HOSKINS: It's got nothing to do with male and...

GROSS: Yeah. Um-hum.

HOSKINS: Male and female. It's particularly how you express yourself.

GROSS: Now, do you think the women who you learned this from were aware of that or did you just learn it from observing them?

HOSKINS: I learned it from observing women, all women in general mainly and actresses.

GROSS: Um-hum.

HOSKINS: You know, watching the way that an actress would put forward an idea or a feeling. Just watching that. You can walk in a room and if there's been a row between two women you know. You know what I mean? Or if a woman sort of wants you to know something without telling you, you know. And that's the job of an actor, to make an audience know.

GROSS: Was your Cockney accent ever a problem in roles you had to play?

HOSKINS: Not really. No.

GROSS: Did you have to learn different accents when you started acting? Did you already know how to do that?

HOSKINS: Yeah. Well, I suppose if a guy - I always told jokes, you know?

GROSS: Um-hum.

HOSKINS: And if you're going to tell jokes there's always racial jokes. And I used to tell all kinds of racial jokes. All kinds of different accents.


GROSS: So you have to do accents to tell the jokes?

HOSKINS: Yeah. Oh, yeah.


GROSS: You know, while we're talking about actors and actresses who you learned from, I know you performed I think pretty early in your career in a play with John Gielgud.


GROSS: Did you learn anything from him?

HOSKINS: Yes. I did. Well, he was extraordinary, Gielgud. So I had only been in the business, what, two, three years. And suddenly, I was on stage in a 40 minute scene with John Gielgud and I had all the lines.


HOSKINS: I couldn't believe it. And he was wonderful. He was really wonderful to work with. I'll never forget, I had a line in the scene. What was it? I can't remember what the line was now but it was a funny line. It was a gag line.

GROSS: Um-hum.

HOSKINS: But it wasn't getting as much as I thought it should get, you know?

GROSS: As much laughter?


GROSS: Um-hum.

HOSKINS: And I said to him, you know, I'm not getting enough out of this. He said, (impersonating John Gielgud) well, ooh, what you should do...


HOSKINS: He said when you come to the line step back two paces, count two, and then say it. Like what? You've got to be kidding. No, no, no, no. It'll be fine, fine, fine. I promise you. And so it came to me. I'd forgotten about this and he was sitting up on this big box all the way through the scene. And I came to the line and he shouted down to me: Step back two paces and count two.


HOSKINS: I said, oh, you've killed it. Thanks a lot. So I did. I stepped back two paces, counted two, and the audience went crazy. I got a round. And I looked up at him and he's not very good at winking and there he is trying to wink at me. You know, I told you so. Well, after that I did it again the night afterwards and I got another round. I thought he must be doing something up there.

What's he doing? It can't be me. So the night after I did it again and quick, as soon as I said it, I whipped around and looked at him again. And he was sitting there trying to wink at me. You know, he wasn't doing a thing. And after that, every night after that, I stepped back two paces, counted two, and got a round. And I could never figure this out.

And ever since every single show I've ever done there's always a point where I'll step back two paces, count two, and I've never got a thing. Not a titter.


HOSKINS: It's never worked since.

GROSS: So that's not something that has changed your career forever from this little lesson.

HOSKINS: No, no, no. It's driving me nuts.

GROSS: Thanks so much for talking with us. I've really enjoyed hearing from you immensely.

HOSKINS: Thank you.

GROSS: Thank you very much.

BIANCULLI: Actor Bob Hoskins speaking to Terry Gross in 1988. He died earlier this week at age 71. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new film called "Ida." This is FRESH AIR.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: The Polish-born director Polish-born director Pawel Pawlikowski's is best known for the English-language movie "My Summer of Love," a lesbian coming-of-age film that was a breakthrough for actress Emily Blunt. His new film is called "Ida," spelled I-D-A and centers on an orphan who learns the secret of her past when she's on the brink of becoming a nun. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: To call "Ida" a female coming-of-age movie doesn't begin to capture its eerie luster, its stark black and white palette, its boxy, static frames. The movie begins in a convent where a girl called Anna will soon take her vows. The religious imagery in the first silent minutes makes you think you're going to see a more hushed, reverent kind of film than what follows.

The iconography recalls the Danish expressionist director Carl Dreyer as well as early Ingmar Bergman. As Anna, Agata Trzebuchowska resembles the young Mia Farrow - her wide apart eyes seem fixed on some otherworldly realm. Anna was raised in the convent's orphanage but now, says the Mother Superior, it's time for her to meet her only relative, an aunt named Wanda by played by Agata Kulesza.

Anna treks to her aunt's apartment. She learns her given name was Ida and she learns that she's Jewish. Anna, I mean Ida, doesn't say oy vey. She doesn't say much of anything. She continues to stare beatifically offscreen, leaving her aunt to do all the emoting. Think of Wanda as Auntie Mame as a bitter lush. She's a judge but was not so very long ago a widely feared party prosecutor.

She sent enemies of the socialist state to their deaths. She was known as Red Wanda. What caused her fall isn't clear - maybe alcohol, maybe Jewishness, maybe that she's a woman. Ida offers a last chance for Wanda to grapple with her past. So the two women embark on a journey to find out what happened to and what remains of their family.

Director Pawel Pawlikowski left Poland at age 14. This is his first film in his native language. He's a quarter Jewish - his grandfather died in a concentration camp - but "Ida" isn't about rediscovering his Jewish heritage. Its theme is more general - confronting a past that's buried and festering.

The style conveys much. Until the last minute of the film, the camera is fixed in place, each image invoking the desolation and sense of imprisonment of Poland in the early 1960s. The characters' heads are always low in the frame. Their lack of power is almost tactile. It's obvious Pawlikowski harbors no love for Poland's people, whom he shows to be willfully indifferent to the fates of the millions who died during the war.

At first, no one will admit to remembering Ida and Wanda's family but the women turn out to have some power. Ida's religious habit earns her respect and Wanda can threaten people with the might of the totalitarian state. At the halfway point Wanda and Ida pick up a male hitchhiker, a very cute alto sax player in a traveling jazz band. Ida feels the pull of the secular world. It's clear the musician kindles something in her she's never felt before.

There's considerable suspense. Will she go back and take her vows despite everything she knows? In festivals across the U.S. and the world, the movie has received some rapturous reviews. I'm not convinced there's enough here for a masterpiece. Up to the credits it's a mere 78 minutes and the style that's so arresting can also seem studied.

But "Ida" is a frightening portrait of repression, of what happens to a society that buries its past in an unmarked grave and lives its present in a state of corrosive denial.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

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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