Skip to main content

Remembering Oscar-winning lyricist Marilyn Bergman

Bergman and her husband Alan worked together for more than 60 years, writing songs for Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand and others. Marilyn died Jan. 8. Originally broadcast in 2007.

21:30

Other segments from the episode on January 14, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 14, 2022: Interview with lyricist Marilyn Bergman; Interview with director Peter Bogdanovich; Review of 'Reframed'.

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today, we're going to remember lyricist Marilyn Bergman, half of the long-running songwriting duo with her husband, Alan Bergman. They wrote lyrics for the songs "Nice 'N' Easy," "You Must Believe In Spring," "What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?," "The Windmills Of Your Mind," "Where Do You Start?," "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams" and "The Way We Were." Marilyn Bergman died Saturday at the age of 93. The songs she and her husband co-wrote won Oscars, Golden Globes and Grammys and were popularized by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Fred Astaire and Barbra Streisand, just to name a few. The Bergmans also wrote the words to the theme songs for the TV sitcoms "Maude," "Alice" and "Good Times." The couple collaborated on songs for more than 60 years.

We're going to listen back to some of Terry's 2007 interview with Alan and Marilyn Bergman. They met through composer Lew Spence. At the time, Marilyn worked for Spence, writing lyrics in the morning. Alan also worked for Spence, writing lyrics in the afternoon. The three of them collaborated on a song that was written for Frank Sinatra. It became the title track of an album he released in 1960.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NICE 'N' EASY")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Let's take it nice 'n' easy. It's going to be so easy for us to fall in love. Hey, baby, what's your hurry? Relax, and don't you worry. We're gonna fall in love. We're on the road to romance. That's safe to say. But let's make all the stops along the way. The problem now, of course, is to simply hold your horses. To rush would be a crime 'cause nice 'n' easy does it every time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: How did you come up with the phrase nice 'n' easy, which became the title of the song and Sinatra's album?

ALAN BERGMAN: Yeah. Well, when you write for somebody like Frank Sinatra who has a definite personality, you try to write - it's easy to write a custom-made suit for him. You know, he's very theatrical. He has a definite character. And we felt because they wanted something that was easy swinging, that nice and easy, the phrase, that nice and easy does it every time would be good for him.

MARILYN BERGMAN: It also had a kind of subtext of - to be a little sexy, which certainly also was part of Sinatra.

GROSS: This is one of those many songs about sex that isn't literally about sex, but it's absolutely about sex, right?

(LAUGHTER)

M BERGMAN: Yes, it is.

(LAUGHTER)

M BERGMAN: Yes, it is.

GROSS: Did he ever ask - did Sinatra ever ask you to write for him after having such success with this song?

A BERGMAN: Yes (laughter). Yes, he did, several times. There was one time we received a call from him that said, I want you to write me a 10-minute number. And we said, about what (laughter)? He said, well, you know, boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl and so on. And we said to him, well, that's really been written. He said, you'll figure it out. He used to call us the kids. And he said, you kids, you'll figure it out. And he said, get Michel Legrand to be the composer. And Michel's father was very sick at the time, and Michel couldn't do it. So we called him and said, is John Williams OK? It was Johnny Williams. It was - he was not the, you know, well-known conductor-composer then. And we said, John, would you like to do this? And he said, yeah, let's do it.

M BERGMAN: So we wrote a 10-minute piece, which, incidentally, he wanted for his nightclub act. So we wrote a piece that talked about the fact that the protagonist of the piece - in this case, the singer - fell in love with the same woman over and over and over. I don't mean literally the same woman, but, you know, the same woman. And each love affair ended badly. And I think I remember the phrase the same hello, the same goodbye. And when we finished it, we called him and told him that we had finished it, and he asked us if we would come down to Palm Springs, where he had a home and play it for him. So the three of us drove down to Palm Springs and we got to his - I started to say house but it was more like a compound, actually. And he opened the door himself when we finally made our way to the house. And Alan sang the song for him. Alan, what was that experience? You tell it.

A BERGMAN: Well, he was sitting on an ottoman in front of me, and I sang for 10 minutes. You know, that's a long time. When I was finished, he was crying. And he said to Marilyn, how do you know so much about me, as if his life was such...

M BERGMAN: Such a closed book.

A BERGMAN: Such a closed book, you know. But it must have hit some nerve. And he said, I have to learn this. This is terrific. I love it. And - but he never learned it.

M BERGMAN: Every time we would see him, he would say, I'm going to do that. I'm going to do that.

A BERGMAN: Kids, I'm going to do that. Don't - you know.

M BERGMAN: But he never did. But it was a very nice experience, I must say.

A BERGMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: Now, you've written a lot of songs, or a fair number of songs, for movies. Some of your best-known songs are songs you wrote for movies. You haven't written that much for theater. How did you gravitate to writing songs for movies?

M BERGMAN: I think maybe movies made a deeper impression growing up, and we always knew that we wanted to write in a dramatic context. We were more interested in that than we were in just writing songs in limbo, writing for a - in a narrative with dramatic context when we were honing a craft. You can't write for a picture unless somebody hires you, you know? So it's like an actor not being able to act unless he gets a job or she gets a job. So we would do exercises. We would find short stories or scenes from plays or articles in the newspaper and pretend that they were assignments. And we wrote many, many, many songs that never saw the light of day but were exercises that we gave ourselves. So I like to think that when the first job came, we were ready.

GROSS: Well, let's listen to Alan Bergman sing. This is "What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?," which was written for the 1969 film "The Happy Ending." The composer was Michel Legrand. Why don't you tell us the story behind the song before we hear it?

M BERGMAN: Richard Brooks, who was a wonderful writer and director, directed and wrote this film called "The Happy Ending," which I think was well ahead of its time and occasionally will appear on very, very late night television, but really didn't find an audience. Anyway, he came to us one day and said, I want you to write me a song that is to appear twice in the film, early in the film. I want it to be - I want it to function as perhaps a proposal of marriage between these two young lovers.

But I want to hear the song again at the end of the film, at which time the wife - they were since married - 16 years later, the wife has become alcoholic and has left her husband and is in a bar and goes to a jukebox and selects a song and then sits down with a lineup of martinis in front of her. And he shot this beautiful montage of Jean Simmons, who played the wife, during which time she drifts into a kind of reverie while listening to the same song. And he said, I don't want you to change a note or a word, but I want the song to mean something very different when you hear it the second time.

So that was a very interesting, challenging assignment. And Michel Legrand, who wrote perhaps - I don't know - six or eight tunes, as is his want and for this spot. And they were all beautiful, but none really struck the three of us as being right. And we said to him - because while he was writing music, we were sitting trying to solve the dramatic question of what the song should be about - we said to him, what happens if the first line of the song is, what do you do in the rest of your life? And he said, oh, I like that. And he put his hands on the keys. And as long as it takes to play that song, that's what he played from beginning to end. And he said, you mean something like that? And we said, no, we mean exactly like that. And Alan said to him, play it again. And he said, oh, I don't remember quite what I played. Luckily, we had the tape machine going, so we had the music.

GROSS: So the first line of the song inspired the melody.

M BERGMAN: Exactly. Exactly.

A BERGMAN: Yes. But that happens sometimes. With Michel, we can't write lyrics first. We prefer not to write lyrics. We prefer to have the melody. We feel that when we have the melody that there are words on the tips of those notes, and we have to find them.

GROSS: Well, let's hear Alan Bergman singing "What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?" that he and Marilyn Bergman co-wrote.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING THE REST OF YOUR LIFE?")

A BERGMAN: (Singing) What are you doing the rest of your life? North and south and east and west of your life. I have only one request of your life, that you spend it all with me. All the seasons and the times of your days are the nickels and the dimes of your days. Let the reasons and the rhymes of your days all begin and end with me. I want to see your face in every kind of light, in fields of dawn and forests of the night, and when you stand before for the candles on a cake. Oh, let me be the one to hear the silent wish you make. Those tomorrows waiting deep in your eyes...

BIANCULLI: That's Alan Bergman singing a song he wrote with his wife, Marilyn Bergman. We'll get back to Terry's 2007 interview with the Bergmans after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Lyricist Marilyn Bergman died Saturday at age 93. We're listening back to our interview with her and her husband, co-writer Alan Bergman, from 2007. But first, let's listen to a recording of their song "You Must Believe In Spring," performed by Tony Bennett and Bill Evans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU MUST BELIEVE IN SPRING")

TONY BENNETT: (Singing) When lonely feelings chill the meadows of your mind, just think, if winter comes, can spring be far behind? Beneath the deepest snows, the secret of a rose is merely that it knows you must believe in spring. Just as a tree is sure its leaves will reappear, it knows its emptiness is just a time of year. The frozen mountain's dreams of April's melting streams, how crystal clear it seems You must believe in spring. You must believe in love and trust it's on its way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Marilyn, when you decided that you really wanted to become a lyricist, did you think, well, this is going to be really hard to do because there are so - first of all, it's hard to be a lyricist under the best of circumstances. But second of all, there were so few women who were lyricists at the time that you started writing. Did you think, this is going to be impossible?

M BERGMAN: As a woman, you mean?

GROSS: Mmm hmm.

M BERGMAN: Well, I didn't think it was going to be impossible. I knew that I would be, you know, the odd woman out. I would go to ASCAP meetings, membership meetings. And it would be me and a lot of the widows of songwriters who were there representing their husbands' estates, you know? In New York, there was Betty Comden and Dorothy Fields. And they were, you know, a couple of famous women writers.

GROSS: Marilyn, did you have a mentor in the way that Alan had a mentor in Johnny Mercer?

M BERGMAN: Yes, I did. When I was in high school in New York, I went to the High School of Music & Art. I was a music major. And I was lucky enough to become friendly with a girl named Marilyn Jackson, a very good singer who unfortunately is no longer with us. But she introduced me to her aunt and uncle. And her uncle was a very successful songwriter, lyric writer named Bob Russell. He wrote a lot of the Duke Ellington songs - "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me." He wrote lyrics to "Brazil" and "Ballerina," a lot of songs - very, very gifted.

And I used to play the piano for him in the afternoon after school. This was the olden days before tape recorders and stuff like that. So a lyric writer who didn't play the piano used to have somebody sit and play tunes for them. And I became very interested in what he was doing, though I never dreamed that someday that's what I would do. This was just an afternoon exercise for me. And then - oh, well, do you want the story? I'll give it to you quickly. I fell down a flight of steps.

GROSS: Oh.

M BERGMAN: And I broke my shoulder...

GROSS: Oi.

M BERGMAN: ...And dislocated the other. And so I could no longer live in New York. And I had to come out to California, where my parents had moved while it was in high school, college - I don't remember. And the only person I knew here was Bob Russell, who with his family had moved here in the years since my high school day. I was in college when this happened.

And I came out here in, you know, practically a body cast and looked him up. And we were visiting, and I said, what am I going to do out here for all these months? I don't know anybody, and I can't do anything. And he said, well, why don't you write songs? And I said, I can't play the piano. I can't even turn the pages in a book. He said, so write lyrics. You can dictate them into the now-invented cassette player or reel-to-reel, whatever it was. So I said, oh, and I wrote a lyric. And he introduced me to a young composer named Lou Spence. And that's how I became Lou Spence's morning lyric writer...

A BERGMAN: No, afternoon.

M BERGMAN: Afternoon lyric writer. Forgive me.

A BERGMAN: P.m.

M BERGMAN: And Bob functioned very much the same way that Johnny did with Allen. Bob used to critique what I'd written. And he was a taskmaster, I'm delighted to say. And so I was - I don't think - there's no question - I was studying political psychology at NYU. Why would I write songs...

A BERGMAN: (Laughter).

M BERGMAN: ...If I hadn't fallen down a flight of steps?

GROSS: Well, I love stories about catastrophe that have happy endings.

(LAUGHTER)

M BERGMAN: That's right. That's right.

GROSS: I'm glad to hear how it worked out. Yeah, it's kind of amazing, you know, that you've stayed together as a couple and as partners for so long. It's sometimes - for so many people, it's so hard to work with a spouse and to work as closely as you have to as a lyricist. And to have kept a marriage up for so many years is pretty incredible.

A BERGMAN: Yeah, we've been writing together for 51 years.

GROSS: Well, congratulations on not having had to sing "The Way We Were" in your own lives.

(LAUGHTER)

A BERGMAN: Hardly.

M BERGMAN: I can't imagine it any other way.

BIANCULLI: Marilyn and Alan Bergman, recorded in 2007. She died Saturday at age 93. We're going to end with a song, Alan wrote as an engagement gift to Marilyn with music by Lou Spence. The song, "That Face," was first recorded by Fred Astaire. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT FACE")

FRED ASTAIRE: (Singing) That face, that face, that wonderful face. It shines. It glows all over the place. And how I love to watch it change expressions. Each look becomes the prize of my possessions. I love that face, that face. It just isn't fair.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LAST PICTURE SHOW")

JEFF BRIDGES: (As Duane Jackson) Why don't we just take off and go some place? I'm sick and tired of this town. You're the only friend I've got here...

TIMOTHY BOTTOMS: (As Sonny Crawford) You mean go and stay gone?

BRIDGES: (As Duane Jackson) ...Except Jacy. No, I don't know. Hey, we could go to Mexico, be back some time Monday.

BOTTOMS: (As Sonny Crawford) You reckon the pick-up would make it?

BRIDGES: (As Duane Jackson) Yeah, it might. How much money you got?

BOTTOMS: (As Sonny Crawford) Oh, 30 bucks, about.

BRIDGES: (As Duane Jackson) Well, I got 40. We can make it on that. Come on.

BOTTOMS: (As Sonny Crawford) Okay.

BIANCULLI: That's Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms in the 1971 film "The Last Picture Show," the acclaimed drama about coming of age in a small Texas town. It was one of the first films directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who died last week at the age of 82. We're going to listen back to Terry's 1983 interview with him.

As a teenager, Bogdanovich studied with the famous acting coach Stella Adler. Influenced by the golden age of Hollywood, he went on to direct the screwball comedy "What's Up, Doc?" starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal, and the Depression-era "Paper Moon," starring Ryan O'Neal and his daughter, Tatum. Bogdanovich also was a movie critic and a Hollywood historian, writing books compiling his conversations with such influential film directors as Orson Welles, John Ford, George Cooper, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. More recently, Bogdanovich played the therapist advising Tony Soprano's therapist on "The Sopranos."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")

PETER BOGDANOVICH: (As Elliot Kupferberg) Why do we love roller coasters, Jennifer? Scary movies?

LORRAINE BRACCO: (As Jennifer Melfi) To experience the thrill of being terrified without the consequences. That's very good, Elliot.

BOGDANOVICH: (As Elliot Kupferberg) Great film, but some terrifying moments.

BRACCO: (As Jennifer Melfi) That's very perceptive.

BOGDANOVICH: (As Elliot Kupferberg) I'm concerned that treating a mobster provides you some vicarious thrill.

BRACCO: (As Jennifer Melfi) It wasn't exactly vicarious. I had to go into hiding, remember?

BOGDANOVICH: (As Elliot Kupferberg) And wasn't that thrilling?

BRACCO: (As Jennifer Melfi) [Expletive] you. You think this is funny.

BIANCULLI: One of Bogdanovich's last completed film projects was a 2018 documentary, which he produced about silent film comedian Buster Keaton. When Terry Gross spoke with Peter Bogdanovich, he had just directed the film "They All Laughed," starring John Ritter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Since you had been a critic before starting to direct your own films, did you put certain pressures on yourself, since you had been used to evaluating the work of others and seeing it with a critical eye? And it's maybe a different kind of eye that you would use when you were actually immersed in your own work, when you maybe have to rely more on your own intuitions, as well as those film critical skills.

BOGDANOVICH: Well, I think really, to tell you the truth, I don't think I was ever that hot a critic. I think I was, as Shaw called himself, a popularizer. I liked a certain director for whatever instinctive or emotional feeling that I had. Most cases, I went out and sought out these men and talked with them and then wrote about them based on what they'd said and often used interviews. I mean, the book I did on Ford is essentially an interview book.

When I began to make pictures, yes, I think really, I've always functioned on a kind of an instinctual level, and when in those few times when my instincts were denied, when I wasn't able to do what I felt I should do and couldn't quite explain why - and I've experienced this often where I've said, I want to do something, somebody says why and I say, I don't know, and I just feel ought to do it this way. And then maybe a year or two later, when the film is completed, I can look at it and put on my objective critical hat and say, oh, well, this is why Bogdanovich did this and this and this and this, and I can understand it objectively then. But I couldn't while I was making the picture. Does that answer your question?

GROSS: You got your start in film with Roger Corman working, I guess, mostly on biker movies.

BOGDANOVICH: No, just one.

GROSS: Oh, just one biker film?

BOGDANOVICH: What happened was Corman had read some of my stuff in Esquire and asked me if I wanted to write for the movies. I said, sure, and I started to write - he asked me to write a script, started to write a script on something else. And then he was preparing a bike picture, the first bike picture since Marlon Brando's "The Wild One," which, by the way, was a flop. And this was now about 14 years later, and Roger was preparing a movie which ultimately was called "The Wild Angels." He asked me to work as his assistant on it.

And what started to be a six-week location scouting job turned into a 22-week job. And I ended up rewriting 80% of the script, directing three weeks of shooting with the principals and some of the action, much of the action, and then cutting the material and learning just about everything you can about making pictures by actually doing it. And the picture cost $300,000 and grossed 5 million in 1966, which was the biggest gross that Roger had ever had before or since. He recognized my contribution to it, which had been quite large. And not that I think the picture's that hot, but anyway - and then he gave me the opportunity to make my own picture, which turned out to be a little film called "Targets" with Boris Karloff, which was his last film and my first.

GROSS: Do you consider that experience working with Corman an important one in the development of your career?

BOGDANOVICH: It was very, very important in terms of understanding the actual job of - the job of work that was involved. I learned how to work economically and thrifty, to put it mildly.

GROSS: Is the job of making movies very different than what you had imagined as someone who watched a lot of movies?

BOGDANOVICH: I guess so. I think, you know, it's hard to imagine what you don't know about. Not knowing about it, I assumed the director did everything. And it turns out there's an awful lot the director doesn't have to do. I've always been bossy and pushy about it and sort of wanted to do the whole thing. And consequently, the best pictures I made were the ones where it was just, you know, what I wanted to do, at least I felt that they were the best and so did the public. The weakest ones are the ones where I was, you know, moved into doing something else.

But directing, as I said, we did a movie once called "Nickelodeon," which was unfortunately compromised in several different areas. But it had some good things in it. And there was a line in it where somebody is learning to be a movie director. And the cameraman says to him, he says, well, any jerk can direct. And everybody laughed when that line came out. But I meant it because it's true - any jerk can direct. It's not the most difficult job in the world. It's actually one of the easiest. A good con artist can get through years of making pictures without knowing the first thing about directing because there's somebody on the set that can do almost everything that a director is supposed to do. I mean, there's a cameramen who will do the camera setup. There's an editor who can tell you where to cut. There's a writer who can write it. There's actors who hopefully can play it. The sound technicians, everybody's there.

So what does a director do finally? Well, it's a good question. To me, what I do, you know, is I stick my hand in all those areas. But what I think is the main job a director does is create an atmosphere in which the players feel comfortable and feel that they can expose themselves without worrying about it because they trust me enough that I'll tell them if it's not right. I think that's one of the things that directors should do - create an atmosphere. I had asked John Ford about it once. He said, oh, most of the good things in pictures happen by accident. And then I repeated that remark to Orson Welles, who said, well, that's true. He says, a director is a man who presides over accidents.

GROSS: Do you feel that way about your own work?

BOGDANOVICH: I think the best things in it, you know, happen as a combination of accidents of personality working and working right.

GROSS: What's an example in one of your films of something that was not premeditated?

BOGDANOVICH: Well, I think, you know, the best things in the movies really are not premeditated in the sense because, well, for example - this is a big example. But - I mean, a glaring example. On a picture we did in Texas called "The Last Picture Show," there was a scene where Ben Johnson had to do a long monologue by a tank dam. He's talking to a couple of kids. And we got out there to shoot it. And Ben and I had rehearsed it briefly. And I said, well, let's try it. And it was a long piece of film without any cut. And we started to shoot. And it was kind of an overcast day. It looked like it was going to rain. And as we started to shoot this scene, suddenly the sun came out from behind the cloud, and it came out just at the time when, in the dialogue, it seemed like it would be nice if the sun came out. And it did. And I remember looking over at the cameraman, and I gestured to him like, you know, can - is this going to work? And he shrugged his shoulders. He didn't know.

And the scene - the sun went in, and the sun went out. And it just - it was as though it was working on cue. And when it was over, you know, I said, well, you know, there's no way that we can get anything like that again. Ben was wonderful. And he and the sun won the Oscar, you know, that year. The effect was subliminal on the audience. The audience didn't say, oh, look; there's the sun coming up. But the feeling that happened was accidental. You know, nobody can plan that. You don't go around saying, well, let's try it again; maybe the sun will do it again.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LAST PICTURE SHOW")

BEN JOHNSON: (As Sam the Lion) You wouldn't believe how this country's changed. First time I seen it, there wasn't a mesquite tree on it or a prickly pear, neither. I used to own this land, you know? First time I watered a horse at this tank was more than 40 years ago. I reckon the reason why I always drag you out here is probably I'm just as sentimental as the next fellow when it comes to old times. Old times. I brought a young lady swimming out here once - more than 20 years ago. It was after my wife had lost her mind, and my boys was dead. Me and this young lady was pretty wild, I guess, in pretty deep. We used to come out here on horseback and go swimming without no bathing suits. One day, she wanted to swim the horses across this tank, kind of a crazy thing to do, but we done it anyway. She bet me a silver dollar she could beat me across. She did. This old horse I was riding didn't want to take the water. But she was always looking for something to do like that, something wild. I bet she's still got that silver dollar.

BIANCULLI: That's Ben Johnson, who won an Oscar for that supporting role in "The Last Picture Show." The movie was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who died last week at age 82. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION IN THE SKY AND DAVID WINGO'S "SEND OFF")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1983 interview with Peter Bogdanovich. The film director, author and movie critic died last week at age 82. When he spoke with Terry, he had just directed the film "They All Laughed."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: In "They All Laughed," there's a lot of physical comedy. For instance, John Ritter is sitting in a hotel, and he's supposed to be not noticeable, but he's actually very nervous 'cause he's watching someone who he's suddenly gotten this crush on, and he picks up a beverage, and the straw goes right into his nose, and he is in a roller-skating rink and falls at just the wrong moment. Do - that's planned out, isn't it?

BOGDANOVICH: Oh, sure, those are...

GROSS: Yeah.

BOGDANOVICH: Those are physical jokes.

GROSS: And how do you, as the director, go over that with someone? Do - how do you work it until it gets right?

BOGDANOVICH: Well, a joke like the swizzle stick going up the nose is something that - you know, it looks easy, but it isn't that easy to get it to go up the nose so that it doesn't look like it was planned. And, you know, when you have as good an actor as John Ritter is - and he's - there's nobody better at comedy than John, and the television stuff that he does is not an example of his best work. I put him in pictures, you know? "Nickelodeon" was his first picture. We worked the stuff together. You know, John is wonderful. He didn't even know how to roller skate, and I said, well, you have to learn to roller skate so you can fall down, you know? And he did. And he just is - moves brilliantly. So you work with him, and you tell him kind of what you want to do.

And he - I tell you, I always thought directing also was showing the actors what to do, showing them literally. In other words, if they - acting it out for them, say, look; try this, and you do this. I found that most directors don't do that. I asked Jimmy Cagney one time I met him - I said, who are the best directors you worked for? And he said, I've worked with about 80 directors, but of those 80 directors, I would say that there were only five that were directors. And I said, well, what do you say makes a director? He said, a director to me is a fellow who, if I don't know what the hell to do, he can get up and show me. So I've always gotten up and showed them, showed the actors, and generally speaking, it helps.

Lubitsch, I found out, who's probably my favorite director - certainly, one of my favorite directors directed everybody by getting up and showing him what to do. I mean, whether it was a chorus girl or a maid or a butler or a king, he'd act it out. I asked Jack Benny once, who did a picture with a Lubitsch. I said, what was it like working with Lubitsch? I mean, what did he do? He says, well, he says he'd act out the whole thing for you. I said, was he any good? He said, well, he was a little broad, but you got the idea.

GROSS: (Laughter) Do any actors dislike it when you do it for them, the way some actors really hate it if you give them a line reading?

BOGDANOVICH: Some actors do, but I've only had one actor that ever gave me any trouble about it, and it was one of the worst performances I've had, but he finally did what I asked him to. Because, to me, a movie has similarities not only to painting, but to music. And I've often said it's a little bit like visual music. And often, the way a line should sound is, you know, I hear it in my head. And then often it's a question of communicating to the actor how I hear it, because if he says it differently, it doesn't sound right. Now, sometimes they'll say it the way I didn't hear it, and that's one of those things I call an accident because it's better than what I had in mind. I don't try to force it on the actor. I like to let the actor feel like he's kind of doing it himself. I don't say - get up and say, do it just like this. I say something like this. This is the idea. But, you know, sometimes an intonation or the rhythm of the speech in a scene is what's funny. There are scenes in "What's Up, Doc?" for example, that aren't all that funny in the way - if you read it. But when you see it played and you hear it, it sounds funny. If you analyze it, it isn't that funny. It's the sound of it. The rhythm is funny. That's true in comedy.

GROSS: You were very successful at a pretty young age and had several successes, then some box office failures. And now you're kind of trying to have a more independent operation. A terrible tragedy struck your life. Have you redefined success for yourself?

BOGDANOVICH: It's a good question, but it gives me pause. It's like, somebody once said, I must have notice of that question.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's OK. You've got five seconds to think it over.

BOGDANOVICH: Yeah. Thank you. I think success is a very ambiguous word. You know, I don't know quite how to answer your question. Let me put it this way. Although they all laughed, has not been a success at the box office because - like "E.T.," for example, or "Star Wars," I think it's a success for me. It succeeded in what I wanted it to do as a movie. It failed to reach as big an audience as I would have liked. But the thing about a movie that's good, I think, is that it doesn't go away. It stays there. "Citizen Kane" was a flop when it came out, too, and now everybody says it's the best American movie ever made. So, you know, movies, if they're any good, have a certain life.

BIANCULLI: Peter Bogdanovich speaking to Terry Gross in 1983. In 2020, Bogdanovich was the subject of the inaugural "The Plot Thickens" podcast from Turner Classic Movies. It was titled "I'm Still Peter Bogdanovich." The film director, author and movie critic died last week at age 82. Coming up, I review a new CNN documentary series about Marilyn Monroe. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. This weekend, CNN premieres a new four-part documentary called "Reframed: Marilyn Monroe." The first two hours are televised back to back on Sunday, and the remaining two are shown next Sunday. One reason to revisit the story of one of the cinema's most iconic, examined and enduring sex symbols is that 2022 marks the 60th anniversary of her death. But the more compelling justification is that this new documentary series from CNN and a British TV production company takes a very different and original approach to its subject. It's called "Reframed" for a very good reason.

During her career and for decades after her death, Marilyn Monroe was objectified, scrutinized and judged, mostly by male writers, biographers and historians. Think of Norman Mailer's skeevy 1973 biography, a sexist essay accompanying pictures of the actress taken by photographer Lawrence Schiller. Schiller is heard from in "Reframed," but here, he's talking about Marilyn Monroe's acute awareness of the camera - how she posed, what images she selected, and how she used them to enhance and leverage her own celebrity status.

But most of the time, the voices we hear in this new documentary are female. Actress Jessica Chastain narrates, and an all-female editorial team headed by Sam Starbuck re-examines Marilyn's movies, marriages and career moves from her point of view. We hear from female film critics and historians, including the always informative Alicia Malone from Turner Classic Movies. And we hear from several actresses, some younger ones who find Marilyn inspirational offscreen as well as on, and some of her peers who competed in the same sexist studio system as Marilyn did in the 1950s, as in this clip, where we hear from Joan Collins, then Ellen Burstyn about how women were treated in Hollywood back then.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "REFRAMED: MARILYN MONROE")

JOAN COLLINS: I didn't really feel specifically like a commodity at the time. It's only on looking back that I see that when I was referred to as the girl - put the light on the girl, move the girl to the left. It's only when I look back on it now that I see that, perhaps, I was thought of as a commodity.

ELLEN BURSTYN: I've never heard a woman's brain praised in that period. That was not considered a feminine virtue. It took a while for women to be appreciated as thinking beings.

BIANCULLI: It's a revelatory, new take on some familiar ground. In "Reframed: Marilyn Monroe," we learn how, as a young actress, Marilyn outlived and outmaneuvered the potential career-killing scandal of the emergence of some earlier nude photos, and how, as a more mature actress, she again embraced nude photographs - this time as a weapon to gain media attention and bargaining power. It was at a time when her movie studio, 20th Century Fox, was funneling almost all its money into the Elizabeth Taylor costume drama "Cleopatra." Monroe got the spotlight back on herself. And though she had a long and often combative relationship with the studio and its executives and had been fired, she ultimately was rehired, given a big raise and awarded the contract terms she had been demanding.

We learn a lot more not only about her methods of negotiating, but her motives. It was not the first time in Marilyn's life she had fought the studio system and won, but it would be her last because her life soon would be over from an overdose at age 36. But her films would survive. And "Reframed" sees them with a fresh set of eyes. There's the sparkle of her small screen appearance in the 1949 Marx Brothers comedy "Love Happy" - the brothers' last film, but Marilyn's first. There's the comic confidence of her brilliant work in "The Seven Year Itch" and "Some Like It Hot," and the subtlety of her portrayals in such later dramatic works as "Bus Stop" and "The Misfits."

She took control of her career whenever and however she could, even starting her own production company to choose her own roles. And she took those roles seriously. Near the end of her life, when a reporter for Life magazine asks her if it was difficult sometimes for her to crank out her performance, she bristles instantly at the word crank, as we hear from an audio recording of that interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARILYN MONROE: I don't crank anything, you know? I'm not a Model T. Yeah. I don't crank. I don't know. But I think it's kind of disrespectful to kind of refer to it that way. We are not machines. No matter how much they want to think we are, we are not.

BIANCULLI: At this point, there are no plans to make "Reframed" an ongoing documentary series, reevaluating the careers and legacies of selected filmmakers and performers. But there ought to be, because "Reframed: Marilyn Monroe" is planting its flag on some fresh territory.

(SOUNDBITE OF OMER AVITAL'S "C'EST CLAIR")

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, "Just Pursuit: A Black Prosecutor's Fight For Fairness." We talk with Laura Coates about her new memoir. When she worked in the Justice Department enforcing voting rights, she was seen by other Black people as a hero. But when she became a prosecutor, many Black people saw her as a traitor. Eventually, she questioned her own work. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF OMER AVITAL'S "C'EST CLAIR")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF OMER AVITAL'S "C'EST CLAIR")

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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Why a scholar banished from Iran 15 years ago is hopeful about the current protests

Iranian American scholar Pardis Mahdavi, who was once dragged out of a Tehran classroom by morality police while lecturing about her latest book, "On Iran's Sexual Revolution" joins Tonya Mosely to help shed light on the protests in Iran.

07:37

Remembering Sue Graham Mingus, widow of composer and bassist Charles Mingus

After her husband's death in 1979, Sue Graham Mingus worked to keep his legacy alive, forming a repertory ensemble devoted to playing his compositions. She died Sept. 24. Originally broadcast in 2002.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue