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Sister Wendy Beckett: A Contradictory Nun

Sister Wendy Beckett has a new book out for the holidays, "Sister Wendy's Nativity" from Harper Collins. Beckett is a member of the Notre Dame order, a teaching order of nuns and a celebrity. In 1980 she began the serious study of art, and since has written the books several books and hosted many popular PBS series.


Other segments from the episode on December 11, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 11, 1998: Interview with Wendy Beckett; Interview with Frank Rich; Review of the film "A Simple Plan."


Date: DECEMBER 11, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 121101np.217
Head: Sister Wendy Beckett
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

Sister Wendy Beckett is a paradox: she's a nun who lives a life of seclusion and is also a quirky British TV star. Sister Wendy has been a member of the Notre Dame teaching order of nuns since she was 16. She's now in her late 60s.

In 1970, she was granted permission to leave teaching and live the contemplative life, devoting herself to prayer and study. She's since lived in a trailer on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery in England, where she spends each day in silence.

We'll let her tell you how she became the star of TV series on art history for the BBC. Sister Wendy has just published a new book called, "Sister Wendy's Nativity," in which she tells the story of Christ and features pictures of rare manuscripts from the Vatican and Italian state libraries.

Her story of painting series still airs on PBS stations across the country. In this scene from the series, she's standing in front of Matisse's 1950 colored paper collage, "Beasts of the Sea."


SISTER WENDY BECKETT, MEMBER, NOTRE DAME ORDER: As you can see, two great cross sections fill a lagoon, and he's filled them with seaweed and sea snails and fish -- all the fascinating magical things that I'm told are under the sea. The layers of color as one moves up through the sea. He makes one feel that the joy of this -- the wonderful floating sense of freedom as you go up and up and up.

This painting -- this cut-out -- gives out such exquisite pleasure that I hardly dare to say this: I don't think Matisse ever painted anything greater.

BOGAEV: Terry spoke with Sister Wendy Beckett last year, she asked the Sister if there's a connection between the life of silence she's chosen and her love of painting -- a silent art form.

BECKETT: I think that's one of the things that attracted me to painting: the fact that it is something very compatible with my life of silence. I don't have music in my life. That's a sacrifice. But I do have literature, which is silent, and I have reproductions of paintings and of sculpture and of ceramics.

And I think we can only rarely understand painting if we're prepared to give the time to contemplate it -- to sit silently and look at the work. And so that also is very, very compatible with the kind of life I'm privileged to live.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: What's your approach to looking at the work? Do you often just like sit in front of a reproduction for a long period of time and just gaze at it?

BECKETT: Well, I always have a postcard up on the little stand, and I have a poster on the wall. And yes, I do spend time looking. Of course, it's that's -- it's that time; it's that space; it's that attention that art needs if it's to unfold. And I've frequently found that when I've looked at something and don't like it, if I look long enough, I will find out within me why this is considered a work of art.

There's always something and only looking will make it clear to one.

GROSS: I think a lot of people would assume that because you are a nun that you connect especially with religious painting. Would that be true?

BECKETT: No. I connect with great painting, and great painting by definition is spiritual. And I think many people confuse spiritual and religious. Religious art uses religious iconography, and it may use it very poorly. There are plenty of fairly dud madonnas from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Spiritual art is something very much deeper and it may use religious images or it may not. But whatever it is, it will take us beyond our own capacity into something visionary, and then return us to ourselves with a deeper sense of who we are and what life demands of us.

GROSS: But, what about art that would be considered blasphemous by some because of its content? I guess one example would be like a "Piss Christ" in which there was a crucifix immersed in urine and then photographed.

BECKETT: Yes, I know -- the Serrano (ph).

GROSS: Yeah, the Andre Serrano piece.

BECKETT: Yeah, I think people were rather quick to condemn that as blasphemous. He could have been making a perfectly valid point, that that's what we actually do to the sacrifice of Christ. We have degraded it. We have not, as a race -- a human race -- accepted with reverence and practical love what Jesus did. And you could say that all poor Serrano is trying to do is to make that point.

Now, I don't like that kind of art. To me, that's very minor art. In an art form, that's what I call "newspaper" art. You get the point and then you pass on. No one would want to contemplate a Serrano very long.

GROSS: So you don't like a lot of more conceptual, contemporary art because once you got the message, there's no reason to go back to it?

BECKETT: I think it has a point, as newspapers have a point. But a newspaper isn't a great novel that one will read and re-read again. And conceptual art is not something one will go back to. It has a brief flowering and then it's over. So no, this doesn't appeal to me very much and I don't know any work of conceptual art that, to me, comes into the category of great art.

GROSS: But what about the disparity between your cloistered spiritual life and the 30,000 miles of travel to 12 countries that were required of you to shoot the PBS series?

BECKETT: Well, this was something I felt it would be selfish not to do.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BECKETT: Because for some strange reason, I've been given, first, the opportunity to read a great deal about art and to look at a great many images; and secondly, the kind of mind that can talk about these things with enthusiasm and simplicity.

Now, I think there are millions of people who could do as well, but they haven't come out of the woodwork yet, and I implore people who are listening to this program, if they think that they can do better and I am sure they can, please come and offer yourself to the television people.

GROSS: You use the word "simplicity" -- that you could do this with simplicity. What do you mean by that?

BECKETT: That people can understand me.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BECKETT: I consider it a mark of cloudy thinking to use difficult words or to suggest that anything is beyond the comprehension of your viewers or your listeners. One can explain anything, perhaps not the complexities of science, but when it comes to the arts, they're there for enjoyment. They're there for everybody. They're our birthright.

And they -- this should be made obvious to people. And because it seems that I have the good fortune to be able to do that, I think I would be very selfish if I was to say I don't want to do it. I want just to stay in my silence. I think I have to draw a line and say I can only do so much of it -- you know, two weeks here and then two months back home and then another two weeks et cetera.

But I think that's a sacrifice that I'm called upon to make because any gift any of us have is never just for us. It's for sharing.

GROSS: Do you -- have you seen this as a sacrifice? Or have you welcomed the opportunity to actually be in the world? See the world?

BECKETT: Oh, no, no. It's a sacrifice. I would be delighted if I could, say, hand -- hand over the task to somebody else. No, I would never have wanted to do this and I sometimes look at the Lord with a rather quizzical air. You know, I was so lucky. I had all that wonderful solitude and silence. And then, he asks me to give up parts of it.

Well, if you -- if I really want to love and serve him, then I must try and do this with as big a smile as I can manage, but it would never have been my choice.

GROSS: Now, have you ever watched television?

BECKETT: Well of course, we haven't got a television and I wouldn't want to watch television. But when I'm in the hotel filming, then I have seen some television.

GROSS: But until you were actually shooting the series that we're about to see on PBS -- "The Story of Painting" -- did you see TV before you were -- yeah?

BECKETT: Well, that's not my first -- that's not my first series, you know.

GROSS: OK, true. OK, before you started doing series' for the BBC -- yes.

BECKETT: No, I had not seen television.

GROSS: So the first time you really saw television was when you were making it yourself?

BECKETT: Well, I don't like watching myself either. But this, I suppose, was helpful, in that I didn't really know what I was agreeing to do.

GROSS: To...


You didn't know what any of the kind of general wisdom ...


GROSS: ... is about TV or what any of the rules or assumptions are.

BECKETT: No, I didn't know what was involved. No.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BECKETT: I didn't know what was involved, so I just went -- it seemed to me they were suggesting I should do something that was going to be useful for people and I thought: well, why not?

GROSS: Well, let me ask you this -- you don't, I know you don't have a mirror and you don't gaze at yourself in mirrors. What was it like to see yourself on TV? I mean, did you even know what you looked like?

BECKETT: It is deeply humiliating if you look like me. I've seen a picture of you, and for you it might be quite nice to see yourself on television. But when you have a great fat face and protruding teeth and large glasses, it's very good for the soul -- very purifying -- to see how deeply unattractive one is.

GROSS: So you almost see it as penance when you...


... see yourself on TV.

BECKETT: Yes, yes, it's hard to take -- bad for my vanity. See, when you don't see yourself, you can think you're -- you're more elegant looking than you actually are, and then you have your nose rubbed into it.

GROSS: Were you self-conscious as a girl? And did self-consciousness have to do with you becoming a nun at all?

BECKETT: No, I don't think I was self-conscious. I've always known I was plain, but it doesn't matter very much; doesn't matter very much for television either. I think it's an encouragement to people to see that I'm plain 'cause this is not some dazzling beauty which makes them special, as beauty always does, telling people about art. This is somebody who looks just like their old Aunt Agatha.


GROSS: Well, you know you are one of the rare people who is allowed on TV without being beautiful.


You know, TV is very kind of exclusive in that respect.

BECKETT: Yes, and it's dangerous, you see, because it makes the ordinary people feel that what happens on television is in this kind of fairy world. It doesn't affect them.

GROSS: Right.

BECKETT: And I want art to come into their lives and affect them. So I think -- I think God did well in not giving me the dangerous gift of beauty.

GROSS: My guest is Sister Wendy Beckett. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Sister Wendy Beckett.

When you decided to say "yes" to the BBC offer a few years ago, when you first started working with the network, did you have to justify it to your religious order? Or, did they encourage you to accept the offer of the BBC?

BECKETT: Well, I'm in a rather unusual position as a nun. I'm a consecrated virgin and I live under the protection of the Carmelites, but I am not a Carmelite. But, they act as if they were my order. So of course, I can't do anything without discussing it with the Reverend Mother Rachel, who's a great friend of mine.

And she's always been completely trusting. She says: "Wendy, if you think it's a good thing to do, go ahead." Now, that was how they greeted the idea of the first series. And then the BBC, bless them, came down with a television and the tapes to show the sisters.

And since then, they've been very keen on the idea, because they would see what it was offering to people. So my sisters, to whom I don't talk, but who -- whom I love very much, they are sorry for me, but certain in their own minds that this is something that I'm still called upon to do.

GROSS: They're sorry for you?

BECKETT: Well, yes -- to have to leave silence? They're very sorry for me. Very grateful that God hasn't asked it of them, and of course he couldn't because as Carmelites, they are strictly enclosed. They couldn't do it. And I wish that God had had the forethought for me to become a Carmelite, but I wouldn't be able to do it either.

But I'm in the no-man's land, you see, where I can accept the offer if it seems right to me. And it did seem right.

GROSS: Well, just to explain: you had joined a teaching order, the Order of Notre Dame...


GROSS: ... and then asked for a life of seclusion and you're living now on the premises of a Carmelite...

BECKETT: That's right.

GROSS: ... order. So that's why you're in the middle of two worlds...


GROSS: ... but really the order that you're a part of is a teaching order not the Carmelite order.

BECKETT: And my first order, my only order, the Sisters of Notre Dame de L'emure (ph) have been also very supportive and enthusiastic. They also know how painful it is for me not to have the total uninterrupted contemplation that I had for 27 years.

But it won't last, you see, this television. And now that I'm aging, I can perhaps see release in sight.

GROSS: Is that how you think of it: "release?"

BECKETT: Yes. It will be a release.

GROSS: You know, I think many people find it hard to understand why someone would opt for a life of seclusion and silence. For example, silence and seclusion -- silence and isolation -- are often methods for punishing people. You know, we think of that as a hardship.

BECKETT: Remember, it means for me: I'm alone with God. And this is something I've longed for from babyhood, to be able to spend my life with God shining on me; to be spread out before Him and for God to take possession of me.

So it's -- it's a tremendous joy and privilege for me to be given this. And in fact, I feel I've won one of the very great prizes. I can't think of anybody in the world who is more fortunate than I am.

GROSS: I think in a way it's especially surprising that you would choose a life of silence because you're clearly so verbal -- so articulate.

BECKETT: Yes, but -- I am articulate and talking, as you can see, comes easy to me. But it's not what I would choose to do. I call it "bouncing the ball" and I can do it for a bit, and then I simply cannot do it anymore, partly because I think when I do talk, I talk with all my energies. If I could only kind of do it half-flow, I might be able to do more of it.

But I'm not a constantly flowing stream. I can -- I can flow with great energy, and then it dries up. I just long passionately, and in a kind of hungry, needy way, to be back in solitude, which I suppose indicates that I'm a rather inadequate sort of person. But that's -- that's true of me and I have to live, as we all have to, within the parameters of what we are.

GROSS: Now, you've said that you've never known doubt. I can't imagine what that feels like, to have never known doubt.

BECKETT: Well, I can't imagine what it feels like to doubt. But I will say this, Terry, that whenever I'm talking to people...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BECKETT: ... about religious things, I'm able to throw myself into what it's like for them. And a lot of the things I say are not things I know for myself, because I don't feel that, but I know other people do. And I make an imaginative leap into what life is like spiritually for most people.

I, for some reason, was not strong enough as a person to be able to bear the burdens and the temptations that most people have and grow closer to God by coping with. I -- I have been exempt from that, obviously, because He could see I wouldn't be able to manage.

So it's not a -- it's not because I'm good. It's because I'm not good that I think I've always had this complete certainty about God -- the only certainty. I could doubt anything else, but that God is and that God is total love. No, no -- that I've never doubted.

GROSS: You once said: "I'm like a singer with perfect pitch, only what I was given was an abiding and constant sense of what God is." I'm wondering if your parents were religious.

BECKETT: They were religious, but not in any sense a kind of pious way. But it was quite clear to me that God mattered to them. They would never have missed Sunday Mass for example.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BECKETT: But there wasn't a lot of Rosary-saying in the house. It was a -- it was a very happy house because my parents were such loving people. And I didn't -- I didn't realize that grownups ever, ever quarreled or raised their voice or said spiteful things. I thought that was just children. Because neither of my parents, I think, knew what malice was.

So, I was very lucky.

GROSS: Were your parents pleased when you told them that you felt that you were called?

BECKETT: Well, I never had to tell them.

GROSS: They just knew?

BECKETT: Well, we -- it was taken for granted in the family because I had been certain since I was a very small child. If I told them when I was three or something, I don't remember it.

But it was taken for granted and I can remember my mother sort of shaking her head one day and saying: "it makes me so cross, Wendy. You're going to be a nun and everyone will think what a saint you are. And only I will know what a difficult child you have been."


BOGAEV: Sister Wendy Beckett's new book is "Sister Wendy's Nativity." Her TV series airs on many PBS stations. We'll hear more of Terry's interview with her in the second half of our show.

I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.

BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

And we're back with Sister Wendy Beckett. She's a nun who lives a life of silence, study, and prayer. Occasionally, she breaks her silence to host a BBC TV series on art history which also airs on PBS stations nationwide.

Sister Wendy has a new book for Christmas about the life of Christ as told in art. It's called "Sister Wendy's Nativity."

Terry spoke with her last year about her paradoxical life.

GROSS: Now, I know that a good deal of the time that you've been studying art, you've -- you know, you've been doing it in seclusion in your trailer, so you've been looking at reproductions and posters and postcards and pictures. When did you actually get to a museum?

BECKETT: When I wrote my first book, which was contemporary women artists, the publishers, which were Fidon (ph), the great art publishers, asked me if I would mind if they took me to look at one work that I'd written about -- just to see if what -- if it would change my opinion. And they did. And I said that's exactly what I thought it was like. And I don't need to look at any of the others.

So I suppose that was the first time. I have been to a few exhibitions when I've been out working for the BBC. I don't go to contemporary exhibitions anymore, but I've been to some of the masters and I'm usually allowed to go in when it's closed to the public.

But you know, when you go into museum, ideal though it is in many ways, you've got to walk around and there are all those other works calling for attention. There's something very pleasant about sitting in your own space with your card up and silence and time.

GROSS: So you feel that you can get everything from a postcard reproduction of a painting that you could get from being in front of the painting itself?

BECKETT: You can get a lot. You have to read up about the artist to make certain you're imagining the texture right. For example, Rembrandt has often very thick, lumpy paint. And you need to know that when you're looking at the work. And you must know what the dimensions are, so that you can imagine it right.

But with all that, yes, you can get very close. And I think this should be a great comfort for all the people who know they can't get to museums. People tend to think: "I can't get to any of the world's great museums or even to a small museum, so art must be a closed book to me."

No, they're wrong. You can get enormously close if you're prepared to take the trouble.

GROSS: What was it like for you to go to the Sistine Chapel? And I'm thinking in part, you know, of the great paintings there, but I'm also thinking of what it's like for you to go from this life of denial, living in a trailer, to being in this, you know, just beautiful and ornate...

BECKETT: But it all seems very unreal.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BECKETT: And I enjoy it more when it's over and I'm back home again and I can think back on it, if that makes sense to you.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BECKETT: You know, sight-seeing is terrible, but having sight-seen is wonderful.

GROSS: What I'm wondering -- if you find that approach to a place of prayer beautiful or ostentatious?

BECKETT: Well, it's only technically now a place of prayer. My ideal place of prayer has nothing in it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. I think some of your viewers over the years have been surprised that you're not prudish around paintings of nudes.

BECKETT: Well, remember I'm a Catholic. I'm a Christian, which means we know that God made the body. I've been baffled by the sense that some people feel the body's a kind of "no no" and certain areas of the body God clearly made a terrible mistake and we should try and hide his ignominy from other people.

GROSS: Well, I think it's also that a lot of people assume that the church is uncomfortable about nude portrayals of the body, and in fact I think parts of the church have been very reactionary about certain art and art exhibitions.

BECKETT: Well, the church isn't -- the church's business is the church, isn't it? It wouldn't be appropriate to have nude females draped all around the interior of a church. And if any church was to say they really would rather not have these paintings, I think they would be absolutely right -- everything in its rightful place.

And the naked body is sometimes the only way an artist can portray his meaning, when it isn't -- it's not artistically right.

GROSS: I think TV really changes people's egos. I mean, I think it's easier to get a really big ego if you're, you know, doing on a TV and watched by a lot of people and so on. And your life of prayer is about, like, losing ego. I mean, that's in part what it's about.


GROSS: Do you ever get a sense of conflict between the way that television builds ego and your desire to lose ego? Or, is that not affecting you at all?

BECKETT: I would say television is a very purifying medium.


You're perpetually exposed to your inadequacies. No, I think I've learned a lot about what a poor lover of God I am through working on television. It has certainly made me long much more passionately to be purified than I think if I hadn't had this exposure.

GROSS: Well, let me stop you. You say it's taught you that you're a poor lover of God. I could see you see yourself on TV and it's taught you that you have thick eyeglasses or you have a space between your teeth or something...

BECKETT: No, no -- I didn't mean because I'm ...

GROSS: ... what do you mean by that it's taught you you're a poor lover of God?

BECKETT: Ah, yes, because I'm -- I get impatient with what they do. I get angry, which I never get, of course, in the caravan, you see, so I didn't really know I had a capacity for anger.

GROSS: I see. I see.

BECKETT: But you were thinking about the Guernica -- I was really angry. I had to really struggle to do this with good grace. I did not want to. And that having to cope with an emotion I was quite unused to was very good for me.

GROSS: Let me say before we have to wrap up the interview that I really appreciate your talking, and I feel like it must be -- I don't know what your attitude is towards interviews -- whether you see it as very intrusive to have to not only talk, but have to explain your life of not talking. It's a very strange predicament to be in an interview like this for someone like you.

BECKETT: Well, if it doesn't hurt your feelings, Terry, no one could want to be interviewed, I think.



GROSS: I completely understand what you're saying, believe it or not.


BECKETT: But it's -- again, if people have spent money making these programs, publishing these books, you owe it to them to try and make the thing a success. Also, I mean, the fact that I've done it means that I think it matters that people should see this art and if this is going to help, well why hold back and say: "well, I've done enough." Press on. One day I'll fall dead at an interview and then I'll feel I've given the whole lot.

GROSS: Well, I thank you very much for talking with us.

BECKETT: Thank you, dear Terry.

GROSS: And I really wish you the best.

BECKETT: Thank you.

BOGAEV: Sister Wendy Beckett, her new book is "Sister Wendy's Nativity." Her BBC art history series airs on many PBS stations.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Sister Wendy Beckett
High: Sister Wendy Beckett has a new book out for the holidays, "Sister Wendy's Nativity." Beckett is a member of the Notre Dame order, a teaching order of nuns and a celebrity. In 1980 she began the serious study of art, and has since written the books: "The Story of Painting: The Essential Guide to the History of Western Art" and "Sister Wendy's Grand Tour: Discovering Europe's Great Art." She hosts the popular PBS series, "Sister Wendy's Odyssey," "Sister Wendy's Grand Tour," and last year's 10 part series "Sister Wendy's Story of Painting."
Spec: Art; Television and Radio; Religion; Holidays; Sister Wendy Beckett

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Sister Wendy Beckett

Date: DECEMBER 11, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 121102NP.217
Head: Frank Rich
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:40

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: Frank Rich doesn't think he quite earned the nickname "The Butcher of Broadway," but his reviews were said to have had the power to make or break a show. For 13 years he was the chief theater critic for "The New York Times."

Four years ago he left the theater beat to write an Op-ed column which appears twice weekly in "The Times." A new collection of his theater reviews has just been published, it's called "Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for `The New York Times,' 1980-1993." It includes reviews of the big hits from that period such as "Angels in America," and "M Butterfly."

The book also features essays about the toll AIDS has taken on Broadway, and Rich's tribute to the prominent critics Kenneth Tynan and Walter Care. Terry spoke with Frank Rich in 1994.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The assumption was, during the years that you were the first string critic, that you could either kill a show or make it into a huge success. I'm wondering how true you think that was and whether the thought of that possibility would weigh on you as you were writing your review, or if that's something you tried not think about.

FRANK RICH, FORMER THEATER CRITIC, "THE NEW YORK TIMES"; AUTHOR, "HOT SEAT": Well, first of all, it's part of the mythology of the job, and it was true before I was a "Times" drama critic, it was true when there were seven newspapers in New York when I was a kid.

The "Times" drama critic is always considered to have this make or break power. It's extremely exaggerated. Of course, occasionally, a "Times" review can make a big difference pro or con. There are a couple of examples, but not many during my 13 years.

But usually the shows that are the big hits in New York -- that reflects a consensus of opinion. People could say, oh, "New York Times," Frank Rich made "Guys and Dolls" a hit, or made "Tommy" a hit, or "Angels in America" a hit.

In fact, they got unanimously favorable reviews, or close to it, from all the major newspapers and magazines. So why would "The Times" be entirely responsible? The same thing is true with the flops.

However, in doing the job, to answer your second question, I always tuned it out because, frankly, as a journalist that was none of my business. My business was to tell the reader, as honestly as I could, what I felt about something and that's who I had in mind -- the reader who might have to spend fifty or a hundred bucks to see one of these plays and spend an evening there. My heart was with the reader.

GROSS: When you were reviewing theater were you self-conscious about that moment when you'd walk into the theater and walk down the aisle, and people were probably turning to each other and saying, "It's Frank Rich, "The Times" theater critic."

RICH: Not terribly. First of all, I don't think I was so recognized until, maybe, the last couple of years when I started to be more on TV and stuff like that. But I learned to tune it out, it wasn't part of my job.

Even before -- even when I was fairly unknown I always knew that people were planted around me to scream and yell in my ear, and say things like, "Gosh, isn't that the greatest performance you've ever seen in your life."


One minute after it began...

GROSS: ...Where they really planted there?

RICH: They really were planted there. I'll never forget taking one of my two sons, who was then quite young -- he probably was 9 or 10 years old, to an incredibly dreadful murder mystery which shall remain nameless.

It was the first time he came with me when I was reviewing something, and we went to a matinee and it was supposed to be this funny murder mystery. And it was completely unfunny, and also you could figure out who did it about 15 minutes into the show.

Well, behind us there are a couple of men, I'd say, in their early 60s who are just slapping their legs and screaming with laughter at every silly line. And afterwards, as we were leaving the theater, my son turns to me -- he's this little kid, he says, "Dad, what was going on? Why were those people laughing so much?"

And I said, "Well, they were planted there by the management, they're trying to influence the opinion of critics like me." And he said, "But, Dad they were grown-ups. I can't believe they did that."


The -- so that kind of stuff goes on all the time. You just learn -- learn to turn it out. Similarly, there's a converse to that which is that sometimes through happenstance, a show postponing its opening several times in such a way that they're letting the critics, at a date they hadn't originally planned on -- and the audience, unfortunately for them, in their view is filled with real people who are not necessarily part of a clack.

That audience can be very hostile to a show that you find yourself liking, and you've got to fight the impulse to be influenced by that too. A classic example is a show where I feel I did make a difference, Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George."

That show postponed so often, by the time the critics went they had no choice but to let us go on a theater party night when the audience is very jaded, somewhat elderly, very suburban, it was very daring show, and there were lots of walkouts, and lots of hostile response, and tepid response.

And I was sitting there crying, I was so moved by the show. And so, I learned to tune out that just as I learned to tune out the false cheers of shows that were not so good.

GROSS: The producer David Merrick was alleged to have said, about you, "Mr. Rich made many contributions to the American theater, none more great than to leave his post as theater critic."

What was between you and David Merrick that would lead him to say such a thing, or to at least have been reputed to say such a thing.

RICH: Not much really. Merrick -- the absence of people like David Merrick is really one thing that's hurt the theater very badly. I'm a David Merrick fan, I grew up in his heyday which had passed, really, by the time I became a drama critic. There were only a couple of shows that he did in the 13 years I was there.

He always had vendettas against "New York Times" drama critics, and he would use them to sell his shows. And this was the case when I was critic, but it was brilliant when I was growing up, you know, he did famous stunts such as take out ads with fake quotes by critics who had the same names of "The New York Times" drama critics.

He baited one of my predecessors by attacking him on the Johnny Carson show for a half-hour. Another one he had distributed as a Christmas gift a supposedly pornographic novel that this critic had written as a young man, and was thought to have vanished from the face of the earth. Merrick found every copy, like, in a Paris bookstore and gave it to the entire New York press corps.

He was a great showman, and the truth this that I didn't know him, and my fondest memories are as a teenager. I took tickets for a lot of his shows, and I thought that was the theater -- what the Broadway theater should be, not that he wasn't -- couldn't be a jerk.

And he was, you know, a mean guy, I'm sure. But nonetheless, he did incredible stuff from, you know, "Look Back In Anger," and "Marant Sade" (ph) of one extreme to "Gypsy," and "Hello Dolly" at the other.

I only had him at the end of his career, and he said that about me because I'm sure I didn't like "42nd Street" enough -- which is one of the first shows I reviewed, and one of the last shows, sadly, that he produced.

GROSS: There were a couple of almost legendary feuds that you got in during the years that you were theater critic. And without really going into them, I'll say that the things that were said about you include that there was a personal nastiness, sometimes, behind what you wrote.

And another comment was that you had strongly influenced, not only aesthetic direction of theater, but the artistic personnel, the style of content of American theater. How would you respond to both of those things, starting with personal nastiness?

RICH: The first thing is easy -- I'm not saying that I couldn't be tough, and I can certainly be a very tart writer. I hope I was. But there was nothing personal going on because I didn't know the people I was reviewing.

One of the things that was -- that's important to "The Times" about any of its drama critics or critics in general, is that we don't know the people we're reviewing. I didn't go to the Tony awards, I didn't know David Merrick personally or someone, say by David Hare, to given example of someone who took strong exception to what I wrote about some of his work, although I like a lot of it. I didn't know David Hare.

So, I think that's what's always said about bad reviews no matter who writes them. As far as influencing artistic trends in the theater, I think artists are very independent people, and do not -- good artists don't write what critics or journalists or anyone -- or, you know, their parents or their spouses or their loved ones tell them to write.

I do feel, and I'm proud of the fact, that I championed certain kinds of theater while I was a drama critic. I had a very strong point of view, and I very much stand behind it.

It is true that, probably, because I extravagantly praised Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," to take a recent example, when it was being done in a very small theater -- a very small stage in the National Theater in London.

It probably did influence the decision of Broadway producers to take a chance on it and bring it to New York at, no doubt, huge costs given the length and kind of play it is. Yet, I'm fine about that. I think that that's -- art like that needs advocacy, and frankly, I think that if I was the only one who felt that way about "Angels in America" it would have failed.

It hasn't failed because, obviously, it rings a chord with a lot of people. There are other things I didn't champion, I was not a fan of the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Weber, and...

GROSS: ...Boy you had a lot of influence there.

RICH: I had exactly zero influence, exactly. But, you know, here's an example of someone who, every time I knocked one of his shows -- and I didn't knock all of them -- and I didn't knock them uniformly, would give out interviews saying it was a personal attack on him -- I've never met Andrew Lloyd Weber.

I just know what I see and here, and I also -- again, as you said, I had no effect there. That's fine too. I think that the public has to be given credit for knowing its own mind, and if people want "Phantom of the Opera" they're going to find it, and they're going to embrace it even if "The New York Times" critic doesn't like it.

BOGAEV: Frank Rich spoke with Terry Gross in 1994. His new collection of reviews and essays is called "Hot Seat."

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Frank Rich
High: Once one of the most powerful reviewers in America, "The New York Times" former drama critic, Frank Rich, has published a new collection of his reviews called, "Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for "The New York Times," 1980-1993. When he stepped down in 1993, it was considered a great day for many playwrights. The British press once dubbed him "The Butcher of Broadway." Playwright David Mamet called him "a terrible unfortunate blot on the American theater." Some playwrights and directors even chose to take their work elsewhere to save themselves from a review by Rich. But he's also been called, "One of the most gifted critics ever to write for a newspaper...a rare and brilliant talent.
Spec: Entertainment; Media; Frank Rich

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Frank Rich

Date: DECEMBER 11, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 121103NP.217
Head: John Powers
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: "A Simple Plan" is a new suspense film by Sam Raimi, who's best known for such horror movies as "The Evil Dead." John Powers has this review.

JOHN POWERS, FILM CRITIC: American movies have become so routinely brutal that I get faintly depressed each time I hear about a new crime picture. Which is one reason I was so unexpectedly moved by "A Simple Plan." A beautiful new thriller which owes more to the Old Testament than to "Pulp Fiction."

Bill Paxton stars as Hank Mitchell a decent man with a loving wife, Sarah, played by Bridget Fonda; neighbors who respect him, and a steady job at the local feed store. But all that changes when Hank, his brother Jacob -- that's Billy Bob Thornton, and Jacobs yahoo buddy Lou stumble across a small snow covered airplane containing one dead pilot and $4 million.

Thinking it dirty money, they decide to keep the cash little realizing they're opening Pandora's plane. Within minutes, they've entered a nightmare of galloping paranoias, shifting loyalties, and seemingly necessary murders.

Greed doesn't merely corrode the trios moral sense, it salts old wounds; the resentments, failed dreams, and long buried rivalries that were uncovered along with the snow encrusted plane.

"A Simple Plan" was written by Scott Smith whose original best seller was a terrific piece of pulp. His script is even better. In cutting his tale to fit the demands of the screen, he's created a story that's leaner and more powerful than his book. The twists keep coming with clockwork precision, but we never lose sight of the character's complexity.

You've got the financial desperation of the loutish Lou or Sarah's horror when Hank decides they shouldn't keep the money after all.


BILL PAXTON, ACTOR: I've got a plan! I'm taking the money back right now! All of it!



FONDA: Hank!

PAXTON: I'm going to put it back, and everything is going to be just like it used to be.


FONDA: Is that what you think? Is that what you think you want? Walking off to the feed store every morning for the next 30 years waiting for Tom Butler to retire or die so you can finally get a raise?

What about Amanda? Do think she's going to like growing up in somebody else's hand me down clothes? Playing with some kids old toys because we can never afford to buy her anything new?

PAXTON: Don't say anymore.

FONDA: And me. What about me?

POWERS: Even as Fonda gives the best performance of her career, the movie is carried by Bill Paxton an actor routinely cast as good old boys or sleazeoids in pictures like "True Lies" and "Twister." But he's at his best in movies like "One False Move," and "This One," where he plays ordinary men who must confront confusion, and pain, and their own fatal weakness.

Hanks desire not to get caught makes him a scheming menace. Yet, he's genuinely burdened by others unhappiness. He's never been more heartbreaking then when he finally grasps just how lonely and empty his brothers life really is. Jacob isn't just a millstone, but a lost soul.

Although Thornton's Jacob looks like a derelict auditioning to play Garth in "Wayne's World," he comes bedecked in nerdy glasses and goofy long hair, his performance rises to moments of genuine greatness. He's thrillingly good in the movies best scene when Jacob must choose between his closest friend Lou, and the brother who has always found him an embarrassment.

The movie marks the artistic maturation of Sam Raimi, the 38 year old director best known for cartoonish, half good pictures like "The Evil Dead" and that silly Sharon Stone western, "The Quick and the Dead." For the first time ever Raimi doesn't sacrifice everything to jokes and eye popping visuals. "A Simple Plan" is a film of enormous delicacy and restraint.

Using snowy landscapes and a muted palate, Raimi fills his serpentine plot with compassion for human frailty, making us feel the stifling smallness of life in a declining Midwestern town. We agonize as the characters keep taking wrong steps that only compromise them more deeply. And we feel the biblical resonances of the story that finally hinges on the tortured relationship of two brothers.

Most neo-noirs are simply an excuse for hip wise cracks and jocular cruelty. But here, Sam Raimi recaptures the human dimension of theft and murder. In this film, crime has an emotional weight that crumples some characters, brings out some protective violence in others, and reveals the widening of sadness that runs through daily life. Moody, intricate, and quietly devastating; "A Simple Plan" tells us that nothing human can ever be simple.

BOGAEV: John Powers is film critic for "Vogue."

For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Washington, DC
Guest: John Powers
High: Film critic John Powers reviews "A Simple Plan" by filmmaker Sam Raimi. The quiet rural lives of two brothers erupt into conflicts of greed, paranoia and distrust when over four million dollars in cash is discovered at the remote site of a downed small airplane.
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Sam Raimi

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: John Powers
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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