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“He told everyone he was the greatest through publicity, and they believed it,” Karina Longworth says. “From the very beginning of his career he disseminated lies, people bought them, and he got away with it.”
The host of film-history podcast You Must Remember This isn’t talking about President Trump, though her account bears an uncanny resemblance to him. She’s describing 20th century industry power broker Howard Hughes, who’s at the center of her new book, Seduction: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, which profiles 10 women he dated and worked with (decades before #MeToo), from Lana Turner to Katharine Hepburn. Though Hughes has long fascinated historians — he has been the subject of over 10 biographies as well as a Martin Scorsese movie — Longworth was more interested in telling stories about the women who crossed the film mogul’s path personally and professionally. “Whenever I hear that so-and-so was famous for having slept with a lot of women, I wonder what the women felt about that,” she says.
Longworth, 38, who’s the offscreen partner of Star Wars: The Last Jedi helmer Rian Johnson, has become a prominent voice in Hollywood since she launched You Must Remember This in April 2014: Her podcast has been name-dropped on Netflix’s Dear White People and by Chloe Sevigny and Gillian Jacobs. Guest stars have included John Mulaney, Fred Savage and Patton Oswalt. Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige and Pixar’s Pete Docter have both told THR that they listen to You Must Remember This when commuting.
“I’m happy for anyone to listen,” is all Longworth will say about her A-list fan base, but she’s passionate about anything that gets people talking about historic films (“Hollywood needs to really take its history seriously as art”), including the sensational ones of Hughes.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Longworth discussed Hughes, acquiring bootleg editions of old movies for book research and the demise of the FilmStruck streaming platform.
How did this book get started for you?
I had done some podcast episodes about the actresses in Howard Hughes’ life, and I was talking to my book agent about ways in which we could use the podcast to generate book ideas. It just seemed like a no-brainer because I had done some research about actresses involved with Howard Hughes, so I could use that as proof of concept. But I knew that there was much more to learn and much more to write about so that it wouldn’t just be a blog-to-book or podcast-to-book: It would be a deeply researched work on its own.
You’ve talked about plenty of fascinating characters on You Must Remember This. Why did you choose Howard Hughes as a figure to connect all the women you write about?
I never thought of it as a biography of Howard Hughes; it was always going to be using him as the catalyst to talk about these actresses. But one thing that’s useful about Hughes is that he arrives in Hollywood in 1925 and he started to disappear at the end of the ’50s, and that is the exact period that historians consider the Classical Hollywood period, which is the height of the studio system as it was constructed at that time, and then the decline. Hollywood film was at its peak, and definitely at its international and cultural dominance. So it’s always interesting to have an excuse to talk about that era, and Hughes is this incredible Zelig figure who has a hand in every major transition during that period. And then he’s involved with all these actresses who are also experiencing all these changes in Hollywood and are subject to all of the different conditions that are related to that.
How did you first come across the idea that you could use Howard Hughes as a way to talk about these women?
It seemed like what he was partially known for is being a playboy. Whenever I hear that so-and-so was famous for having slept with a lot of women, I wonder what the women felt about that. And so I just thought it would be more interesting talk about the experiences of the women and how they perceived Hughes, and what their experiences were like being involved with him professionally or personally.
Especially toward the end of his life, Hughes treated women he was interested in romantically as property, putting surveillance on their tail and restricting their social lives. Did Hollywood’s culture at the time allow for these kinds of abuses of power?
Sure. I think a lot of people knew that he was doing this stuff and nobody thought it was really a problem. There’s some stuff in my book where Jane Russell is defending him for these kinds of behaviors, and she basically says that any woman who was complaining about this was misguided because they got to have a free apartment and free acting classes — [as in,] most women would have felt lucky if Howard Hughes were sexually pursuing them. So, yeah, I think that the culture was definitely not thinking this was a problem.
There’s a quote from Ginger Rogers about Harry Cohn, who ran Columbia, and she said, “Oh, he was a real ladies’ man. He used to chase us all around his desk.” Harry Cohn was somebody who would intimidate actresses into having sex with him in his office. And to refer to that behavior as ladies’ man behavior is not something that we would do today. So all that is really interesting to me — to look at the past and look at things that are different from our point of view today.
Could Howard Hughes exist in the entertainment industry today, or was he a product of his time?
I really don’t like to make comparisons like that between that era and today because what I see as the studio system in the 20th century was such a different thing in the way it was economically structured, the power structure of it, the way it interacted with America and the rest of the world, than anything is today. So no: Nobody could have the same power relationship that they had then, today; it’s just different. Other than that, I don’t think it’s that useful to make direct comparisons.
In researching this book, did you revisit a film and have a different read on it than previously?
Outlaw is a film where I had seen the famous image of Jane Russell in the haystack and seen the movie a couple times, but reading about the many, many years she spent crafting a publicity campaign for it and all of the elements that went into that made me really understand the extent to which the movie is a dramatization of rape fantasies. Which [Hughes] then put into the publicity, so that he was actually trying to [sell] to viewers the idea of watching a woman who didn’t want to have sex with a man have sex with that man. He was selling that as, like, a fun time at the movies: That is not something I had ever really understood about The Outlaw before.
What have you learned about the nature of power in Hollywood at that time, especially given that Hughes was a maverick and outsider who quickly gained power?
I guess the most surprising thing is how much of it was bullshit. In this way that is very commonplace to do now, but wasn’t as commonplace or sophisticated generally then, he told everyone he was the greatest through publicity, and they believed it. From the very beginning of his career he disseminated lies, people bought them, and he got away with it. Something that I learned and that the book revealed in a way that maybe hasn’t been before is the extent to which Hughes and publicists that he employed for the entirety of his public life — and even after he receded from public life — shaped an incredible image of him that was often not only not true, but very knowingly fake, so that there would be an image of him in the public sphere that was a complete distraction from what was really going on.
Did you get the sense that he was a good marketer himself, or that he heavily relied on publicists?
His publicists should get more attention than they do because Lincoln Quarberg and Russell Birdwell really went above and beyond. But he had that instinct that few people really have of the importance of presenting himself. He was a salesman, a really good salesman. A lot of his instincts were extremely base: Almost all of the successful marketing he did has to do with things as ludicrous and stupid as selling the image of boobs. But he wasn’t wrong.
He was really pushing the envelope in some of his marketing tactics, like when he challenged the Hays Code [a set of moral parameters governing films released from 1930 to 1968]. Did the ways that he pushed the system affect it in later years?
Absolutely. He is maybe more responsible than any single person for breaking down the Hays Code because he consistently antagonized it and basically pushed them to change their way of doing things. Other filmmakers did as well, but nobody was as committed to it as him.
The other way in which he has a huge impact on the future of Hollywood is that when the studios were basically asked by the government to divide their exhibition and production businesses, every studio was united in trying to fight it, and they all thought they were going to be able to negotiate to be able to keep some of their theaters. But when [Hughes] bought RKO he went against every other studio and he accepted the government’s first offer — because of that, everyone was forced to sell their movie theaters, which ended vertical integration and basically caused the studio system to collapse. So the Hollywood moguls already hated Howard, but this didn’t help.
What could people in Hollywood who listen to your podcast learn from what you uncovered about Hughes and the women he was involved with?
I hope that people learn about actresses and films that maybe they wouldn’t have seen before, and I hope that they see them. That’s at the core of the reason why I do any of this: I don’t want film history to die, I want it to be preserved, and I want people to watch these movies — the good ones and the bad ones, all of it — and understand the history of Hollywood better. And hopefully that can lead to a better system of preservation. We’re really at a disastrous point where physical media has disappeared and streaming has not caught up. And studios for the most part do not do a good job of preserving their own history, and I think that’s really tragic.
On that note, how did you feel when you heard that FilmStruck is going to shutter?
It’s extremely disappointing, especially considering how limited the average person’s access is to the archive. It’s not entirely surprising because I don’t think anybody’s figured out the business model for this kind of thing: We’ve become so used to things like Spotify where certain types of media are absolutely available and completely on-demand, and in the film industry — and particularly the archives of the studios — there’s just a long way to go to get there. People have to drastically alter their business models if it’s ever going to happen. And I don’t know if it will, because the studios are so focused on selling new products.
For this book, how did you end up watching some of the movies that you cite, from Hell’s Angels to the more obscure titles?
Hell’s Angels is available on DVD, like a lot of them. Some of them I watched on illegal streams on YouTube. A few of them were kind of challenging and I had to basically buy bootleg DVDs. But the one that I thought for a long time I basically wouldn’t be able to find was Vendetta, which is the film that Hughes produced over a very long period to showcase his mistress Faith Domergue. At some point, some prints survived and the movie aired on TV and somebody taped it. Now you can buy a bootleg DVD of that tape from television. I was definitely resorting to stuff like that, because that movie does not exist in archives.
If you had the ear of a film preservationist, which film that you watched for this book would you argue should be preserved today?
I will say it wish it was easier to see the movies of Billie Dove, particularly the two movies she made with Lois Weber, one of which I wasn’t able to see, The Marriage Clause. As far as I know there’s no complete print of that film; there’s an incomplete print at the Library of Congress, and I wasn’t able to get there. And then the other one, Sensation Seekers, I don’t know if it’s actually bootleg, but I bought on a very, very, very low-quality DVD that’s available. I think a lot of people aren’t aware of it, but we’ve lost a lot of film history already, so what we do have access to is so important to get out there. I guess it’s not a commercial proposition, but somehow art museums have survived. I think Hollywood needs to really take its history seriously as art.
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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