Sundance: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper Doc Explores "Life of Privilege and Loss"

Paul Porter/BFAnyc/Sipa USA
Anderson Cooper and mother Gloria Vanderbilt

Oscar-nominated documentarian Liz Garbus' 'Nothing Left Unsaid' examines Vanderbilt's storied life of excess and tragedy, and how suicide took one son and scarred another: Cooper's "willingness to go there and ask some of the hardest questions made it a very rich experience."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

When HBO president of documentary films Sheila Nevins first approached director Liz Garbus to make a documentary about Anderson Cooper and his mother, Garbus had one question.

"Who is Anderson Cooper's mother?" she recalls.

Given his more generic last name, people often forget or are unaware of the fact that the silver-haired CNN anchor hails from the iconic Vanderbilt family and that his mother is none other than famed heiress Gloria Vanderbilt.

In her new film, Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper, Garbus explores the relationship between the two — an idea that was hatched by the 48-year-old newsman, whose dusty boxes of home movies and archival pictures were begging for cinematic treatment. The film, which has its world premiere at Sundance on Jan. 23, offers a glimpse into the mother-son bond never seen before, with Cooper trying to process before the camera the suicide of his older brother, Carter, who at 23 jumped to his death from Vanderbilt's 14th-floor balcony in 1988, with his mother in the room.

"Anderson had been on this search to know her better and felt this film would represent the extension and completion of this search," says Garbus. "He had been shooting video and asking her questions since he was in his 20s. I found it to be a really interesting generational story — this extraordinary life of privilege but also of loss."

Vanderbilt, now 91 and worth a reported $200 million, has been in the public eye for nearly a century, first as the so-called "poor little rich girl" who sparked a nasty custody battle that played out in the press in the early 1930s (the original "trial of the century"). Her life story spawned movies (Little Gloria … Happy at Last), best-sellers (written by and about Vanderbilt) and more iconic imagery than Marilyn Monroe ("I made a film about Marilyn Monroe, and the photographic and film archive of Gloria Vanderbilt dwarfed Marilyn," says Garbus).

But Garbus felt there was a major disconnect between the persona and the woman, whose Hollywood paramours included Errol Flynn, Frank Sinatra and director Sidney Lumet, who was her second of four husbands.

Still, Garbus, 45, wasn't interested in doing a movie that merely serviced someone else's vision. After all, the Brooklyn-based director is a two-time Oscar nominee (landing her second this year for What Happened, Miss Simone?) and is accustomed to having complete editorial control.

"It was interesting because Anderson is in the media business, but there was nothing he or Gloria asked us to stay away from or pull out," she says. "There was no change I was asked to make that I didn't think was a good idea."

Garbus also enlisted Cooper in the very role in which he is most effective: She had him sit down and interview his mother, probing for answers about Carter's suicide, her fabled romances and the early death at the age of 50 of his father, author and screenwriter Wyatt Cooper.

"His willingness to go there and ask some of the hardest questions made it a very rich experience," says Garbus. "One of the most interesting things that she says in the film is, 'Once you accept that life is a tragedy, then you can start living.' "

HBO will air the documentary on April 9.