From the treasure trove of interviews within the AFI Archive comes “Hollywood: The Oral History,” an ambitious and captivating love letter to the history of film, from the silent days of cinema to the Classic Hollywood studio system to the rise of New Hollywood and beyond. Its authors, Jeanine Basinger – who is also a Trustee of the American Film Institute – and Sam Wasson, take audiences on a remarkable journey through the film industry’s complex and nuanced history, through the lens of nearly 3,000 filmmaker interviews amassed in the AFI Archive. Using a conversational approach, they’ve woven together individual interviews featuring the candid remarks of stars including Frank Capra, Bette Davis, Edith Head, Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, Jordan Peele, as well as the wide array of below-the-line workers who flocked to the dream factory known as Hollywood.
We sat down with Jeanine and Sam to learn more about some of the surprising discoveries they made along the way, which Hollywood misconceptions they hoped to counteract and why they think the AFI Archive is a unique and invaluable capsule of film history.
AFI: You had unprecedented access to thousands of HLMS interviews from the AFI Archive. What was the spark for writing “Hollywood: The Oral History”?
Sam: When I encountered all of these seminars from the AFI Archive, I thought, oh my god, the whole history of Hollywood is here. Given that so many of these interviews hadn’t seen the light of day, it seemed like a felicitous opportunity to bring these people together and create what Jeanine and I conceived of as the greatest conversation about Hollywood ever from the inception to today.
Jeanine: When Sam found out how many interviews there were, how varied they were and how they covered the whole history of film, it was a no-brainer for us to think that these need to be known about. The filmmakers really talk in great detail and very honestly about what their jobs were, what they did, how Hollywood worked, the pros and the cons and, when you add them all up, you have an incredible picture of professionals coming to work every day and all trying to work together to make something very special.
It’s incredible when you realize that the American Film Institute started these interviews in the late ‘60s when AFI was formed, so people like Lillian Gish and Harold Lloyd and Hal Mohr – who shot THE JAZZ SINGER, were all alive and available to be interviewed. You really have the history going back to the very first days, and that was something we loved about it – that we could really start at the beginning of film where someone is saying, “well, of course I didn’t plan to work in the movies. How could I? They hadn’t been invented yet.”
AFI: What was your collaboration like in working together to assemble all of these AFI interviews?
Jeanine: We had an absolute blast doing this. We printed copies of the interviews and went back and forth. We couldn’t resist calling each other up every day and saying, “listen to this.” I felt that I knew something about the material, but it was so much greater, richer, deeper, more provocative and interesting than I had imagined. Although it was very, very hard to do the conversational approach. It’s a credit to Sam for really hanging to that idea because it was challenging. Before we tapped into all the oral histories, it was harder to put the older days together, but then we were able to manage it and it was fun.
Sam: By weaving the interviews together, we wanted to convey the feeling of people coming together. Such an important part about making movies is bringing people together, so to isolate the interviews would have almost seemed anti-Hollywood to me.
AFI: Were there any Hollywood myths you were trying to dispel in writing the book?
Jeanine: The early years of Hollywood through the studio system, that’s a subject that modern Hollywood likes to deal with or make movies about, and they’re often so cruel and ugly. The lens with which people today often want to look at old Hollywood is a modern lens with the distortions that are suitable to the issues that we’re trying to grapple with in the modern age. We’re not saying it was a playground of the innocent, but what we discovered is that these people were having fun. They were working together like families and being flexible to get their way. They would negotiate with each other. They all knew the system they were in, and they knew they were under control, but they found ways to get around it and to cooperate with each other. The picture of the actual “punch the clock” work-a-day world of Hollywood, of the old studio system, was far more positive than the portrait one often sees or hears about.
Sam: That was an important part in doing this book, relearning that Hollywood was a fairly happy place because people were allowed to work at the top of their creativity and intelligence. It constantly baffles me when the culture nails it for being a Sodom and Gomorrah-type place when, in fact, as this book proves again and again, it was the exact opposite. Because these are all first-person accounts, hopefully people will see that this is the real history of Hollywood, and all of the conjecture and prejudice won’t survive a record like this that really can’t be disputed. Are you going to tell George Cukor that he was wrong about the way it was? It’s also not just one person’s account. We have hundreds of people telling their stories.
AFI: You include the experiences of so many below-the-line workers who are often overlooked, not just Hollywood stars. Can you talk about the decision to highlight these essential workers?
Jeanine: All credit to the American Film Institute for having included below-the-line filmmakers in these interviews in the first place and trying to create a portrait of the working system of Hollywood as opposed to just a big-name star or director. If you’re going to discuss Hollywood, you’ve got to talk about the workforce. Filmmaking is a collaborative art form. It takes a lot of people to make a movie, and they all had their own specialized jobs to do.
I love it when editor Margaret Booth talks about how, when she went home after work, she would look around at all the men on the Red Line and think, “I make more money than them.” Because she did! The film business employed her, as well as a lot of women and paid them more money than other people were getting. Here you have more representation because of that depth than you would normally. As I always say, when film was born, it wasn’t a boy. Nobody knew what it was. They kind of looked at it, and thought, well, editing is kind of like sewing, and storytelling is something women can do, and we’re going to need costumes and makeup, so they let women in. It’s the vertical integration when the studios became big where it shifted, but still, by comparison, there are a lot of women working in significant jobs in the Hollywood studio system.
Sam: Hollywood becomes what the audience needs it to be. It has to in order to survive. It can’t be there just to amuse the 1% or it would fold. As soon as America changes its mind about what it needs, Hollywood slowly turns the giant cruise ship around to face the new direction.
AFI: With so many incredible interviews from the AFI Archive, what surprised you most over the course of writing this book?
Jeanine: It is really the cumulative picture of all of these interviews put together – a completely detailed and accurate, although not unopinionated, portrait of what it was like to be in Hollywood working in the studio system. Frank Capra was unbelievably articulate, as was Charlton Heston, as was Walter Plunkett. When Katharine Hepburn tells you that Louis B. Mayer really tried to help Judy Garland, it’s something to think about. Hepburn had no reason to say that if it wasn’t true, particularly since it was a private interview.
These records really provide a clear portrait of what Hollywood was like, how it evolved and how it met change, including the crises of talkies arriving, of World War II, of the union issue and of the HUAC investigation. It’s about an American forward-moving attitude, about getting up and getting it done, and moving forward and achieving your goals. It just shows you a picture of life in America that’s bigger than Hollywood in a way.
Sam: It was amazing to see Hollywood come up against what screenwriter William Goldman famously said, which is “nobody knows anything,” and that’s sort of the glory and the madness of it is that it really is a slow improvisation. You see that time and time again in the book with people coming up against problems and then trying and, for the most part, succeeding in resolving them. I think that’s one of the glories of having all of these creative people coming together who are the best and the brightest.
AFI: What do you think is unique about the AFI Archive, and why is it so important to film history?
Jeanine: It’s the personal point of view of people who are talking about their reality and their day-to-day life. They were also talking to students at the AFI Conservatory, so they’re making a maximum effort to be truthful, and to share and articulate clearly the issues that these people will be facing if they go forward in filmmaking. They’re talking with a purpose and striving to be honest, and I think that is what really makes it unique.
Sam: I don’t know of another oral history archive of Hollywood that’s as big as this one. As long as AFI keeps it up, it will always be the best.