BROOKE GLADSTONE: Standing for one’s principles, as we’ve heard, can sometimes be a fraught proposition. Sometimes you have to bend your morals, sometimes you have to risk your livelihood or even your liberty.
Released this week, The Post, Steven Spielberg’s tick-tock of how the Washington Post decided to publish the Pentagon Papers, touches on this idea too. Post publisher Katherine Graham agonizes over whether to defy the government and jeopardize her paper for the sake of the truth.
KATHERINE GRAHAM: Oh gosh, oh gosh because, you know, the, the position that would put me in, you know, we have language in the prospectus.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Our colleague Sara Fishko sits right next to us here at WNYC and she overheard some of the themes we were discussing (we are pretty loud) and offered us a piece she’d been working on about truth, lies, politics and the movies.
SARA FISHKO: Before this moment, certain lies had a kind of seductive quality.
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For example, it’s just 40 years since a film called Julia opened to great acclaim. It went on to sweep the Oscar race with 11 nominations and three wins. The film was based on Lillian Hellman’s story of the same name from her memoir, Pentimento, that had been on every self-respecting bookshelf in 1973.
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It relates in detail the friendship between the author, played by Jane Fonda --
LILLIAN HELLMAN: As the years went on, she wrote angrily of the threat of fascism.
SARA FISHKO: -- and Julia, her very good friend. The movie version, with a fair amount of first-person narration, builds to a gripping scene in the 1930s.
JOHANN: We would like you to carry for us $50,000.
SARA FISHKO: When the Hellman character, Lily, agrees to cross treacherous international borders --
JOHANN: We think you’re safe but we cannot assure you.
SARA FISHKO: -- in order to smuggle money to her friend who is by that time engaged in underground anti-Nazi activities.
JULIA: We can only do today what we can do today.
SARA FISHKO: That’s Vanessa Redgrave as Julia.
JULIA: And today you did it for us.
SARA FISHKO: While it’s a touching story about courage, friendship, politics and conscience, it turned out a lot of it wasn’t true. Certain real-life events Hellman wrote about seemed untraceable. Someone even came forward who strongly believed her own life was the model for the Julia character, even though she and Hellman had never met. Hellman never addressed that claim one way or the other.
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The Lillian Hellman saga of disputable facts became a preoccupation of several biographers and writers, notably the late writer/director Nora Ephron, who zoomed into Hellman's longstanding feud with the author and critic Mary McCarthy. It was McCarthy who managed to make the most convincing and the most entertaining accusation against Hellman in 1980, a devastating and much quoted remark, which Ephron talked about later in an interview.
NORA EPHRON: Mary McCarthy famously went on The Dick Cavett Show and said of Lillian Hellman, “Every word she writes is a lie -- including ‘and’ and ‘the,’ which is, which is, of course, one of the great witty, vicious remarks ever uttered and for which Lillian Hellman sued her immediately…
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SARA FISHKO: Ephron wrote a whole play, with songs, no less --
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Who are you, anyway? You’re what’s-her-name who made the mistake of choosing Lillian Hellman for an enemy. You’re that writer I sued!
SARA FISHKO: -- in every way riffing off of the dislike of these women for one another.
MARY McCARTHY: You sued me for the fun of it.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I do like a good time!
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER][END CLIP]
SARA FISHKO: “Imaginary Friends,” it was called. Fred Zinnemann who directed the film Julia said of Hellman, “An extremely talented, brilliant writer but she was a phony character, I’m sorry to say. My relations with her were very guarded and ended in pure hatred.”
After a while, nobody believed anything she said. She wrote a good deal about her decades-long relationship with Dashiell Hammett, which Gore Vidal famously defined with one quick question: “Did anyone ever see them together?”
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As for Julia, the self-serving story of commitment and risk is hard to look at now, knowing what we know or don't know about the facts. And the film is even hard to find, an indication of its fall from grace.
BOB HOPE, HOST: Welcome John Travolta, right here.
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SARA FISHKO: It’s interesting to note that Redgrave, who played the title character, was handed her Best Supporting Actress Academy Award by John Travolta --
JOHN TRAVOLTA: And the winner is Vanessa Redgrave in Julia.
SARA FISHKO: -- who had recently catapulted to overnight stardom in Saturday Night Fever, which is also celebrating its 40th anniversary right now, and which was also built around a deceptive bit of material, namely a New York Magazine article called, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” billed as a piece of journalism documenting real Brooklyn characters living the disco life, which was later revealed to be pure fiction, not a real person in it. The author, Nik Cohn, later admitted, “My story was a fraud.”
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In that case, nobody seemed to mind and the movie became a touchstone at a time when people actually wanted to leave Brooklyn, come to Manhattan and never look back.
Naturally, I might not be thinking about all this, except that we’re all thinking about it, the framing of falsehoods as truth and whatever consequences might result or might not.
After all, our own Commander-in-Chief similarly left Queens for Manhattan, invented a narrative of his own successful deal making and convinced just enough people it was true.
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Of course, he's had many cultural models among the great truth benders, and it used to be so amusing seeing them put one over on everybody, in movies like The Great Imposter with Tony Curtis as Ferdinand Demara.
FERDINAND DEMARA: Be yourself, life is real, life is earnest. Now where’s the fun in that?
SARA FISHKO: A real person born in 1921 who masqueraded as a prison warden, a Trappist monk, the teacher, a doctor. He breezed into town and then breezed out. And people just shook their heads, what, he wasn’t a real doctor, with a kind of jolly score by Henry Mancini. It was 1961, after all. It didn’t seem that serious to be putting all your faith in a complete, if brilliant, liar.
A bit darker is the film Catch Me If You Can, the real-life story of a charming teenage multi-million-dollar check forger.
FEMALE BANK TELLER: Welcome to Miami Mutual Bank. How may I help you?
FRANK: I’d like to cash this check here and then, then I’d like to take you out for a steak dinner.
SARA FISHKO: Darker still is The Hoax --
CLIFFORD IRVING: I’m working on the most important book of the 20th century.
SARA FISHKO: -- where a frustrated writer, Clifford Irving --
CLIFFORD IRVING: It’s unprecedented.
SARA FISHKO: -- brags and exaggerates his way to a very public book deal on the basis of a rare interview with Howard Hughes, which, as it turns out, doesn’t exist.
Something in us once loved to see government agencies, publishers, powerful figures and just plain folks fooled by these brazen fakers, though they all got caught. But these days, even a dagger from Mary McCarthy may not cut so deep. It’s just descriptive. Everything he says is a lie, including “and” and “the.” Right. And in this plot, what happens next?
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But in a sweeping gesture, the film, The Post, another story set in the ‘70s, a true and truly dramatic one, is realized for us now by Steven Spielberg, who apparently dropped a couple of other projects to rush it onto screens for this holiday season. It’s about the effort by a newspaper, as well as women and men of principle, to make public classified documents, the Pentagon Papers, which revealed longstanding government lies about the Vietnam War. To see a slick mainstream movie, big stars, pulsing music, all helping us relive a moment of urgent cultural history, is like seeing some strange comet landing from a past time, when truth, of all things, won out.
It’s Fishko Files. I’m Sara Fishko.
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova—Burgess, Jesse Brenneman, Micah Loewinger and Leah Feder. We had more help from Monique Laborde, Jon Hanrahan and Sarah Chadwick Gibson. And our show was edited -- by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Sam Bair.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.
* [FUNDING CREDITS] *