Q & A: GRAYDON CARTER ON “Tales From Hollywood”

Tales From Hollywood Author and Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter

“Tales From Hollywood” Author and Editor of Vanity Fair magazine Graydon Carter.

ZAMM.com’s Martin Grove spoke recently to Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter about his new book “Vanity Fair’s Tales From Hollywood” published by Penguin Books.

Carter, who’s edited the magazine since 1992, hosts its annual Oscar night party and owns the Waverly Inn, one of New York’s most “in” restaurants. In “Tales” Carter showcases 13 articles that have run over the years in Vanity Fair about the making of some truly memorable movies.

For the most part, the articles show how haphazard the moviemaking process can be. Most of these films started out one way in terms of their casting and ended up quite differently. Nonetheless, most of them turned out to be hits and decades later are classics to one extent or another.

The list includes Joseph Mankiewicz’s “All About Eve”, Alexander Mackendrick’s “Sweet Smell of Success”, Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons”, Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause”, Jean Negulesco and producer Jerry Wald’s “The Best of Everything”, Joseph Mankiewicz and producer Walter Wanger’s “Cleopatra”, Mike Nichols and producer Larry Turman’s “The Graduate”, Mel Brooks and producers Sidney Glazier and Joseph E. Levine’s “The Producers”, John Schlesinger and producer Jerome Hellman’s “Midnight Cowboy”, Mike Sarne and producer Robert Fryer’s “Myra Breckinridge”, Ken Russell’s “Tommy”, John Badham and producer Robert Stigwood’s “Saturday Night Fever” and Warren Beatty’s “Reds”.

Q: I enjoyed your book very much and will definitely be recommending it. Two of the pieces were about some all-time favorite films of mine — “All About Eve” and “Sweet Smell of Success”.
A: A lot of these are my favorite films and they were very much evocative of the time and helped capture that time and place in America. So over the past 15 years of the (Vanity Fair) Hollywood Issue we decided to put the greatest ones together in a book.
Q: You can’t read this book without realizing how frequently things change when it comes to putting movie projects together.
A: In the casting for “The Graduate” Mike Nichols had originally wanted Gene Hackman to play Anne Bancroft’s husband (played in the film by Murray Hamilton) and Candice Bergen to play the part that Katharine Ross eventually got.
Q:: I liked Sam Kashner’s article where we learn how Mike Nichols didn’t discover Dustin Hoffman until after he’d already auditioned Robert Redford and Charles Grodin to play Benjamin Braddock. And in Sam Staggs’ piece about “All About Eve” we see the same sort of thing — Joe Mankiewicz’s first choice to play Margo Channing wasn’t Bette Davis. (Mankiewicz really wanted Claudette Colbert, but she hurt her back and was out of action. Davis wasn’t even his second choice. Darryl Zanuck, who was running Fox, wanted Marlene Dietrich. Mankiewicz didn’t want Dietrich. He thought Gertrude Lawrence would be perfect, but she said no. So Bette Davis was something of a last resort.) These articles are also interesting because they let us see how the old Hollywood studio system worked.
A: They sort of met their match in “Cleopatra”. I mean, you went through two entire studio regimes on that movie. When you read the story, you feel badly for everybody. The movie, itself, if you go back and look at it is terrific.
Q: I enjoyed David Kamp’s article about the film and how it suffered from the then scandalous affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. During filming Fox production head Buddy Adler passed away and Peter Levathes took over. And it also was interesting to see how we have “Cleopatra” to thank for L.A.’s Century City. (The film’s $44 million budget — about $300 million in today’s dollars — forced Fox to sell its 260 acre studio in West Los Angeles to the Aluminum Company of America for $43 million. Fox leased back 75 acres so it could continue to shoot movies there and the rest of the real estate was turned into the business area that became known as Century City. Ironically, the film wound up doing well for Fox and cracked the break-even point in 1966 when the studio licensed it to ABC for $5 million.) But not all the films in your book turned out to be successes.
A: It’s kind of wonderful reading about a movie that became a great bomb like “Myra Breckinridge”.
Q: Yes, in Steven Daly’s article we see how “Myra” turned out to be a disaster for Fox. (Like the rest of Hollywood, Fox was trying to find material in the late ’60s that would appeal to the newly discovered youth audience. They hired Mike Sarne, a young British pop singer at the time, to direct the film. Fox had just paid $900,000 to acquire the movie rights to Gore Vidal’s very controversial best-seller.) Besides novels, we see in your book how the studios in those days were also finding movie material in magazine pieces. (“All About Eve” originated as a short story called “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr in the May 1946 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. “Sweet Smell of Success” was adapted from a 1948 Collier’s short story by Ernest Lehman called “Hunsecker Fights the World”. And “Saturday Night Fever” was inspired by the article “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” by Nik Cohn in the June 7, 1976 issue of New York Magazine.) Reading the articles you’ve run in Vanity Fair about all of these films, it’s clear that you go way beyond the kind of superficial coverage of movies that the media does today.
A: What we do is we tell stories here. The back story of the making of a movie is usually some great fascinating tale of dead ends and obstacles and if the movie is memorable that’s all the more remarkable when you read these things (and see) how easy it is to go wrong in any given area. But I do think that giving that sort of space and the pictures we do in the magazine, it’s almost like a documentary on the page.
Q: Is there another big movie piece on the horizon?
A: In the next Hollywood Issue, the March issue, we have a big, big long piece on the making of “The Godfather”. These stories do have a beginning, middle and end to them, which is also quite satisfying if you’re an editor or a reader. You know how they come out.
Q: That’s true. And even if we know what happened in the end, it’s still interesting to find out how the filmmakers actually got there.
A: I’m assuming that if you are in the movie business, it’s either highly inspirational or instructional.
Q: How did Vanity Fair get into doing this kind of in-depth coverage of movies?
A: “Cleopatra” was one of the first. One of the reasons we got started on this was because Tina Skouras, who was the granddaughter of Spyros Skouras, was working in the fashion department (at the magazine) and she started telling us about some of these stories and that sort of really got us going. We have a great respect for the durability and romance of Old Hollywood. I mean, it’s harder to find it out there now, as you well know, but it’s there. I think that sometimes it takes an outsider to see it whereas if you’re there all the time it may just go past you. We have a healthy respect for anybody who can tell a story well because that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about camera angles or the rest of it. (With a film like) “Slumdog Millionaire“ you’re not going for the lavish sets. You’re going because they told you a great story.