When Patrick McGilligan began work on Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, he knew barely anything, or as he puts it, "just slightly more than my mother," about the life of the German director who fled to America during Hitler's rise to power. What he found (including tales of sadism, revisionism regarding Lang's relationship with the Nazis, and shady circumstances regarding the death of Lang's first wife) makes for an exciting read -- but beyond the luridness, the book is as rigorous and serious as McGilligan's earlier books on Hollywood luminaries such as George Cukor, Jack Nicholson, and Robert Altman. Ask those who genuinely know about such things to pick the best practicioners in the film biography field, and McGilligan's name is sure to be close to the top of every list. He started out as a film reviewer, but that didn't last. "Film reviewing made me a biographer in a way, because I really hated reviewing films," McGilligan says. "I still hate sitting down and watching the movies over and over. People who watch the same movies year after year are beyond my ken. When I see a movie by Cukor or Lang, I'm interested in the circumstances, the details, the facts behind the production. Usually, those shed more light on the film than any review. They explain a lot about the creative processes involved and what the films ultimately do reveal about their makers." McGilligan is also the co-editor of Tender Comrades, a massive (about 900 pages) collection of interviews with people who were working in Hollywood during the blacklist era. "I think it's going to blow people's minds," he enthuses. "These are very articulate people. They know how to talk about the blacklist, and can talk about it, much better than I can. All I did... is turn the tape recorder on and talk to them. The thoughts, the ideas, and the stories in the book are all theirs." Whether he allows people to speak for themselves or orchestrates their lives into a full-scale biography, very few people are as effective as presenting life stories as Patrick McGilligan has proven himself to be.
RH: What draws you to a particular project?
PM: The honest answer is always the contract. There's a dishonest answer: "The subject is personally fascinating and has a deep personal subtext for me..." But the only book I ever really did without a contract was one on Jimmy Cagney which I wrote as a college paper that evolved into an article which evolved into a book.
I have three kids, and at a certain point in the early '80s I decided I didn't want to work in an office for a living anymore. I decided to work for myself on projects that wouldn't be immediately thrown out the window to blow away in the wind. Books, no matter poorly they sell or how badly they're received, stay in libraries. Collectors treasure them. If you write well enough, they'll stay in print -- right now I have all of my books in print except that Cagney book and a biography of Ginger Rogers I rarely admit to. That doesn't mean I'm making a lot of money from all those books, although I do make some. What it means is that the books are pretty definitive, authoritative, well appreciated...and they sell enough copies for publishers to keep them on the backlist.
RH: How do you pitch a project to your editors?
PM: I haven't had to write proposals in a while. Ten years ago, when I was doing fifty page proposals on Lucille Ball and Jimmy Stewart, I realized it was just a game editors play with their boards. Now that I have a great reputation, get good reviews, and don't lose money for anybody, I try to get right to the point. I tell editors, "Look, here are three or four subjects that I think would make wonderful books, each of which I could spend three years on without going crazy. Tell me which one you'll pay me enough to write so I can afford to live." I don't put things on the list that don't interest me. There were some very disparate people on the list when Lang was selected. Jerry Lewis was on that list; so were Clint Eastwood and Alfred Hitchcock, and ideas for a social history of Hollywood in the '60s or a look at the French New Wave.
And they'll make suggestions, too. The editor of the Clint Eastwood book had originally gotten back to me and asked, "Well, how about Oliver Stone?" I thought it was interesting, but I wondered if anybody would really want to read it because he's so overexposed. But I went along with the idea and wrote a seven-page proposal which he took to the board. They rejected it. That's the last proposal I've really written.
Editors have enormous hardons for this subject or that subject, and you just have to get straight to the point and find out if you're talking to the right person. If you've got an editor who says to you, "Stanley Kubrick's the greatest American filmmaker," but you think he's terrible, or don't really much care, you're having the wrong conversation, and you have to immediately get somewhere else.
RH: Does your comparative freedom allow you to avoid subjects that have already been exhausted?
PM: Not necessarily. As I said, I'm doing Hitchcock next. I was talked into that one. He's a great subject, and we're coming up on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. The publisher was willing to pay the biggest advance I'd ever gotten, realizing that while I probably wouldn't come up with anything as controversial as what I found on Lang, they'd love to have a definitive centennial book on Hitchcock with my name attached, and that's attractive to me. There will never be another book on either Cukor or Lang whose author won't have to read my entire book first and react to it, but I don't expect [the Hitchcock biography] to be as groundbreaking or earthshaking as either of those two books.
You never know, though. I've been working on the Eastwood book, which comes out next year, for three or four years now, and he makes Fritz Lang look like a piker... It's quite shocking. It'll be more shocking, more startling than any book I've worked on. It's so contrary to your general impression of Eastwood. And it's so current. If I tell you Fritz Lang killed his first wife in 1920, well, it's too late to react. In the case of Clint Eastwood, there's greater immediacy. He could very well walk across the street and punch me in the face for this book and what I write about him.
RH: This'll be the second major Eastwood bio in three years.
PM: Sure, but I completely debunk that other one. I can forgive people who are enamored of their subject. What can you say to somebody who tells you that Clint Eastwood is as great as John Wayne? If that's what they really think, fine. But the journalistic, historical aspects of that project were virtually nonexistant, and I think Schickel knew a lot that was left out. So in a sense it's dishonest. In a sense.
I first proposed this book ten years ago, before Eastwood was coronated and sainted by Hollywood. I just thought he'd be an interesting subject. I had no idea if he was good, bad, ugly, or what. I just thought he'd be a good subject, and it turns out that he's a remarkable subject. People who read [Schickel's book] will be in for a big shock when they get mine. My book is utterly convincing, completely factual, completely truthful. The sources are astonishing and the outcome is the complete opposite of Schickel's book.
I do try to find something that I like about each person I write about. I search hard to like them or their movies. Otherwise a book feels, and reads, very sour. It's how I generally feel about people; show me a shitheel and I can find something to like about them. But I don't think it's very honest to look at somebody and find everything about them to be to their own advantage.
RH: What were some of the things you found out about Lang that you liked?
PM: There are three or four really masterful films.; the two that almost everybody agrees about are Metropolis and M. You can forgive a lot for artistic genius. If somebody murders and maims, is abusive and rotten, and is a shitty artist besides, what's the excuse? But this was a guy who put a lot of his torture, sadism, and perversity into his films, and it shows. They're fantastically entertaining, involving, one of a kind movies.
A lot of people I met hated him. The vast majority of people I spoke to who knew Lang did not like him, but a small number who did like him did so passionately that it was a little convincing... I found much more to like about George Cukor. For one thing, his movies are more likable. And he had a completely admirable life; apart from a crusty, bitchy personality on occasion, he was a very humanistic, generous person throughout his entire life.
In the end, I'm not sure I like Fritz Lang per se. But I did end up with incredible, grudging admiration for his career and his ability to stay on his feet for so long. And in the end, I think he was a very poignant, wiser and more compassionate figure in the last years of his life. I find that kind of change to be very moving.
More Beatrice Interviews|
Colin Harrison | Bernhard Schlink
All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan