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The Eavesdropper: Lillian Ross

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The Eavesdropper: Lillian Ross

In Lillian Ross’ 1952 Picture, believed to be the first making-of-a-movie book, director John Huston described Hollywood as, “a closed in, tight, frantically inbred, and frantically competitive jungle.” Ross is that jungle’s most experienced and attentive zoologist.

For over half a century, she has chronicled the industry’s aesthetic and financial turf wars in the pages of The New Yorker. The job produced 11 books, including Picture (about Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage, (originally published as a series titled “Production Number 1512”) but also the anthologies Reporting (1961) and Reporting Back: Notes on Journalism (1961); Moments with Chaplin (1962), about her long friendship with Charlie Chaplin; The Player: A Profile of an Art (1962, co-written with her sister Helen Ross), a series of actor profiles written in first-person; the satirical novel Vertical and Horizontal (1963); and most notoriously, 1998’s Here but Not Here, about her long affair with New Yorker editor William Shawn.

Ross’ career will be celebrated February 23–28 at the Museum of Modern Art with a tribute titled Pictures in Print: Lillian Ross & the Movies. The series kicks off tonight with a conversation between Ross and New Yorker articles editor Susan Morrison, and continues with a series of screenings of films she wrote about. Ross, who is sometimes described as a pioneer of so-called “literary journalism,” is mainly known as a profile writer. Her breakthrough piece, published in 1950 when she was just 23, followed Ernest Hemingway on a trip through Manhattan, as he shopped and had champagne and caviar with Marlene Dietrich. Since then, she’s profiled all sorts of people, from Adlai Stevenson to the Republican party’s top 2004 donors (“Money Honeys”). But she’s best known for her depictions of artists and entertainers. Over the decades, she’s written about everyone from Sidney Poitier, François Truffaut and Federico Fellini to Anjelica Huston, Warren Beatty and Wes Anderson.

Her pieces are never mere personality sketches, though. Whether writing tight “Talk of the Town” pieces or mammoth features, Ross places her subject’s quirks and obsessions in the context of his or her industry. Detractors would call her approach excessive, even punishing. Her 1966 piece on Otto Preminger—about the director’s attempts to stop Columbia Pictures from selling his nearly three-hour courtroom drama Anatomy of A Murder to TV as part of a “package” of films, where it was sure to be butchered by editors—sprawled over 44 pages of the magazine. But there are advantages to reporting at length that do not exist in shorter form: the ability to seem to live with a subject, and observe him not just during dramatic high points, but moments of reflection, even boredom; and to spend time with other people as they describe how they see the subject, and how they believe he sees himself.

The Preminger piece—which is broken up, like many Ross articles, by screenplay-style subheads (“EXTERIOR. NEW YORK CITY. EARLY ON A COLD, SUNNY MORNING AROUND THANKSGIVING, 1965”)—doesn’t just give you immense amounts of information about Preminger’s career, the remnants of the studio system during the heyday of network TV, and the still-nascent idea of artist’s rights; it also shows you Preminger interacting at length with his family, his driver, his lawyers and his various employees, and gives you a voluminously detailed look at Preminger’s opulent life, which included a collection of antique paintings, books and furniture that circa-1966 museum staffers must have read about with Kleenex in hand. (“On the wall near the entrance are built-in bookshelves, the top shelves occupied by leather-bound sets of Goethe and Schiller in German; the lower shelves are occupied by modern novels, encased in their paper dust jackets. Hanging on the pillar with the wraparound table and facing the desk and illuminated by a spotlight is a delicate abstract painting by Kandinsky with a pure, clear deep-blue background. On the walls, in addition to the Picasso, are paintings by Klee, Diego Rivera, and Graham Sutherland.”)

In the more epic Ross articles, the detail is Balzacian in its excess. But once you’ve immersed yourself and swum through to the end, you feel as if you actually visited a certain place and spent time with certain people. The difference between a typical daily newspaper profile and a super-long Ross portrait is the difference between a nightly news piece and a documentary by Frederick Wiseman; the illusion of unfolding real time (including stretches where not much happens) is a deliberate part of the artist’s aesthetic. (It is also—for those who prefer brevity—a major downside.)

Ross disliked the phrase “literary journalism.” She also seemed uncomfortable being characterized as the ancestor of Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Gay Talese and the like (though that’s exactly what she was). She described herself only as a journalist with a personal style. Explaining her approach in Reporting Back, Ross wrote:

“The old fictional portrayal of the journalist—at his desk, fedora on his head, pecking away at the typewriter, cigarette drooping from a corner of his mouth, a half-full whiskey bottle near at hand—is for the birds. Some of my former colleagues who followed that way of life found that it was damaging to their work, to their productivity, to their lives. A marvelously talented tennis player, Monica Seles, was asked recently why she goes on playing competitive tennis. She replied: “It’s what I love to do, and it’s given me a special and wonderful life.”

Controversially—to pretty much any journalist born after 1950—Ross resists using a tape recorder because, “To me, the machine distorts the truth. It’s a fast, easy, and lazy way of eliciting talk, but a conversationalist is not necessarily a writer. Tape-recorded interviews are not only misleading; they are unrealistic; they are lifeless….Literal reality rarely rings true.” She prefers taking notes in 3 x 5-inch spiral Clairefontaine notebooks with a micro-point Uni-Ball pen. Again, from Reporting Back:

“I make sure to write down key, identifying phrases and words that help me remember the rhythm and context of what I’m hearing. Then I’m able to reproduce long exchanges. When I’m working against an imminent deadline, I have the theme of the story in mind as I report, and I’m able to write my story from my notes. Often, I prefer to transcribe my notes as soon as possible in a way that makes it easier for me to remember exactly the way the talk, especially the dialogue, went. Invariably—and from the time I started doing this work—I found that I’ve had a sense of what the “story” should be right away, and, as I’d go along in writing it, there has been a certain mystical force—something outside of myself—that takes over and the story seems to write itself. Once that force takes over, it makes the work seem delightfully easy and natural and supremely enjoyable. It’s sort of like having sex.

Ross has said she avoids making overt value judgments. In a general sense, this rings true; there’s no Americana-in-amber quality to her prose, as there was in Capote’s In Cold Blood, and no Wolfe-style, exclamation-pointed, Song-of-Myself rapture. Ross is a cooler customer—more like Hemingway or Hammett, holding her cards close. Nevertheless, writers reveal their opinions in their choice of what to leave out or put in, and particularly in what details they place on a spot-lit pedestal. In reading Ross’ 1982 article about Francis Coppola’s flop big-budget musical One from the Heart, once can tell that Ross sympathizes with, or at least likes, Coppola, a blustering renegade forced by marketplace realities to sell an experimental feature as if it were a new brand of shampoo. She highlights without mockery his refusal to air clips of the movie on TV because they would give potential ticket buyers an oversimplified or incomplete view of the film’s totality. One gets the sense that Ross saw Coppola as a kindred spirit; she doesn’t gloss over Coppola’s gaseous auteur pronouncements, but she takes his seriousness seriously. In the part of the article where Coppola has to hawk the film on morning happy-talk programs, Ross writes, “On Good Morning America, Mr. Coppola followed Olivia Newton-John singing ’Let’s get physical’ and Erma Bombeck giving a homegrown report titled, ’The Cost of Wives.’” Unspoken addendum: See what this poor bastard is up against?

Ross’ dryly descriptive reporting—which meticulously reproduced conversations that seemed extraneous until one finished the piece—put her subjects at ease, and encouraged them to reveal themselves with unsettling frankness. In the Coppola profile, the filmmaker breaks Hollywood protocol by disclosing his deal with the studio, down to the number of prints and the advertising budget. Ross’ 2002 piece on Tony Curtis—in which Curtis dons tap shoes to play a supporting role in a stage musical version of one of his greatest movie successes, Some Like it Hot—captures an actor whose career seems devoted to conquering his fear of people he admires (including the famously blunt Hot director Billy Wilder, who responded to news of the actor’s son’s death from a heroin overdose by declaring, “He learned it from you”). Seen solely through quotes and description, Curtis’ relentless eagerness to be loved comes through with agonizing clarity; ditto the remnants of Curtis’ hardscrabble upbringing, which give his lavish lifestyle an air of desperation—a sense that perhaps, deep down, he feels he doesn’t deserve his success, that it could be taken from him in a heartbeat. (A telling detail: Curtis is a painter who does not hang his own paintings in his house, “...because, he explained, he doesn’t believe in making holes in the walls to hang them.”)

Although Ross turned down offers in the early 1950s to go to Hollywood and become a screenwriter, her knack for setting a scene and capturing a life in small gestures makes her best work read like documentary film on paper, with or without the screenplay tags and shot lists that mark some of her better known pieces. Her writing can be witheringly cold in its account of people making fools of themselves, but it’s balanced with warm admiration for artists whose craft expresses their personalities. Of Huston, Ross wrote, “In appearance, in gestures, in manner of speech, in the selection of the people and objects he surrounded himself with, and in the way he composed them into individual ’shots’ and then arranged his shots into dramatic sequence, he was simply the raw material of his own art.”

Matt Zoller Seitz is editor-in-chief and publisher of The House Next Door, a contributor to the The New York Times film section, and a former columnist for New York Press and The Star-Ledger.