What trials unite Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins and many of literature’s most interesting heroes — and you? Matthew Winkler takes you through the crucial events that make or break a hero as based on the works of Joseph Campbell’s A Hero With a Thousand Faces.
Playwright August Wilson adapts his Pittsburgh-based play of the same name, Fences, which won a Pulitzer Prize in the late 1980s, as a movie for Paramount. The result, directed by actor Denzel Washington (Book of Eli, Philadelphia, Taking of Pelham 1,2,3, Malcolm X), who co-stars with Viola Davis (Prisoners, Doubt, The Help), is affecting.
Fences is about the folks next door. I knew this when I saw it at the Pasadena Playhouse with Angela Bassett (Malcolm X, What’s Love Got to Do with It) and Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix, Boyz N the Hood). It’s heavy drama about life’s give and take, energy expense and how daily living leaves you feeling spent. Fences‘ easy, natural rhythm in a Western Pennsylvania family’s ordinariness lulls the audience into making too little out of what comes on at first as a bit too strong.
Mr. Washington, whose acting in lesser moments tends to come on too strong, understands the dense material, which is not easily disposed to cinematic adaptation. He lets Wilson’s liberal use of the word nigger disarm the audience and grant a pass to see black people in their middle class, middle century, middle American urban enclave. All the trappings are here, if you think about it: the angry black man, the strong black woman, the young buck.
But Fences is not driven by race. In glances, meltdowns and gestures, Fences shows the toll that mixing tradition, religion and romanticism take on a man, a woman, a friend, a marriage and a family. Before hip hop, Bill Cosby and Michael Jordan, at the dawn of the American exceptionalism of Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente, there was the uniquely post-war, pre-Civil Rights era of migratory black Americans in industrial cities such as Pittsburgh. Neatly framed Fences bundles this aspect with the onset of progress, unfulfilled lives, the shame of blended families and fathers that abandon children—and fathers that do not—and how the American Negro experience goes the way of becoming universal. Fences gets bleak, serious and sometimes depressing. But it borders and never crosses into maudlin territory.
Like its cultural cousin, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), which is more pointed and powerful, Fences drags you down to impel you to pull yourself up.
Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson, an aspirational garbageman who was once a Negro league baseball player and has since become an ex-convict, husband, father, drunkard and motormouth. He’s a loud, extroverted physically powerful man in his early 50s. He’s sexually voracious and he spews and lusts for life. In speeches and backyard scenes where he aims to build a fancy fence made of the finest pinewood, it becomes clear that his undone athletic ability manifests in rage and anxiety. He chastises his sons, rails against mooches and thugs, demands that he be called “sir” and that his youngest son, Cory (perfectly cast Jovan Adepo, who is excellent), keep working at the A & P and forget about a sports scholarship. He groans about the city’s refusal to hire blacks as garbage truck drivers, tells his oldest son and best friend (outstanding Stephen Henderson, Tower Heist, Lincoln) while passing a bottle of gin that he was “scared of my daddy.”
Above all, he tells his wife Rose (Davis), and this is where things get complicated—in the sense that life is sometimes complicated—that he works hard, expends his best efforts and that “[t]hat’s all I got.” He means it. Whatever his flaws and mistakes, he’s telling the truth, if not the whole truth. His pal Bono presses Troy on this topic. Eventually, everyone pays the price of going beyond pre-set boundaries.
That family drama plays out in a modest home filled with crosses, pictures of Christ and The Last Supper and a cheerfully handicapped relative named Gabriel should not be taken literally. Troy bemoans religion and goes by his own thoughts, though he dares the Grim Reaper, invokes the Devil and has faith, not confidence, in himself, which leads to a lazy thinking that yields his greatest flaw—he confuses duty with love—which produces the film’s greatest tragedy.
Showing its stage play origins, Fences is too wordy and expository but the cast, especially the leads, reprising their 2010 Broadway roles, is rich and layered which more than compensates. As a director, Denzel Washington is deliberate and nostalgic, blurring the screen when it matters, adding flowers in the window, dropping a rose at the fence and working with August Wilson to thread the story’s painful codependency into the actors’ faces and performances. The talented Viola Davis and Mr. Washington as wife and husband have adult conversations depicting the impact of ideas—chiefly, selflessness—on the whole of an ordinary life and both give strong performances. Ultimately, Fences blends cautionary and fairy tale and conveys that life is a kind of duty. This philosophy may be 100 percent wrong (it is by my thinking) but here it is planted and pictured with forcefulness, humor, warmth and honesty.
Born in Africa’s Congo in 1966, poet and novelist Alain Mabanckou lives in Southern California, where he teaches literature at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Mabanckou is the author of six volumes of poetry and six novels, winner of the Grand Prix de la Littérature 2012, and recipient of the Subsaharan African Literature Prize and the Prix Renaudot. His books include African Psycho, Broken Glass, Memoirs of a Porcupine and Black Bazaar.
Earlier this year, when I had the opportunity to meet and interview Mr. Mabanckou in Santa Monica, California, I found that his absurdist humor and flamboyance covers an inner strength, commitment and fortitude.
After all, I had become aware of this writer when he chose to present the PEN American Center’s Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage award to the satirical weekly publication Charlie Hebdo in spring 2015, mere months after Islamic terrorists slaughtered the publication’s staff in Paris after Charlie Hebdo printed a cartoon of the Moslem prophet Mohammed.
Alain Mabanckou bestowed the award to Charlie Hebdo‘s editor-in-chief Gerard Biard to a standing ovation from writers, journalists and publishers 48 hours after Islamic terrorists assaulted a Texas cartoon competition for depicting the prophet Mohammed. The gala was held as police officers guarded the venue, New York City’s American Museum of Natural History.
Mr. Mabanckou spoke in a French accent with enthusiasm and vitality. This is an edited transcript of the interview.
Scott Holleran: How do you pronounce your last name?
Alain Mabanckou: ‘mahBONkoo’
Scott Holleran: Do you live here in Southern California and also in Congo, Africa, and Paris?
Alain Mabanckou: Yes. I teach at UCLA and live here. I also kept my parents’ home in Congo. In Paris, I decided to buy something because I felt that having a home in Paris is secure compared to the United States. The market will not go down. In France, it still remains like that, you know? So I bought [my home in Paris] in 2006 when I had [bestselling author] success.
Scott Holleran: Do you consider yourself primarily French or Parisian, African or Congolese or American?
Alain Mabanckou: I think I remain Congolese. I remain a Congolese who is open to other cultures. In my deep conviction, I remain a Congolese who was raised in French culture. I like to dig my own roots to explain to myself what being Congolese [means]. This is very important. I think literature is about expressing a detail which is in your culture to other people that they’ll understand.
Scott Holleran: Who are other influences?
Alain Mabanckou: French literature is obvious. After French literature, I read Latin American literature. So, [Gabriel Garcia] Marquez, Horatio Quiroga, Mario Vargas Llosa, Octavio Paz. I like literature, you know? I like reading, first of all, the classics. So, for American literature, besides Hemingway, I read [William] Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom! And it’s curious, but when I was reading Faulkner—I was like 20 or 23—I didn’t know that he was white. The first time I knew that Faulkner was white it was when I went to the University of Michigan. I was passing or crossing a road by a bookstore and there was a kind of commotion about Faulkner’s books. That was the first time I saw a photo [of Faulkner]. I said to my friend, “Faulkner is white?” Because, you know, his work was talking to me. It was like, this kind of desperation, this kind of broken world—it was like mine. So [when I learned that Faulkner is white] I was like, “Wow!” That was a big surprise for me. That was great.
Scott Holleran: Because it showed the power of writing?
Alain Mabanckou: Yes. It means that we don’t need to consider literature by race. Once a text is talking to you, it’s going to be yours. You’re going to think that the people who are in the text are your parents, your family, and so on and so on. Yeah. After that, I read Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie …
Scott Holleran: Your mother had been training you and teaching you to be well read, right?
Alain Mabanckou: Yes! I’m still digging and digging. Then, I read Russian literature—Pasternak, Nabokov, Dostoyevsky …
Scott Holleran: Did you read them in French?
Alain Mabanckou: Yes.
Scott Holleran: Your books are translated into 15 languages. Which are available in English?
Scott Holleran: Which book should the American reader start with as an introduction to your work?
Alain Mabanckou: Readers often say Broken Glass. As for me, I think that it should be Tomorrow I Will be Twenty because the protagonist or narrator is ten and he’s trying to describe Congolese history but at the same time the history of the world. You’re going to see the war in Vietnam and Henry Kissinger, and it’s like how, when you are a kid, you receive the sound and the fury of the world. How are you going to deal with that? So I think this book is the one to read if they want to get inside my world because you’re going to see my mother there, you’re going to see when I’m a kid, you’re going to see a small teenager trying to get in love, you’re going to see French people, dictatorship, everything is in it. Maybe it’s the longest book I’ve written, close to 400 pages.
Scott Holleran: Are you working on something new?
Alain Mabanckou: For the time being, I’m working for the classes I’m going to teach at the College de France starting this year. I’m also going to publish a nonfiction book about African literature. So, I’m trying to introduce the student to African literature.
Scott Holleran: Why did you decide to present the Freedom of Expression Courage award to Charlie Hebdo?
Alain Mabanckou: Beside the fact that I am a Charlie Hebdo reader, as a writer, I thought it was the moment to step up and say: “No. We cannot let people reduce the freedom of speech. We need to explain to the world that if we are writers, it’s because people struggled for us to become free. So, we cannot take [freedom of speech] for granted, sitting in an armchair and just watching TV and saying, ‘Oh, go ahead.’” If you are a writer, and if you understand that the freedom of speech is being erased, you have to speak out. So, I had to go to New York [to present the Freedom of Expression award to Charlie Hebdo]. I know I took a risk because my face can be seen by the Islamists, by people in France, but I said to myself, “What does it mean for me if I cannot [redeem] what literature gave to me—that freedom?” So, that’s why I stepped up. It was one of the emotional moments of my life. There were like 800 people—a lot of entertainers like Glenn Close and Steve Martin—who came as a show of support.
Scott Holleran: Did anyone try to talk you out of going?
Alain Mabanckou: Yes.
Scott Holleran: Was it easy to write a speech?
Alain Mabanckou: I wrote it in French, as I often do when I have to read a speech in English. I write first in French and give it to one of my graduate students to translate. So, I think that it was a great moment—my certificate of birth as a writer in the United States.
Scott Holleran: I know that Joyce Carol Oates and other writers came out and angrily denounced Charlie Hebdo’s artists and writers, insinuating or claiming that they instigated the Islamic terrorist attack. What do you think of that viewpoint?
Alain Mabanckou: No! At the same time, I can [almost] understand because none of them had read a single issue of Charlie Hebdo. They were just talking about what had been shown, a kind of caricature of Mohammed. If you haven’t read Charlie Hebdo, you cannot judge. They were trying to say that you can’t criticize Islam. But, at the same time, you can criticize Jesus Christ, you can criticize Buddha. So there are those who know Charlie Hebdo and those who don’t know.
Scott Holleran: Or those who know what freedom of speech means and those who don’t?
Alain Mabanckou: Yes! So, that was it. I think that it’s pitiful to see that sometimes people judge without having proof.
Scott Holleran: Would you do it again?
Alain Mabanckou: Yes, definitely. I would do it again.
Scott Holleran: Did you get support from other writers, including people in the room?
Alain Mabanckou: Yes. I received encouragement from writers and journalists. It’s also helped me also to get to know people. I even changed publishers.
Scott Holleran: Do you remember where you were when the Charlie Hebdo office was attacked?
Alain Mabanckou: I was in the United States. I knew one of the journalists killed. He was a friend of mine.
Scott Holleran: What was his name?
Alain Mabanckou: Bernard Maris. I took it personally.
Scott Holleran: Do you remember where you were when Islamic terrorists attacked the Bataclan nightclub in Paris [in November 2015]?
Alain Mabanckou: I was in Paris. It happened not far from my house—
Scott Holleran: How did you hear about it?
Alain Mabanckou: I was watching soccer with the Paris Saint-Germain. And all of a sudden on TV, I heard like a shot: boom! which was a kind of bomb they put outside the stadium. But I was watching TV, so the sound came from the TV. Then, they said that the Stade de France was under attack and everybody went to the Stade de France. But it was [also] happening somewhere else at the [avenue de la] République, which is close to my house.
Scott Holleran: What did you do?
Alain Mabanckou: I was advised to stay home, so I stayed home. Policemen were everywhere. I stayed home that day, and just watched TV—
Scott Holleran: Did you start getting e-mails, texts and phone calls from friends?
Alain Mabanckou: Yes, e-mail. The press wanted me to write about freedom, so I wrote a piece for Vanity Fair, the French edition, and I wrote for … I think it was Liberation. Two or three newspapers.
Scott Holleran: So you wrote during the attack?
Alain Mabanckou: Yes.
Scott Holleran: You talked about taking a risk. Have you been threatened?
Alain Mabanckou: [Pause] Fortunately, no. But the danger would have come from France. As I’m living in the United States, it’s okay, you know? Charlie Hebdo is a tough issue in France.
Scott Holleran: You’ve mentioned Victor Hugo. Did you study his novels?
Alain Mabanckou: Yeah. It was mandatory at school [in Congo]. We had to read French literature—Balzac, Proust—and we read each writer closely. I was influenced by Hugo and the romanticists for the poetry. I liked Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Verlaine. I like Les Misérables, which is becoming like a comedy here [in the United States], Ninety-Three, Les Travailleurs de la Mer—I do not know the title in English [The Toilers of the Sea]—L’Homme Qui Rit, The Man Who Laughs. Hugo is the major writer. You cannot avoid Victor Hugo. If you go to poetry, he is there. If you go to the novel, he is there. If you go to the play, he is there.
Scott Holleran: Strictly speaking, you’re not a romanticist, so how do you classify your genre? I know some have said absurdism. How do you regard what you write?
Alain Mabanckou: I think I have two faces. When writing poetry, I’m closer to Victor Hugo, Lamartine, these kinds of romanticists. But when I’m writing a novel, it’s important for me to put [in] satire, to put [in] the critique. When I’m writing a novel, I’m trying to be like—
Scott Holleran: The observer?
Alain Mabanckou: Yes, the observer.
The latest self-conscious controversy orchestrated by preening, posing leftist “progressives” broke out after last week’s Oscar nominations — the second year in a row in which all 20 acting nominees are white.
Charlotte Rampling is the latest actress to weigh in on the race row that has erupted over this year’s Academy Awards.
Rampling, 69, who is nominated for the Best Actress Award for her role in “45 Years,” called the decision by some actors to boycott the Oscars “anti-white racism.”
“Maybe this time, no black actor or actress deserved to make it to the final selection,” she said during an interview on French radio station Europe 1. “Why should we always categorize people? I think nowadays we are living in easily offended societies. There will always be someone who’s too beautiful, too black or not white enough.”
Rampling gets to the heart of the matter. It’s perfectly fine to categorize people by race, gender, or any other objective classification – when it’s relevant.
Acting has nothing whatsoever to do with race. It has everything to do with acting. The same applies to script writing, special effects, music and the various other categories comprising the Oscars. The attempt to smear winners of this year’s nominations for Academy Awards with “racism” is actually racism itself. When you arbitrarily elevate the factor of race over and above other factors, you’re engaging in racism, by definition. To understand why, consider the polar opposite of racism: individualism. Individualism is where you make the attributes of character first and foremost, while racism is where you make the attribute of skin color or racial origin the central priority. Racist, socially conscious leftists started this fight; not anybody else. They are always the ones who start it.
Notice the methodology of those who smear those who wish to attend or view the Oscars with the charge of racism. Once upon a time, a charge of racism went like this: “I can prove that the people who did not get nominated were just as good, or in some cases better, than those who were white and nominated. It’s reasonable to assume that racism is a factor.” Valid or invalid, an argument intended as proof would follow.
Not so today. Today, all you need is name-calling intended as intimidation. It’s nothing more than schoolyard bullying, elevated to the level of sophisticated cultural analysis. Automatically, with no suggestion of evidence and none considered necessary, those who fail to immediately see the racism involved are condemned as – you guessed it, racist. It’s so sad. Those accused of racism feel impotent to defend themselves. “I can’t disagree with those claiming this year’s Oscars are racist. That would make me a racist.” So they bow their heads in compliance with the guilt-inducing name-callers who must know what they’re talking about, right? This is one more sad example of why America is failing and floundering. We’re doing it to ourselves, by letting these junkyard bullies passing as social commentators intimidate us into not thinking.
This also summarizes the whole problem with progressive leftism, the ruling orthodoxy of today’s government, academic and media culture. You’re guilty until proven innocent. In fact, if you fail to agree with the person making the claim, you’re guilty of the very thing (e.g. racism) for which the claim has not yet been proven. “You don’t agree with my charge of racism? That makes you a racist, then!” It’s circular reasoning. And it’s truly madness.
That’s why Charlotte Rampling’s daring pushback is encouraging. Racist-baiters used to count on white people, especially white leftists/progressives (everyone in Hollywood must at least pretend to be one), not challenging them. It was solely an argument from intimidation. The thing about the argument from intimidation? When your objects of intimidation refuse to take it any longer, and hold the one making the claim responsible for proving it, then it’s a whole new ball game.
Thank you, Charlotte Rampling.
Stacey Dash, another courageous actress, says, “We have to make up our minds. Either we want to have segregation or integration. And if we don’t want segregation, then we need to get rid of channels like BET [Black Entertainment Television], and the BET Awards, and the Image Awards, where you’re only awarded if you’re black. If it were the other way around, we would be up in arms. It’s a double standard. Just like there shouldn’t be a black history month. We’re Americans. Period. That’s it.”
Absolutely. The alternative to racism is individualism. America represents individualism, or at least it once did. The racist-baiters who try to intimidate and shame us into phony agreement will never accomplish a thing, not for anyone. I am sick of them, and everyone else who is sick of them should start saying so, too. Put the bullies in their place.
Having previously written a book about stand-up comics in the 1970s, Time magazine contributing editor and theater critic Richard Zoglin turned to one of the 20th century’s multimedia masters in his new biography, HOPE: Entertainer of the Century (Simon & Schuster, 2014). The Kansas City, Missouri, native, who lives in New York City, recently spoke with me about the legendary comedian. This is an edited transcript.
Scott Holleran: What was the first Bob Hope experience you had in life?
Richard Zoglin: Growing up with his movies watching the Road pictures. I grew up in Kansas City and I loved Bob Hope. I watched his specials growing up. He seems like such a constant presence.
Scott Holleran: As an editor and theater critic for Time magazine, did the publication’s archives aid your research?
Richard Zoglin: They did. Time has a library, though it’s not what it used to be. There were clips that are now withering still sitting in folders. They’ve started converting to digital but they still have those old paper files up until 1963. So the older files are still on paper. They’re so old that they crumble in your hands. The way Time used to work, a writer would take the files and turn it into a story. All those files are still there. The files at Time were the main thing. The [Bob Hope] TV shows are more tricky because the Hope family owns a lot of those. The Paley Center [in New York] was helpful. But the whole family cooperated with me. The movies are mostly out there on video in packages and the few that aren’t—there are four or five—I was able to track down. Here Come the Girls was one the family sent me. Ninety percent of my research was at the location where the family donated all his papers, scrapbooks, scripts and a huge amount of material, so I spent weeks at the annex of The Library of Congress in Culpepper, Virginia.
Scott Holleran: What was the biggest surprise in terms of valuable research?
Richard Zoglin: One of the big things, and it took a long time, was [obtaining an unpublished manuscript by] Bob’s older brother Jim, who had his own memoir. I had seen it quoted—it was [called] “Mother Had Hopes”—and I just stumbled on it while I was talking with a guy in England who had done a lot of research on Bob Hope’s genealogy. He had a copy and, though I had a tough time getting it sent over—he lives in a town on the west coast of England—he was willing to send it to me digitally. Someone told me that there were only three copies of [the manuscript] and I found that one. Jim was very perceptive about the house in England, and where the kids played, going to America, growing up in Cleveland, the jobs they had and where they worked. It was such a nice picture of life in turn of the century England and in Cleveland in the 1910s and early 1920s. There were personal anecdotes about Bob Hope doing Charlie Chaplin imitations.
Scott Holleran: You have written a book about stand-up comedy in the 1970s. If you could have one comedian with you while stranded on a desert island, who would it be?
Richard Zoglin: Albert Brooks. He’s just naturally so funny. He’s just so clever, insightful and subversive, making fun of stand-up comedy in a sort of anti-show business way, though David Letterman would be a close second. Almost everything he says is just naturally funny. One of the reasons I wrote this [biography of Bob Hope] is that, when I wrote the other book [on stand-up comedy], and I was asking comedians who they grew up liking, nobody mentioned Bob Hope. So, he was really off the radar for that generation. He was [considered] the old-fashioned kind of comedian. I thought that was a shame because Bob Hope basically invented their art form. I wanted to take the full measure of his achievements. I don’t think anyone can match him. He was kind of a rebel, he was kind of risque, he kind of expressed an anti-authoritarian viewpoint. He made fun of Army officers. Or just the fact that he was doing topical jokes making fun of the president when most comedians were doing vaudeville material. Jack Benny was making jokes about Rochester. Bob Hope was doing topical humor. He was the one comedian who was connected to what was going on in the world. It made him seem hip and a little avant garde. He was making fun of the government. He was making fun of Eleanor Roosevelt and paying taxes. That was pretty gutsy for that early time. When Mort Sahl came along, comedians all went further.
Scott Holleran: Is the lack of recognition due to the fact that Bob Hope doing topical humor made it look easy because he was skilled and that, in this sense, he is a victim of his own success?
Richard Zoglin: That’s exactly right. Also, as comedians got more personal, talking about their girlfriends, Bob Hope never went there, so he seemed very impersonal and old-fashioned in that way.
Scott Holleran: Which medium if any consistently gave Bob Hope his due?
Richard Zoglin: What people don’t realize is that he had such longevity. All those comedy stars, such as Jackie Gleason and Sid Caesar, had no longevity. Bob Hope did. That was a real achievement. So when people talk about the big comedy stars I’m afraid that people think of Lucille Ball and Sid Caesar but not Bob Hope because he did television specials, not a series. But, if you look at ratings, he had some of the highest rated shows in history. One of the five highest rated entertainment shows of all time, even today, is Bob Hope’s Christmas 1969 special [for U.S. Army troops in South Vietnam] which aired in 1970. Since then, it’s been surpassed by the last episode of All in the Family, the last episode of M*A*S*H and the last episode of Roots. He was a major television star over four decades. So, there is no one medium that really embraced him.
Scott Holleran: Are there any major figures whom you attempted and failed to reach for an interview that you think would have added to the biography?
Richard Zoglin: There was one that I did talk to but wanted to get back to him because I had a very superficial conversation with him. That was [Bob Hope comedy writer] Mort Lachman. Unfortunately, he died a short time after I talked to him. Very few people turned me down for an interview. I couldn’t get Doris Day [who performed on radio and toured with Bob Hope], though I didn’t expect to get her. [Lucille Ball’s daughter] Lucie Arnaz didn’t talk to me, but I don’t know how much she really knew about the relationship between Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. I talked to [comedienne and Bob Hope co-star] Phyllis Diller and [Bob Hope comedy writer] Larry Gelbart before they died. I talked to [actress and Bob Hope co-star] Jane Russell before she died.
Scott Holleran: If someone’s never heard of Bob Hope, but is inclined to grant him the benefit of the doubt based on your biography, what is the best work to watch or listen to as a start?
Richard Zoglin: It’s a good question. I’ve been thinking of the answer because I’m doing an event with Dick Cavett. I would say it would be a movie. The best example are the Road pictures. There are three or four I would pick; The Road to Zanzibar, The Road to Morocco, The Road to Utopia and I’d probably put The Road to Rio near the top. The patter between Hope and [Bing] Crosby is so great. The downside of The Road to Zanzibar is that the musical numbers aren’t the best, so The Road to Morocco might be more well rounded in terms of music. It has “Moonlight Becomes You”. But The Road to Zanzibar might be the best for the back and forth. Other than that, my personal favorite would be Sorrowful Jones. Also, look at [Bob Hope’s work in] The Seven Little Foys, where he does some good dramatic work.
Scott Holleran: Is vaudeville comedian Frank Fay the most influential comedian to Bob Hope?
Richard Zoglin: Yes. He was the only one that Bob Hope modeled himself after to the degree that he did. Frank Fay is still very different than Bob Hope. He’s more sophisticated with an almost aristocratic kind of air. But that kind of conversational, spontaneous comedy was [typical of Frank Fay], so if you had to say someone, it’s Frank Fay. Also, Will Rogers, though Hope wasn’t as political.
Scott Holleran: You write that Bob Hope was “resourceful, vigilant, watchful of money, and always on the move.” Which quality is fundamental to Hope’s success?
Richard Zoglin: Both resourceful and always on the move. [Bob Hope’s ability to see] where the audience was going in terms of medium, from vaudeville to radio to TV and movies—no one else did that and he was willing to give it a try. I think his ability to be resourceful is fundamental; the way he figured out how to market and promote himself and deal with the press in a more sophisticated way. He was smarter about the culture, the presidency and the media. He realized the power of his brand.
Scott Holleran: Were you granted full access to his letters and correspondence?
Richard Zoglin: Yes.
Scott Holleran: Is Hedda Hopper right to call Bob Hope “our American Noel Coward”?
Richard Zoglin: [Pauses] I’m not sure I would compare him to Noel Coward. Maybe so. He was a very good, light comedian. Bob Hope is much more of a populist.
Scott Holleran: Was Bob Hope a workaholic, bipolar or somehow psychologically or mentally deficient?
Richard Zoglin: A workaholic? Definitely. He might have been using his work to distract himself from his private life. He didn’t spend much time with his family and maybe that was a failing. But in terms of any mental deficiency, I don’t think there was anything serious, unless you say someone who’s not introspective is not healthy because he was not introspective. He was a happy guy. He didn’t seem to have serious doubts or anxiety. Maybe he was limited but he knew what he was and he was comfortable in his own skin.
Scott Holleran: You have written that he understood the power of his celebrity as an agent for helping others. Do you attribute these activities, such as performing for the troops, to altruism if by altruism one means self-sacrifice?
Richard Zoglin: To some degree and there is also an element that he knew it was good for his career. I don’t discount that he knew that his celebrity would enable him to do good. But he also made sure people knew about these acts. I think both elements were there. I don’t think he only did it for good reasons but I don’t think he did it [strictly] for promotionalism. It gave him great pleasure to entertain the troops and it satisfied his patriotism to serve the troops. He got great satisfaction from cheering up these men and leaving them feeling better, making them more capable of defending the country and alleviating the loneliness and the hardship that they went through. That was a good feeling to him. I don’t know whether you call that altruism. But it made Bob Hope feel good about [doing and having done] it.
Scott Holleran: Bob Hope had ghostwriters according to your biography. Is there one book by Bob Hope that you think best captures his true convictions?
Richard Zoglin: I do think [Bob Hope’s memoir] Have Tux, Will Travel is certainly good in terms of giving some real insights to playing vaudeville. I know there were things he left out but what it does tell is honest and revealing. That’s the best. His book I Never Left Home is a good expression of Bob Hope and how he felt about seeing all the troops and how much it meant him.
Scott Holleran: Hope supported the military from D-Day and the Marshall plan through the Gulf War. To your knowledge, did Bob Hope ever openly and explicitly challenge the United States government on any single issue?
Richard Zoglin: No. He respected authority.
Scott Holleran: Is it true to say that Bob Hope was political only in the most superficial sense?
Richard Zoglin: Yes. I don’t think he was a very sophisticated political thinker. He had a simplified view of the world. His viewpoint was: America was at war and we should support the war.
Scott Holleran: Where are the souvenirs Bob Hope brought back from World War 2, such as Hitler’s stationery from the Berlin bunker and a photo of General Patton urinating in [Nazi Germany’s] Rhine River?
Richard Zoglin: I think a lot of them are still at [Bob Hope’s] house. I think the family still has those.
Scott Holleran: He was condemned by the Catholic Church in Catholic media. Did this have an impact on his devout Catholic wife Dolores?
Richard Zoglin: I never got any sense that she—she was always a sounding board for him and he would run things by her and she would say no. Maybe she said ‘I told you so’. I’m sure it did affect her but I don’t know how she felt about those instances.
Scott Holleran: Is it true that his wife Dolores was raided by police for gambling in a charity event on behalf of a group of nuns?
Richard Zoglin: Yes, though I’m sure she didn’t realize it was illegal. Somebody blew the whistle. The police came and confiscated their gambling games.
Scott Holleran: You write that Bob Hope’s singing voice was a crystal-clear tenor effective at “slicing through the confusion” and that his physical comedy has precision and clarity. It’s a rare evaluation in the biography. In retrospect, as a critic, are you interested in reviewing more of Bob Hope’s work?
Richard Zoglin: I do review the films and shows on the page. But, yes, I would like to do full scale reviews. I would enjoy doing that.
Scott Holleran: Tell me about the time Bob Hope went on strike at Paramount.
Richard Zoglin: He wanted to set up his own production company and share in the profit. He thought he could make more money by co-producing and this was a new idea. There had been a couple of stars like [James] Cagney [who had obtained producing deals] but this was new. Paramount didn’t want to [enter into a deal] so he didn’t show up and he would not go back to work for several months. Finally, Paramount caved. Now, that’s basically the model today.