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Edmund White's 'Arts and Letters'

Edmund White has been writing about gay culture in fiction and nonfiction since the 1970s. His new book is a collection of his essays, Arts and Letters. White is director of the creative writing program at Princeton University.


Other segments from the episode on November 10, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 10, 2004: Interview with Edmund White; Interview with Mike Leigh; Review of the DVD version of the show "Mary Martin and Ethel Merman: Their Ford 50th Anniversary…


DATE November 10, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Edmund White discusses writing about gay culture in
fiction and non-fiction

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Edmund White has been chronicling gay culture since the 1970s. He's
the author of 17 books, including the autobiographical novels "A Boy's Own
Story," "The Beautiful Room is Empty" and "The Farewell Symphony." The series
begins with a character growing up gay and confused trying to become straight.
The trilogy concludes with the death of a lover from AIDS.

White won a National Book Critics Circle Award for his biography of the writer
Jean Genet. White now directs the creative writing program at Princeton
University. His new book, "Arts and Letters," is a collection of essays about
writers and artists, including Oscar Wilde, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin,
Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. The book opens with a
person essay called "Writing Gay."

In 1983 White moved to Paris, where he stayed for the next 16 years. He now
lives in New York City. I asked him about his reaction to the movement to ban
gay marriage.

Mr. EDMUND WHITE (Writer): Well, I guess since I lived in France for so many
years, where the law went through rather easily for civil unions, I can't help
but be struck by the difference, and I think the main difference is that
America is so religious. I mean, France is theoretically Catholic, but the
people, I think, can best be described as Catholic atheists. But I think that
what the French discovered is that when they originally proposed the pacts,
which was their word for the civil unions, as a strictly gay thing, it got
rejected. But then they rethought it and they said, all right, we'll propose
this as a union between any two people who live together for at least three
years and who share their lives. And it can be mothers and daughters or
brother and sister, or a straight couple or a gay couple. And that went
through perfectly. So I think it was very well calibrated to the French
national character, which is one that honors the abstract individual and
believes in universalism.

Whereas I think in America the real prob--I mean, what's interesting is that
the statistics in America show that a large percentage of Americans accept the
idea of equal rights and things like visitation rights in hospitals, you know,
being able to maybe get tax benefits that a couple might enjoy, but what they
really reject is the idea of a church wedding. It's the sacred aspect which,
I mean--and in a way they have a point; it does run counter to a lot of the
Bible, which is really hostile to homosexuality.

GROSS: Would you be supportive of legislation in America similar to what was
passed in France that would open the idea of civil unions to any two people
who have lived together a certain requisite amount of time?

Mr. WHITE: Yeah. I think it's a very intelligent approach to the problem
because I think it picks up--I mean, the problem with any legislation that
gays are campaigning for is that there are so few gays. I mean, I think my
own feeling is that probably only about 3 percent of the population would
really declare itself to be lesbian or gay. I mean, many more people have had
homosexual experiences but they don't define themselves as gay. So I think
it's important to pick up other allies, and I think there are an awful lot of
young couples who are living together, straight or gay, and older couples; I
mean, all kinds of people. Or as in France, mothers and daughters, I mean,
people who are basically sharing their lives and who want to share all the
legal benefits of any normal couple.

GROSS: Are you surprised that so many gay and lesbian couples want to get
married? I mean, when you came out in the '70s there was really a debate over
whether marriage was something gay people even wanted. Was gay life going to
be such a total re-examination of the nature of relationships and social rules
and everything that marriage wouldn't even be in the picture even if you could
have it?

Mr. WHITE: Well I think a lot changed since the '70s. I think that most of
the visible and vocal gay spokespeople in the '70s were leftists, and they
were the only ones who were really willing to come out and who felt that gay
life was part of the great spectrum of progressive leftist causes. Then I
think what happened is, in the '80s, AIDS brought out of the closet--forced
out of the closet many people on the right, many established, well-to-do
people. And you get the phenomena of the Log Cabin Republican; that is, these
gay Republicans. And since they were establishment people, they sort of took
over and the whole movement got taken over and dragged to the right and toward
the goal of assimilation.

I mean, my generation--I'm 64, and my generation of gays in the '60s and '70s
was--definitely felt very revolutionary, and I think gay liberation began
under the aegis of similar movements like Women's Liberation and black
liberation, but--and the Vietnam War protest. That was all that era, and gay
liberation began in '69 at the height of those protest movements. But as I
say, in the '80s with the advent of AIDS, I think the whole thing shifted to
the right and a kind of a special destiny for gays was dropped in favor of an
idea of assimilation.

GROSS: Maybe being gay is just less radical than you used to think.

Mr. WHITE: Well...

GROSS: Do you know what I mean? Maybe, like, there's a complete political
spectrum of gay people just as there is with straight people. But it's not
necessarily a kind of, you know, countercultural alternative culture type of

Mr. WHITE: Exactly. Well, I think that's absolutely right. And I think that
even a lot of the counterculture people in general, straight or gay, feel--are
floundering now. They don't quite know what to do with themselves or what
their constituency or program might be.

GROSS: You know, you write in your new book that you think the ardor and zeal
that gay people are bringing to marriage may actually renew the prestige of
the institution of marriage even in the eyes of straight people. I'm going to
ask you to elaborate on that.

Mr. WHITE: I mean, I do think that people who belong to minority groups
oftentimes crave the legitimizing of the establishment. I mean, I wrote a
little biography of Marcel Proust, for instance. And everybody wondered at
the time of his life why he was so eager to get the Legion of Honor from the
French government. It seemed like, here he was, this genius; what need could
he possibly have of some tacky award that every neighborhood butcher can get
in France? And--but he absolutely wanted it. And I think it's perfectly
clear; he somebody who was half-Jewish, entirely gay, and really felt excluded
from French society, though he was revered by literary people. And I think he
wanted that legitimizing thing. And I think it's very similar to many
lesbians and gays, that they really crave having the society at large say,
yes, you're OK, you're like everyone else and, yes, you can adopt and, yes,
you can have normal families. And I think we need that more than straight
people do.

GROSS: Did you ever want to get married?

Mr. WHITE: I never did. I never did. I was engaged to two different women
when I was younger and struggling to go straight. And again I think that was
the--this kind of almost magical idea that people have about marriage, that it
will transform you, that you will become somebody else. And I think the
tragedy of marriage is that you don't become somebody else, that you stay the
same old person with the same old problems and maybe even with the new fears
that, `Oh, my God, I'm going to be in this for the rest of my life,' once
you're married. But in terms of gay life, no, I never--it always seemed to me
that what was attractive about gay life for me was that it expressed a lot of
freedom from basic cultural institutions, that it was the sort of the rebels'
way, and I always liked the kind of wild boy, run with the pack, stay up all
night, be close to almost a juvenile delinquent. That aspect of gay life,
that sort of adolescent boy aspect of gay life, always appealed to me

GROSS: Because you've chronicled gay culture for several decades now, I'm
curious to see where you think gay culture is now, both in terms of the impact
it's having on popular culture and in terms of the degree of homophobia it
faces now.

Mr. WHITE: Well, I think that there's a curious bifurcation, even in the
minds of fairly conservative people, that if they know gays, they tend to like
them as individuals or not like them, but anyway to treat them exactly as they
would anybody else, and they see them as human beings. And I think part of
the humanizing effect has been--has come from the fact that many gay people
have come out, so they're identified and identifiable. And it has come from
shows like "Will & Grace" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and all these
programs which I think have--whatever we might think of their politics,
nevertheless they've made gay men and, to some degree, lesbians seem like part
of everyday life. And so all that has sort of warmed people up at the same
time that various Christian religions and Muslim for that matter and Jewish,
too, have preached against homosexuality.

So it seems to me that there's a sort of strange schizophrenia in America.
And I do think that it's a very depressing moment for gays, and I think that
my main feeling--and it sounds childish to say it--is I feel hurt. I feel
hurt that my country, or at least so many of my fellow countrymen and women,
have rejected me. I feel it on a very personal level, and I think many, many
gay people do. I had dinner with a group of gay guys last night, and we all
sort of felt like taking our toys and leaving the playground and going away
someplace else. I mean, people talk about moving to Canada or going to France
or doing different things. And I think there's this real feeling that for
years and years and years, there was a slow but steady progress that was being
made in terms of acceptance and visibility. But now I think we see that even
though gays are very visible, more so than they've ever been, it hasn't really
led to acceptance, not in a generic or legal way.

GROSS: My guest is writer Edmund White. Since the 1970s he's chronicled gay
life in his works of fiction and non-fiction. His new book is a collection of
essays about artists and writers called "Arts and Letters." We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: And my guest is Ed White, and he is the author of many books
chronicling gay life, gay culture. He's written fiction, memoir, biography.
And his new book is a collection of essays called "Arts and Letters." He
directs the creative writing program at Princeton University.

You lived in Paris for--was it about 16 years?

Mr. WHITE: Yeah.

GROSS: And you moved back to the States four years ago. You say in one of
your essays in your new book that when you came back to the United States four
years ago, you were surprised by several things. Those things include the
institutionalization of identity politics, the rise of political correctness
and the growth of "Oprah"-style programs and the memoir industry. Let's start
with the institutionalization of identity politics. What do you mean by that?

Mr. WHITE: Well, I think that in the '60s and '70s there still were broad
coalitions of people on the left and people weren't really campaigning
full-time about a single issue. I mean, I think one of the maybe
tremendous--well, I don't know really what I think about this, but let me
just propose this for a second. Maybe gays should have insisted that the gay
marriage idea be withdrawn now in the interest of a large coalition on the
left. I mean, in other words, if we can't have a Democratic president, then
we're all in trouble. And in fact, that's what happened, and if the gay
marriage issue was, as people are claiming, actually one of the main reasons
why Bush won, then maybe it would have been much better tactics to withdraw
the gay marriage issue altogether at this time. But would a group of gay
activists be able to do that? Would they be able to put their own interests
aside for a moment in the interest of a large leftist or progressive
coalition? And I don't think so.

And then again, there's another part of me that says, `Well, wait a minute,
would you dare say to blacks, `OK, well, let's put aside your longings for
equality in the job world or in the courts. Please put that aside for the
next four or eight years while we sort other things out.' We wouldn't dare
ask them to do that, and we would certainly feel that there was something
strange if they were willing to do that. So I don't really know why gays
should sacrifice their interests in the interests of a larger cause. So, you
see, I'm debating this back and forth in my own mind; I don't quite know what
I think about it. But it did seem to me that that was very bad tactics at
this--to have brought up gay marriage as a leading salient issue at this time.

GROSS: Another thing that surprised you when you returned to America from
France was the growth of the "Oprah"-style programs and the memoir industry.

Mr. WHITE: Well, I think they go together, and I think that memoirs, when I
was young, were written by the general who won the Battle of Iwo Jima or
General Eisenhower, somebody who was already established as an important
person, and then at the end of his--usually his life, but her life sometimes,
he or she would write a memoir that would sort of trace out the facts of this
already inherently interesting life. But in my days, nobodies never wrote
memoirs. Nobody wanted to read the memoir of a nobody. But then, by the time
I came--and so when I, for instance, wrote about my early life in the novel
called "A Boy's Own Story," I was very careful to call it a novel and to bring
to it all of the traditional means for involving the reader and instilling
some interest in my life in the reader that would be used by a novelist. I
mean, it was clearly a novel with all the novel's traditional strategies.

But then by the time I came back at the end of the '90s, all that had been
replaced by memoirs, and people would now write memoirs about a disability or
about a dreadful childhood they had had or about belonging to a minority group
or something like that. So in other words, it was all sort of part of the
culture of complaint, I suppose. And the "Oprah"-style program where people
also got on and talked about their abuse as children and so on--that that was
all new.

And what's interesting is that--I mean, just to give you a tiny example from
my own life, when I published "Boy's Own Story" in 1983, though it contained a
lot of very personal information about my own life, people who interviewed me
would never have dreamed of asking me a personal question. They were always
very careful to say, `The protagonist in your novel,' `The first-person
narrator in your novel goes through such'--and then I would say, `Yes, he
does.' And there would never be a moment where I'd say `Yes, I did,' or `I
do that.' So it was all kept in a kind of distant, impersonal level of
discourse. Now, of course, everybody skips that, and even if you claim that
your book is a novel, people are quick to ignore that and just go for the
jugular and ask the most personal questions imaginable.

GROSS: You've written several autobiographical novels that many people, I
think, even confuse with memoir because they're fiction, but they shadow your
life in some way; you know, the character isn't you. You're now writing a
for-real memoir. You have an introductory essay in your new book, "Arts and
Letters," about "Writing Gay," and you talk about how--I think it's in this
essay--you talk about how when you started to write, writing was almost like
therapy for you. You had to write; you had to get out the anger that you felt
and feelings of alienation. And so it was part therapy and part just that you
were a writer. Why, at this point in your life, have you decided to write a
memoir and to not mix your life--you know, to refashion your life into

Mr. WHITE: Right. Well, I guess having written that trilogy--"A Boy's Own
Story," "The Beautiful Room is Empty" and "The Farewell Symphony"--and I feel
like that is a sort of self-contained unit--that I thought, well, it'd be
interesting to cover all kinds of things that I never even mentioned in those
books and to present them in an entirely different way formally. So first of
all, it is the truth as best as I can establish it, whereas I took many
liberties with the truth and especially with chronology in the fictional
trilogy, because in those novels I was always trying to design a good novel.
So I would--if there had been five lovers, I'd reduce it to two. If I had
been in a place for seven years, I might make it one year. In other words, I
was always trying to condense and simplify the actual facts of my life to make
them more coherent artistically, whereas in this book, which is called "My
Lives,", I decided to cut the pie in a very different way and to organize it
not chronologically but thematically.

So there's a chapter called My Shrinks, for instance, in which I just talk
about the five shrinks that I saw over a 25-year period, and it's, I hope,
quite a funny essay. And then there are other ones where I will talk about my
hustlers, for instance, because even when I was 16 years old, I began to hire
hustlers. I was always fascinated by hustlers, and so I give a whole long
look at that. When I first started doing it, I was so young, the people
were--that the hustlers were oftentimes older than me and very shocked that
anybody so young would want to hire them. And then later, of course, I became
more the ordinary age for hiring hustlers, and it's always been a very minor
part of my life but a constant part, and it's something that I found
interesting to write about.

I still leave an awful lot out. Like, I don't talk about my teaching. I
don't really talk about my friendships, although friendship has probably been
the main theme of my life. But I'm somehow worried about writing about my
friends because I felt like either people would feel I was saying too much
about them or I was dropping their names in ways that they didn't like, or I
wasn't including them and they'd be hurt. I thought, this is such a mess, I'm
just going to stay out of it. And also my friends are really more valuable to
me than my books are. So I thought, to hell with it, I'm just going to
preserve that as my own private domain.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. WHITE: Thank you very much, Terry. It was great to talk to you again.

GROSS: Edmund White directs the creative writing program at Princeton
University. His new book is a collection of essays about writers and artists
called "Arts and Letters."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: Coming up, British film director Mike Leigh talks about the moral
dilemmas in his new film, "Vera Drake." It's about a working-class woman who
secretly performs abortions in 1950. Also, Lloyd Schwartz reviews the new DVD
"Mary Martin and Ethel Merman: Their Ford 50th Anniversary Show Appearance."

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Mike Leigh discusses his new film, "Vera Drake"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The British director Mike Leigh is best known in the States for his films
"Secrets & Lies" and "Topsy-Turvy," which was about Gilbert & Sullivan. His
new film, "Vera Drake," is set in England in 1950, when the country is still
recovering from the war. Vera Drake lives with her husband and two grown
children in a small flat. Her husband is an auto mechanic. She cleans houses
for a living. But she secretly performs abortions, not for money; she never
takes any. She sees her job as helping women who have no other option. But
Vera Drake is not medically trained, and her technique is primitive and
unsanitary. After a woman nearly dies from an infection, the police find out
about Drake. She's shattered by the news of the woman's infection and by the
impact her no-longer-secret work will have on her family. In this scene,
she's getting questioned by a detective inspector. Very Drake is played by
Imelda Staunton.

(Soundbite from "Vera Drake")

Unidentified Man: Can you answer my question, please? How do you help them

Ms. IMELDA STAUNTON: (As Vera Drake) When they can't manage.

Unidentified Man: When they can't manage.

Ms. STAUNTON: (As Vera Drake) That's right.

Unidentified Man: You mean when they're pregnant. So how do you help them

Ms. STAUNTON: (As Vera Drake) I help them start their bleeding again.

Unidentified Man: You help them to get rid of the baby, perform an abortion.
Is that right, Mrs. Drake? You perform abortions, don't you?

Ms. STAUNTON: (As Vera Drake) That's not what I do, dear. It's what you call
it, but they need help. Who else are they going to turn to? They've got no
one. I help them out.

GROSS: Just to set the scene for us, can you tell us what the law about
abortion is in England now and what it was in 1950 when your movie's set?

Mr. MIKE LEIGH (Director): Well, the laws changed in England in 1967. Before
that, abortion, as in many places in the world then and now, was outlawed.
There were exceptional circumstances in which abortions could take place, and
that is dealt with in a subplot in the film, in "Vera Drake." But when the
film is set, in 1950, it was simply, on the whole, a matter that was dealt
with by illegal, illicit, back-street abortionists, and that's what the film
is concerned with.

GROSS: Now there are a lot of back-alley abortionists who are opportunists
who preyed on women with no options, but that's not Very Drake, your main
character. She's the kind of woman who helps her neighbors. She takes care
of her family. She always has a tea kettle on. She's a very--she comforts
other people. And she performs abortions because she empathizes with the
women who she feels, for whatever reason, can't have this child. She feels
they have no one to turn to, and she can help them by providing an abortion, a
word that she won't even use. She says, `I help young girls out.' Would you
describe how she performs the abortion?

Mr. LEIGH: Well, I mean, she simply injects an alien fluid into the uterus,
and that causes a miscarriage. But I think the point about her approach to it
and the kind of woman that she is and represents is that in all societies at
all times, there have always been Vera Drakes, women, who are--they're in your
family or in the next street or the next block or the next village or the next
town, who were there to--who knew how to deal with this problem, and she's one
of those, basically. And she doesn't do it for money. She does it, as you
say, because she thinks that it's important to help people.

GROSS: Now you said she injects a substance into the uterus, inducing an
abortion. But it's kind of horrifying when you see what she's doing 'cause,
you know, she's not a medical professional. And she uses a very kind of
primitive, unsanitary means of providing these abortions. And because she
doesn't make follow-up visits, she is not aware of the infections that
sometimes set in.

Mr. LEIGH: I think she's aware of the risk, but she knows that she's using a
disinfectant. And she actually doesn't know whether she has previously caused
infections, as ultimately happens during the story of the film. But the
important thing is--I mean, the general implication of the whole thing is that
indeed, if, for example, in the States the law were to be changed, as is being
discussed, the legislation, and if you were to go back to a situation where
abortion was outlawed, then amateurs would be back on the scene doing what
Very Drake does. And it's for listeners to decide whether they think that is
acceptable or not, really.

GROSS: Throughout the movie there's no speeches. Nobody makes a speech about
whether abortion is right or wrong, no matter what the context is, no matter
what the scene is. And I was greatly relieved by that, not so much because of
the issue of abortion, but because I just hate those kinds of speeches in
movies, you know, where suddenly somebody who isn't very articulate or
talkative is eloquent and they make this speech. And the audience basically
is supposed to, like, rise and cheer on their behalf. You managed to get
through this whole movie without any of that.

Mr. LEIGH: Well, I mean, I make films, and this is by no means the first
such film that I've made, which are very much character-driven. I mean, my
job is to create absolutely believable, three-dimensional characters, and
that's what I hope has happened in this film. And what I also am committed to
do is to make films that confront the audience with questions rather than lay
on the line simplistic, black-and-white polemic. And so here I'm disposed to
raise questions and confront the audience with the moral dilemma that this
whole issue is about.

And so, you know, here is a very good woman who is undoubtedly motivated by
very positive desires to help other people but who we have to look at in the
role of a criminal because of the laws of society. And it's up to the
audience, really, to make those speeches, if you like, which you very properly
say the film--don't happen within the film. There is a point in the film
where there is a bit of argument about the whole issue, when the son is
horrified by what's happened, having discovered what his mother's been doing
over the years. And there's just a moment when she does actually come out and
make a very quiet, simple statement about why she does it. But you're
absolutely right, there's no scope to these characters, who would otherwise
be inarticulate, to stand up and convert themselves, metamorphose themselves
into Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

GROSS: The film is dedicated in loving memory of your parents, a doctor and
midwife. So your mother was a midwife and your father was a doctor?

Mr. LEIGH: Yes. My mother had been a midwife long ago and, really, had
stopped doing it before I was born. But my father was a doctor and was an
ordinary general practitioner in a working-class practice in Manchester. And,
indeed, until I was 13, we lived over the shop, so to speak. And I would love
to have talked to him last year when we were making "Vera Drake" about his
related experiences, just, you know, as an ordinary doctor in a working-class
practice just dealing with, you know, women that wanted to terminate their
pregnancies or, indeed, abortions that had gone wrong and related things. I
couldn't 'cause he died in 1985, and so I put that little memory to him on the
end of the film.

GROSS: Now you are well known for your improvisational technique in making
movies. And my understanding is you only tell the actors what they need to
know for that part of the movie. So, in other words, an actor in one of your
films wouldn't know all the twists and turns of their fate. They would just
know the opening scene or the opening few scenes, and then as the movie goes
on, they find out what happens to them. Is that an accurate description?

Mr. LEIGH: No, it is not quite accurate. I mean, the principle of it's
generally right. But, in fact, what it really is is that none of the--no
actor in my films ever knows any more than his or her character would know.
That's the point.

GROSS: I see. OK.

Mr. LEIGH: And we rehearse for six months, as we did for this film, before
we shoot anything, and during that time we create the raw material, after
which having done that we then shoot the picture in a very formal and
classical way. So what we shoot is very, very thoroughly rehearsed and
precise. So the first take and the 13th take are exactly the same material.
The surprise isn't in the first take on camera. It's some months previously
during the rehearsals.

GROSS: When you're casting actors, do you usually look for actors who you are
confident will have improvisational gift and will be able to add through
improvisation to the character's development?

Mr. LEIGH: Absolutely. The sort of actors that I like to work with are
actors who are intelligent and have a social sense and have a sense of humor
and a sense of people and are character actors. And by that I don't mean that
in the Hollywood sense of once-gorgeous people who are relegated to the rank
of playing grotesque cameos. But by character I design, I mean people who are
versatile and can play all sorts of different people and get inside their
skins and, also, actors who can work together in an ensemble. And I look for
those kind of actors. And I know we're blessed here with great artists in
England, and those are the actors that I try and get in these films.

GROSS: Now unless you've already worked with an actor, how do you know if
they have those gifts?

Mr. LEIGH: Well, you develop instincts and ways of auditioning and finding
out, which I'm not going to tell you because it's a trade secret. I mean, I
hadn't worked with Imelda Staunton before, actually, but I know her work and I
know her a bit. I've known her over the years, and I've sensed that she would
be very good indeed in this film. And it turns out I was right. She's

GROSS: Is there something specific within a scene that--dialogue or a twist
of the character's fate that she came up with that you could describe?

Mr. LEIGH: Well, the whole performance consists of a growth of the character.
And, indeed, without spoiling it for people who haven't seen it, I mean, you
know, when you see the film, there's a moment when, you know, they come to
arrest her. And you see her going through--you see her whole world collapsing
in one continuous series of moments. I hold on her face, and you just see
everything changing. And that's an amazing piece of acting that comes
completely out of the organic improvisation and investigation that we did in
order to arrive at the material.

GROSS: Since you brought it up, you know, she is arrested in the movie, and
some of the reviews expressed their disappointment that this character
emotionally collapses and kind of gives in to the authorities. She shows no
spine after she's arrested. And I have to say I didn't see it that way at
all, and it seems to me...

Mr. LEIGH: No. I mean, I think that's an eccentric and rather kind of ivory
tower sort of view of things. I mean, that really comes from people for whom
every movie has to be a kind of fake celebration of human dignity in a
completely implausible and Hollywood kind of way. I mean, this film, "Vera
Drake," you know, looks at something that inevitably happens to somebody as a
result of the way society is. And, indeed, what's important is that the
audience, you know, when they share her journey with her, they feel what she
feels and they go where she goes without having to be let off the hook by
simple, fake devices.

GROSS: My guest is British film director Mike Leigh. His new movie is called
"Vera Drake." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is British film director Mike Leigh. His movies include
"Secrets & Lies" and "Topsy-Turvy." His new film, "Vera Drake," is set in
1950. It's about a working-class woman who secretly performs illegal

The movie's set in 1950, and there's still a black market for goods in
England, goods that remain scarce in the post-war years, like tea and sugar.
You were born in 1943, so you came of age--I mean, you were growing up in this
era. What are some of your memories of post-war England and some of the
shortages, some of the difficulties that faced families?

Mr. LEIGH: Well, when I was a kid at school, at Christmas, there would always
be a Christmas party at which Santa Claus would come. It was a teacher
dressed up in a white beard. But in order that Santa could give out sweeties,
candy, to the kids, we had to bring in our sweetie coupons--that's to say,
the coupons that the Ministry of Food supplied in order that sweets could be
bought--so that they could go and buy sweets, candy, for Santa Claus to give
out. I mean, that's one of my memories.

And, you know, that world was a world of utility, you know. There was a kind
of drabness, and it was a world in which, certainly up until the beginning of
the '50s, not very many things were new. I mean, most of the things around in
the house, in the street, even the things that grown-ups wore dated back to
before World War II. I mean, things hadn't been replaced. It was a very gray
atmosphere, although it was a very warm atmosphere, 'cause people were putting
their lives together after the trauma of the Second World War. And, indeed,
that spirit is something that I've tried to capture in "Vera Drake."

GROSS: How were your parents' lives affected by the war?

Mr. LEIGH: Well, my father qualified as a doctor in 1939, but he never got to
be a regular doctor till 1947 because the war intervened. And for most of the
war, he was away with--some of the British army was--he was an army doctor,
and he happened to be in southern Africa for most of the time because we had
troops down there training Africans to go and fight in Europe, you know? And,
you know, he spent a lot of time in army camps in Africa. And so my parents
didn't see each other, and this, of course, was the fate millions of people
all around the world. And, of course, it's a very--when you think about it,
that's quite something. I mean, he managed to get back twice, made two
visits, resulting in myself and my younger sister. I mean, you know, it was
tough. And then after the war, they had to put their lives back together

GROSS: How aware were you of that when you were growing up?

Mr. LEIGH: Oh, very. The expression `before the war, during the war and
after the war' was an expression that you heard grown-ups using all the time.
Oh, you were totally--and, also, I mean, Manchester, which is where I grew up,
was very severely hit in the blitz by the Germans. And so, you know, one grew
up surrounded by collapsed buildings and, you know, bomb sites. And so I was
very aware of it.

GROSS: So you grew up in Manchester, and in your early years you lived above
your father's medical office. What was it like being the son of the family
doctor in a working-class city?

Mr. LEIGH: Well, it meant that I was one of the few middle-class kids in a
working-class school. There was no particular significance to it. I mean,
the bad thing about living over the practice--the surgery, as we would call it
in England, was that--you know, it's a very heavy industrial area. And in
those days, before the clear air legislation, there was very thick, black smog
on the air, you know, that affected people's breathing. And so I would
remember coming home from school and going through into the house via the
waiting room, which would be full of mostly men just (coughs and chokes) you
know? Just a chorus of that going on. It was sort of the music of my

GROSS: Wow. What movies did you identify with growing up? Did you gravitate
toward, you know, more kitchen sink kind of movies, realist movies?

Mr. LEIGH: Well, there weren't any when I was growing up...

GROSS: I suppose that's true. Right.

Mr. LEIGH: ...until the very end of the '50s, at which point that happened
to be when I came to London and discovered world cinema. And that was the
time of the British New Wave. But the British New Wave for me wasn't half as
exciting as the Nouvelle Vague, the French New Wave. And as I say, I
discovered world cinema then because when I was a kid growing up, you could
see all kinds of movies, but they were all American or British movies. And so
there was an endless diet of, you know, Hollywood and British war movies and
British comedies and Westerns and all the rest of it.

GROSS: Which were the ones that you loved and that made you think, `Boy, if
I'm really lucky, I'll do this one day'?

Mr. LEIGH: Well, I was a sucker--and indeed I still am--for all kinds of
movies. I mean, I went to the pictures, as we called it--to the movies--as
often as they would let you. But the moment which crystalized for me the
notion of being a filmmaker was actually when I was 12, when my paternal
grandfather died. It was a very snowy day in December 1955, and there was
thick snow on the ground. And we were all gathered together in the little
house, and these old guys struggled down the stairs with drips at the end of
their noses with the coffin, and I just remember looking around and thinking,
`Wow, this would make a fantastic film,' and then thinking, `That's what I
want to do. I want to make films.'

GROSS: Mike Leigh directed the new film "Vera Drake."

Coming up, critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new DVD of Mary Martin and Ethel
Merman performing in a 1953 TV special. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Lloyd Schwartz reviews new DVD "Mary Martin and Ethel
Merman: Their Ford 50th Anniversary Show Appearance"

In the early days of television, there was a variety special that was
broadcast simultaneously on two networks. The year was 1953, and the show
marked the 50th anniversary of the Ford Motor Company. Classical music critic
Lloyd Schwartz says that one segment of that show, a medley sung by Broadway's
two biggest stars, Mary Martin and Ethel Merman, remains unequalled for its
sheer entertainment. That duet and other solo numbers from the show are now
on DVD.

(Soundbite of "Mary Martin and Ethel Merman: Their Ford 50th Anniversary Show

Ms. MARY MARTIN: Hi, Ethel.

Ms. ETHEL MERMAN: Hiya, Mary.

Ms. MARTIN: How about singing some old songs?

Ms. MERMAN: I think that'd be fun.

Ms. MARTIN: Good.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) By the light of the silvery moon, I want to swoon to my
honey I'll spoon love to.

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) Wait till the sun shines, Nellie, when the clouds go
drifting by. We will be so happy, Nellie. Don't let me hear you make a sigh.
Don't let me hear you make a sigh.


I'm old enough to remember watching "The Ford 50th Anniversary Show" on June
15th, 1953. But I've never forgotten it, partly because I wore out my 10-inch
LP of the classic medley of songs sung by Mary Martin and Ethel Merman. It
was the first time these great stars appeared in public together, and they
made a splendid team, although they were almost polar opposites.

Merman's voice had the clarity and power of a gleaming trumpet, though she
could also be deeply poignant, as in "I Get a Kick out of You," the Cole
Porter song she introduced in "Anything Goes!" back in 1934. Martin's voice
was sweeter. She was a trained opera singer, but she could be delightfully
brash, sly and devilish, as in the Porter song written for her, "My Heart
Belongs to Daddy."

We don't think of them as playing the same kinds of parts. It's as hard to
imagine Mary Martin as Mama Rose in "Gypsy" as it is to think of Ethel Merman
as Maria von Trapp in "The Sound of Music" or "Peter Pan," both written for
Martin. And yet, though Irving Berlin conceived of Annie Oakley in "Annie Get
Your Gun" for Merman, Martin played Annie on the national tour and did it on

One of the revelations in the TV medley was how beautifully their two very
different voices and styles blended.

(Soundbite of "Mary Martin and Ethel Merman: Their Ford 50th Anniversary Show

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) When I'm calling you...

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) Picture you...

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) ...hoo-oo-oo...

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) ...upon my knee.

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) ...oo-oo-oo-oo.

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) Tea for two and two for tea.

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) Will you ...(unintelligible)...

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) Me for you...

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) ...hoo-oo-oo...

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) ...and you for me.

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) ...oo-oo-oo-oo.

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) ...alone.

Ms. MERMAN and Ms. MARTIN: (Singing in unison) Nobody near us to see us or
hear us, tell friends our relations or weekend vacations. You won't have it
known, dear, that we own a telephone, dear.

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) Don't know why...

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) Picture you...

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) ...there's no sun up in the sky.

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) ...upon my knees.

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) Stormy weather...

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) Tea for two and two for tea.

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) ...(unintelligible)...

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) And me for you...

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) ...never.

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) ...and you for me...

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) He's great ...(unintelligible) all the...

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) ...alone.

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) ...time.

Ms. MERMAN and Ms. MARTIN: (Singing in unison) Nobody near us to see us or
hear us, tell friends our relations or weekend vacations. You won't have it
known, dear, that we own a telephone, dear.

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) This is ...(unintelligible).

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) I've got rhythm.

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) I've got young...

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) I'm ...(unintelligible) tonight.

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) ...already be given ...(unintelligible)...

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) ...(unintelligible) dance...

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) ...on such a night as this. We will raise a family.

Ms. MARTIN and Ms. MERMAN: (Singing in unison) A boy for you and a girl for
me. Oh, can't you see how happy we will be?

SCHWARTZ: The entire "Ford Anniversary Show," including the medley, was
ingeniously put together by choreographer Jerome Robbins. Naturally, at the
center of the medley are songs Merman and Martin introduced: Irving Berlin's
"There's No Business Like Show Business" and "You're Just in Love," the
Gershwins' "I Got Rhythm," Porter's "I Get a Kick out of You," all written for
Merman; and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy" and
"I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair"; and Harry Von Tilzer's "Wait
Till the Sun Shines, Nellie," an old song Martin turned into a big hit.

We can also hear two songs that were left off the LP, and they're marvelous.
Martin's tenderness and Merman's eye-rolling exuberance in these are high

(Soundbite of "Mary Martin and Ethel Merman: Their Ford 50th Anniversary Show

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) Don't be my melancholy, baby. Cuddle up, and don't be
blue. Smile, my honey dear, while I kiss away each tear, or else I'll be
melancholy, too.

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) You made me love you. I didn't want to do it. I
didn't want to do it. I want some love that's true. Yes, I do. 'deed, I do.
You know I do. A gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme what I cry for. You know you've
got the kind of kisses that I die for. You know you made me love you.

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) Sun goes down. Light goes out. Dogs gather 'round...

SCHWARTZ: We don't have stars today that shine as brightly as Merman and
Martin did for so many years. And one reason may be that there are so few
songs anymore that transcend the shows they were written for. The Ethel
Merman-Mary Martin duet represents more than a bright moment in television
history. It's an emblem of a lost world of wit and glamor and style. Once
upon a time, there really was no business like show business.

(Soundbite of "Mary Martin and Ethel Merman: Their Ford 50th Anniversary Show

(Soundbite of music and applause)

Ms. MERMAN and Ms. MARTIN: (Singing in unison) There's no business like show
business like no business I know.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music critic for the Boston Phoenix. He
reviewed Mary Martin and Ethel Merman, their legendary appearance on "The Ford
50th Anniversary Show."


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Mary Martin and Ethel Merman: Their Ford 50th Anniversary Show

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MERMAN and Ms. MARTIN: (Singing in unison) ...that you know will fold.
You may be stranded out in the cold. Still, I wouldn't trade you for a
saxophone. Let's go on with our show. Let's go on with our show.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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