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Steven Spielberg's 'West Side Story' will make you believe in movies again

Justin Chang reviews the remake of 'West Side Story' released sixty years after the original.



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Other segments from the episode on December 10, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 10, 2021: Review of 'West Side Story;' Interviews with Rita Moreno; Interview with George Chakiris; Obituary of Bob Dole; Review of Years best in people and…



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Stephen Sondheim died just two weeks before the release of "West Side Story," a new screen adaptation of the classic Broadway musical for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics and Leonard Bernstein wrote the music. The movie, which opens today in theaters, was directed by Steven Spielberg and features a role for Rita Moreno six decades after her Oscar-winning performance in the original 1961 film. In a bit, we're going to listen to excerpts of two of our interviews with Rita Moreno talking about her role as Anita. And we'll hear from actor George Chakiris, who played Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks and Anita's boyfriend in the 1961 film. He won an Academy Award for his performance. But first, Justin Chang has this review of the new film version of "West Side Story."

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: A lot of us had our doubts when we heard that Steven Spielberg would be directing a new version of "West Side Story" and not just because of Hollywood remake fatigue. In the decades since it first appeared on Broadway in 1957, the "Romeo And Juliet"-inspired story of two warring New York street gangs has inspired more than its share of criticism, especially over the writing and the casting of its Puerto Rican characters. Even the beloved 1961 movie inspires groans now for having cast Natalie Wood in the lead role of Maria and for forcing Rita Moreno, the only Puerto Rican in the cast, to wear dark brown makeup as Anita.

Sixty years later, Moreno is an executive producer on Spielberg's "West Side Story." She also gives a poignant performance in the new role of Valentina, the widow of Doc, the drugstore owner. By her presence, Moreno teaches us how to approach this movie as both an affectionate tribute and a gentle corrective. Spielberg and his regular screenwriter of late, the playwright Tony Kushner, give us a tougher, grimier vision of the Upper West Side in the 1950s. We see the working-class neighborhood of San Juan Hill, home to mostly Black and Latino residents, being demolished to make way for new developments like Lincoln Center. There's a heightened sense of hostility between the Puerto Rican gang known as the Sharks and their white rivals, the Jets. And their rumbles are startlingly violent.

Adding to the realism is the fact that the Sharks are played by actors of Latino descent. They include David Alvarez as Bernardo, the brash leader of the Sharks, and Ariana DeBose as his girlfriend, Anita. Both actors are superb, as is Rachel Zegler, making a fine screen debut as Bernardo's little sister, Maria. The story hasn't changed. Maria falls into an ill-fated romance with Tony, a former member of the Jets, played by Ansel Elgort. Here they are on Maria's fire escape singing "Tonight," one of the many classic songs gloriously revived in the movie.


RACHEL ZEGLER: (As Maria, singing) Tonight, tonight, it all began tonight. I saw you, and the world went away. Tonight, tonight, there's only you tonight, what you are, what you do, what you say.

ANSEL ELGORT: (As Tony, singing) Today, all day, I had the feeling a miracle would happen. I know now I was right. For here you are and what was just a world is a star. Tonight.

CHANG: What's remarkable about this and the other numbers is how brilliantly Spielberg directs them. "West Side Story" is the first musical he's ever made. But it's no surprise that he's a natural at it. Few other American filmmakers have a more instinctive sense of rhythm and visual flow or more direct access to your emotions. He stages the numbers like an old-school Hollywood classicist with none of the overly jumpy editing that might distract from the dancing. When the Jets and the Sharks meet up at a school dance, their clashing tempers and bodies pull you in with an almost physical force.

And when Anita and Bernardo sing "America" - their rousing song about the pleasures and perils of assimilation - the scene builds from a domestic squabble to a joyous party in the streets, which Spielberg shoots in a vibrant whirl of color and movement. The Tony-winning choreographer Justin Peck rings some clever variations on Jerome Robbins' original dance moves, whether it's the Jets wreaking havoc in a police station house during their big comic relief number, "Gee, Officer Krupke," or Tony and his friends tossing around a pistol during a tense performance of the song "Cool." Speaking of Tony's friends, as Riff, the leader of the Jets, Mike Faist gets one of the movie's standout performances.

The weak link in the cast is Elgort. He can sing and dance, but there's an emotional flatness to his acting that doesn't quite gel with the much livelier Zegler. Spielberg can't solve everything that's creaky and dated about "West Side Story" as a text. But he knows that the show still has something resonant to say about racism and violence in any era, including ours. The reason the movie works so well stems, I think, from a curious paradox.

This "West Side Story" may be grittier and more realistic than the original movie, but it also feels more thrillingly old-fashioned than anything a Hollywood studio has released in ages. By the end, I wasn't moved so much by Tony and Maria's sweet, somewhat drippy romance or the fatalistic drama between the Jets and the Sharks. I was moved by Spielberg's conviction, his sheer faith in the transporting power of movies. For 2 1/2 hours, he makes you a believer again.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times.

Now we're going to hear an excerpt of our 2001 interview with Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her performance as Anita. She was one of the few actors playing a Puerto Rican who was actually from Puerto Rico.


RITA MORENO: The reason was that there simply weren't enough Hispanic - forget Puerto Rican - Hispanic male and female dancers at the time who could do the kind of professional job that was needed for Jerome Robbins' choreography, which is, you might have noticed, extremely complex and very difficult. There just weren't any. The reason there weren't any, I am surmising, Is that a lot of Latin kids - Latino kids in those days didn't have the money to take those kind of classes. They were a lot like in a way like the street dancers years later, the kids who danced on their backs and all that kind of stuff, who had talent but didn't have the training. So as a result, the Sharks - gosh, there were just a few of us, really, who were truly Latino who were able to get the part.

TERRY GROSS: Did you have to do anything to look more, act more or sound more Puerto Rican?

MORENO: They made me use an accent, which I wasn't thrilled about because a lot of us obviously don't have them. The thing that really bothered me the most is that they put the same very muddy, dark-colored makeup on every Shark girl and boy. And that really made me very upset. And I tried to get that changed. And I said, look at us. We're all, you know, many, many different colors. Some of us are very white. Some of us are olive-skinned. Some of us actually have Black blood. Some of us are Taino Indian, which is the original Puerto Rican. And nobody paid attention, and that was that. I had no choice in the matter. But I was not happy. And when I saw the film recently and saw George Chakiris, this beautiful guy, Greek guy (laughter) who looked like he had fallen into a bucket of mud, I just started - I started to giggle.

GROSS: Rita Moreno, I want to ask you about another scene. There's a scene toward the end of the movie after your boyfriend Bernardo has been stabbed. Maria, the Natalie Wood character, asks you to send a message to her boyfriend Tony. And this is right after the "I Have A Love" duet.

MORENO: Right.

GROSS: And so you go to...

MORENO: The candy store.

GROSS: ...To the candy store to give a message to the owner there. And all the Jets are hanging out there. And they start taunting you, and the implication is that they've raped you, too. I think that's the implication.

MORENO: Oh, yes.

GROSS: Yeah.

MORENO: Yes, if it had been done a few years ago, that's what would have happened.

GROSS: Right. But it's all kind of stylized and choreographed. Can you talk about that scene?

MORENO: Gee. I'm glad you brought that up because that was a seminal scene for me, and some interesting and personal, emotional pond scum came to the (laughter) surface. We rehearsed that number for - as we did with everything in that movie - for weeks. And then we got to the shooting which took about - I would say about seven days. And at some point, having the boys constantly cursing me out and throwing me around and calling me things like spic and garlic mouth and a pierced ear apparently opened up some wounds that I thought had been healed years and years and years before then.

And I remember that, at that point - and I think it was in the middle of shooting, this - some part of that scene. I stopped, and I sat down at the stool at the candy counter, put my head on my arms, and started to sob and cry. And I could not stop. I must have cried for about 45 minutes and just - there was no consoling me. I was inconsolable. And it's funny. As I speak of it, I start getting tears in my eyes. And the boys came to me saying, oh, Rita, please, you know we love you. You know we love you. Please don't cry. Please stop. Oh, the audience is going to hate us. And I couldn't stop.

And finally, Bob Wise called lunch. And you know, I calmed down, obviously, after lunch, and we got it all done. But there is a huge piece of my soul in that scene. It's all of the terrible things that happened to me - not like that, but it was symbolic of all of the terrible things that have happened - that happened to me when I was younger that apparently just inundated my soul and seared my soul. And I was as surprised as anybody.

GROSS: When you were able to start shooting the film again, do you feel like that personal connection deepened your performance? Or did it get in the way of it because it was so upsetting?

MORENO: No, it - no. It didn't get in the way. It - I think it deepened it. And by the time we got to the part of the scene where the doc, the candy store owner, comes in and stops the rape, the symbolic rape, and I go to the door and say, don't you touch me - 'cause I think they were saying something like, don't let her get away. And somebody puts their hand on my shoulder, and I turn around and say, don't you touch me - wow. That was filled with every terrible anger that I have ever experienced in my life - that line. It didn't get in the way.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about the choreography that Jerry Robbins worked out for the rape scene?

MORENO: Jerry had an ability, which is rare even now, to choreograph for character. In other words, any step that Anita might do, say, in "America" or in the "Mambo!" at the gym was not a step that he would ever have dreamed of giving to some other character on the other side - for instance, to the Jet, a Jet girl. And he worked that out with us. He was a meticulous, crazy man. He was meticulous with respect to what he wanted. The problem was he didn't always know exactly what he wanted. He just wanted it to be perfect.

And Jerry had several versions of each section of each dance so that, for instance, if you wanted - if you were rehearsing "America" with him, he would - after you did one version, would say, OK, now let me see version B of section 2. So you were really learning anywhere from two to three other dances beside the original one. That's how he worked. And he would watch it and watch it and watch and then say, OK, now let me go back to section 1 and do version A of that. He wanted to get the very best he could out of each section of these dances.

GROSS: Oh, wow.

MORENO: And that's how the rape scene also happened. It was a question of throwing me around. And when they would throw me around, when someone would grab my blouse to try to tear it off, when somebody would lift up my skirts to humiliate me, all that kind of stuff was very, very planned.

DAVIES: Rita Moreno, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2001. The new film adaptation of "West Side Story," directed by Steven Spielberg, is in theaters today. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. The new film adaptation of "West Side Story," directed by Steven Spielberg, is in theaters today. And we're listening back to our interviews with two actors who won Academy Awards for their performances in the original 1961 film - George Chakiris, who played Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, and Rita Moreno, who played Anita. Terry spoke with her earlier this year when she was the subject of a PBS "American Masters" documentary.

GROSS: Let's start with a scene from "West Side Story" in which you talk about in the documentary. And I want to play an excerpt of the song "America." But before we do, I want to talk about it. So this is a song in which the Puerto Rican men and women are singing about what they think of Puerto Rico. And the women are kind of saying, hey, America is better. And the men are saying, America really mistreats us. So you asked Stephen Sondheim to change a lyric, a line or two, that was in the Broadway show.

MORENO: OK. That's incorrect. I never asked Stephen Sondheim to change lyric.

GROSS: Oh, I thought you say in the film that you did.

MORENO: Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no. I would never have dreamed of doing that at the time. What happened was that I auditioned many times for the role of Anita with my heart in my throat because I hadn't danced in a hundred years, it seemed. And I never really, really thought I would get the part. But I got the part. I was jubilant and thrilled because it's a wonderful part, as you know. And then, just before I signed my contract, I suddenly remembered, to my horror, that the verse to "America" goes like this, (singing) Puerto Rico, you ugly island, island of tropic diseases. And it suddenly occurred to me - oh, my God. I can't sing that. I can't sing that like that in that form. I can't do this. I can't do this to my people.

And I was this close to turning it down with breaking heart. And just about that time, I got the new lyrics for the verse of "America," which had been rewritten by Stephen Sondheim at someone's behest. I'm just guessing it was probably Robert Wise or maybe one of our producers who said - you know what? - that's kind of like poison that line. Can't we change it? And apparently, Stephen Sondheim acquiesced. And he changed it to, (singing) Puerto Rico, my heart's devotion - let it sink back in the ocean. And that's how Stephen Sondheim saved me from turning down this magnificent role.

GROSS: Wow. So why don't we hear it? And then we'll talk about how that reverberated. So here is my guest, Rita Moreno, kicking off "America."


MORENO: (As Anita, singing) Puerto Rico, my heart's devotion - let it sink back in the ocean.


MORENO: (As Anita, singing) Always the hurricanes blowing, always the population growing and the money owing and the sunlight screaming.

GROSS: So that was the beginning of "America" from "West Side Story." And my guest is Rita Moreno, who you heard singing in that and who played Anita. So how did that song resonate among your Puerto Rican friends and family, if you had any family then in the U.S.?

MORENO: Actually, it resonated beautifully. The fact that there was a person playing a Puertorriquena in a huge, successful musical was enough for a lot of Hispanics, not just Puerto Ricans, in this country to be thrilled to pieces. The fact that there were mistakes made and colors confused, nationalities, was almost beyond the point. We were just so glad to be paid attention to for a change. There were people, particularly in Puerto Rico, who were not thrilled because they felt that depicting Puerto Ricans as gang members was offensive and insulting.

And what was important about Anita to me - still is - is that Anita, believe it or not, was the only part I ever remember where I represented Hispanics in a dignified and positive way. I've never had a role model because there was no such thing then, not - certainly not for little Puerto Rican girls like me. So when people asked, you know, did you have a mentor and all of that, I was like, mentor? Me? Moi? Really? No, no, no, no. So it represented a lot of breakthroughs for young actors of Hispanic origin.

DAVIES: Rita Moreno speaking with Terry Gross earlier this year. Coming up, an interview with George Chakiris, who played the leader of the Sharks in the original "West Side Story" film. And we remember former senator and World War II vet Bob Dole. Here's Rita Moreno in the new film adaptation of "West Side Story." This is FRESH AIR.


MORENO: (Singing) There's a place for us somewhere, a place for us - peace and quiet and open air. Wait for us. Somewhere, there's a time for us - someday, a time for us - time together with time to spare, time to learn and time to care. Someday...


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. The new film adaptation of "West Side Story" directed by Steven Spielberg is in theaters today. We're going to hear some of Terry's interview with actor George Chakiris, who won an Academy Award for his performance as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, in the original 1961 film. Here is Chakiris in the war council scene planning a rumble with the Jets.


RUSS TAMBLYN: (As Riff) We challenge you to a rumble - all out once and for all except...

GEORGE CHAKIRIS: (As Bernardo) On what terms?

TAMBLYN: (As Riff) Whatever terms you're callin'. You crossed the line once too often.

CHAKIRIS: (As Bernardo) You started it.

TAMBLYN: (As Riff) Who jumped Baby John this afternoon?

CHAKIRIS: (As Bernardo) Who jumped me the first day I moved here?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Who asked you to move here?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Who asked you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Move where you're wanted.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Back where you came from.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Spics.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Mick.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Wop.

DAVIES: Before he was cast in the film, Chakiris starred in the London production of the show in the role of Riff, the leader of the Jets. Chakiris is of Greek descent. He told Terry in 2001 what he had to do to make himself appear Puerto Rican for the film.


CHAKIRIS: Well, the - one of the things they did to us - I'm very pale (laughter) as a person. So, well, they darkened us, of course, considerably. I - in fact, I remember when we started shooting the prologue, the very first take out on the streets of New York there, Jerry had them come up and say, no, I think he needs to be a little darker.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CHAKIRIS: So they made me darker still. So that was one thing that certainly had to be done. And the other thing was the accent, which I think was subtle - I hope, anyway. And as I recall, we took Rita as our guide, so to speak, to make sure that we were sort of on track with that.

GROSS: Well, one of the glorious and silliest things about "West Side Story" is the singing and dancing gang members.

CHAKIRIS: (Laughter).

GROSS: What did Jerome Robbins tell you about the choreography and the kind of choreography he wanted for the gang members? And why would they be dancing in the street?

CHAKIRIS: Well, it was a musical (laughter).

GROSS: Exactly.


GROSS: A compelling reason.

CHAKIRIS: (Laughter) But one of the things that I think Jerry did so brilliantly - and he was, God knows, a brilliant man. And I think genius is not an overblown word to use very directly in describing Jerry. But the way the movement is introduced in the prologue of the film when you first start to see guys dance on the streets of New York - you know? - it's done with a very subtle kind of move and - which is not really a dance move. And then there's another move, you know? And...

GROSS: Yeah. What's happening is that the Jets are walking along the street.


GROSS: And one of them will kind of, like, jump up in a dancerly move and then keep walking and then...

CHAKIRIS: Or just put his arms out or...

GROSS: Yeah, or just put his arms out.

CHAKIRIS: Very subtle stuff that eventually explodes, if you like, into dance.

GROSS: Exactly.

CHAKIRIS: But we're introduced to it, I think, in a way that allows us - at least, I think - to accept it and not think, oh, my God. Don't they look silly dancing (laughter) in the street, you know?

GROSS: Right.

CHAKIRIS: The theater version started the same way - well, in the sense that they don't start dancing right off the bat. They build up to it. And again, that building up allows it to, quote-unquote, "explode" into the way they feel about their turf and the way they own the street and how the street feels to them and the neighborhood feels to them. It's theirs.

GROSS: Now, you actually shot the movie version of "West Side Story" on the streets of New York, yes?

CHAKIRIS: Right. 68th and Amsterdam was one of the locations. That's where Lincoln Center now stands. And the other location was a playground, which is still there - 110th Street and 2nd Avenue. Those were the two locations.

GROSS: Let's talk about the rumble scene. And this is the scene where the two gangs rumble in a schoolyard. And it's, like, part dance and part a choreographed fight.

CHAKIRIS: Right, right.

GROSS: But there's more dance in it than your average choreographed fight in an action film.


GROSS: So everything in it is really quite stylized. Can you talk a little bit about the choreography of it and learning it and what it's like to stab and to be stabbed in this choreographed kind of way?

CHAKIRIS: (Laughter) Yeah. You know, what I'd like to go back to, in answering your question, was doing the theater version of the rumble 'cause, of course, we had to do it eight times a week. I would say it was staged rather than choreographed because there are no dance moves per se, really, in the rumble. There are moves that make sense for a knife fight.

And I remember - and it doesn't - you don't really notice this particular move which I thought was such a wonderful move. You don't notice it as well, I think, in the film as I remember the way it felt, at least, in the stage version. And I, as Riff, had to do this to Bernardo in the stage version. I - it's hard to describe, but I run toward him. I sort of invert myself, and it's sort of - I'm - I get a scissor kind of grip with my legs around his legs. And I bring him down to his knees and then bring up the knife like I'm going to stab him. And then somebody pulls me off. But these were kind of gymnastic things, if you like, although I'm not a gymnast at all. But again, I think the difference in the rumble is it's not - it's staged, but I would not say it's choreographed because there are not dance moves in it.

GROSS: I've heard that some of the actors who tested for parts in the film adaptation of "West Side Story" include Tony Perkins, Warren Beatty, Bobby Darin, Burt Reynolds, Richard Chamberlain and Troy Donahue.

CHAKIRIS: And Robert Redford.

GROSS: And Robert Redford? Really?


GROSS: For which part?

CHAKIRIS: I heard that - I don't know. But I know I've heard that. I don't know if I heard it from Bob, Bob Wise. But I think so.

GROSS: Did you know that all those other people had tested?

CHAKIRIS: Had no idea (laughter) at all, no. And again, going back to this thing when we were doing it in the theater, never dreaming you'd get - I mean, it just never entered our minds that we'd ever be part of this. It just - it was a tremendous thrill and surprise because we were getting news from Los Angeles about, you know, big stars testing - or not - maybe not testing but being considered. I think two of the names that I remember hearing - I think I'm correct. One was Elizabeth Taylor, and one was Elvis Presley. I don't know if those were, in fact, real considerations or not. It was just part of the bits of...

GROSS: Right, interesting.

CHAKIRIS: ...Things in the newspapers that would be put on the bulletin board for us to see at the stage door.

GROSS: Now, you won an Academy Award for your performance as Bernardo.


GROSS: How did it change your career to get the Academy Award?

CHAKIRIS: Well, before that, I didn't have a career (laughter). I mean, I was doing well enough, I suppose, really. But what it did was it opened doors for the remainder - and still does, oddly enough. It still does. But it changed everything for me, certainly.

DAVIES: George Chakiris, recorded in 2001. Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of "West Side Story" opens in theaters today.


ANSEL ELGORT: (As Tony, singing) Could it be? Yes, it could. Something's coming, something good, if I can wait. Something's coming. I don't know what it is, but it is going to be great. With a click, with a shock - phone will jingle. Door will knock. Open the latch. Something's coming, don't know when, but it's soon. Catch the moon - one-handed catch. Around the corner or whistling down the river, come on, deliver to me.

DAVIES: Coming up, we remember former Senator Bob Dole, who died Sunday at the age of 98. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. Bob Dole, the longtime former senator, Republican presidential nominee and World War II veteran, died Sunday. He was 98. Dole represented Kansas in the Senate for 27 years, 12 of which he served as Republican leader of the chamber. He was the Republican nominee for president in 1996 and was chair of the National World War II Memorial. Dole was instrumental in pushing the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, legislation that had personal meaning for him. He lost the use of one arm in a firefight with German troops in the Italian Alps during World War II. When Terry Gross spoke to him in 2005, he'd written a memoir about that moment that changed his life.

TERRY GROSS: Some men always know that they want to fight in the army. Did you feel that way? Did you, like, want to join? Or was that something you had actually aspired to, being in the military?

BOB DOLE: No, I don't think so. I think - you know, we had a draft board. And if you didn't - in my case, I enlisted. I thought I had more choices if I enlisted rather than waiting for the draft. But the draft wasn't far behind. And it occurred to me that there are more possibilities by - through the enlisted reserve, which I'd joined in December of 1942, and then was called to active duty in 1943, and then later went onto Officer Candidate School. But did I have any burning desire to join the Army? No. I mean, I appreciated those who were serving. But I think we knew in World War II if we were a sound, body and the right age and physically fit, we were going to end up in the service.

GROSS: Before the injury that left your - left one of your arms useless and nearly killed you, you had another injury in the war. Would you just briefly describe what happened the first time?

DOLE: Well, I think what we had, we had almost - I was twice wounded. I got two Purple Hearts. But the first one was sort of superficial. We were out on a night patrol with my platoon - not the entire platoon, about 10 of us, as I recall. And at one point, we saw some fire coming from a farmhouse. It was occupied by the enemy, the Germans. And I think three or four of us unloaded grenades. And one of the grenades hit a tree and bounced back and hit a couple of us. And we had these superficial wounds. And later on, we got a Purple Heart. I never figured out why, but it didn't detain us.

But then April 14 was the big one. That's when I really got hurt. And I was trying to pull my radio man back to safety because he had been hit. And I felt this sting in my right shoulder. And apparently, it was some kind of a high-explosive shell. I still have fragments of the shell in my - that shoulder area. And it ripped into my body and injured my spinal cord and caused all kinds of problems. But I couldn't walk. I couldn't feed myself for about a year. You learn to be patient, which has never been a strong suit for me. And you learn to adapt. I mean, you have to use what you have. And you find out you can do a lot of things in a different way that you couldn't do before.

GROSS: What do you actually remember from the moment that you were hit?

DOLE: It's kind of fuzzy except your life kind of passes through. I mean, sort of these flash points. It must be what they call a near-death experience. I saw my little white dog, name was Spitzy - S-P-I-T-Z-Y. It was a spitz dog - not a very creative name. But I thought of a young lady there that I'd dated a couple of times. I thought of my parents, my brother, my sisters. My whole life just sort of floated by. And I was sort of in and out of consciousness as I was lying there on the battlefield waiting for some litter-bearers to remove me, which they did, I guess, about nine hours later. And beyond that, I don't remember a great deal. I remember I couldn't move anything on my body. And I thought my arms were gone. And the next thing I remember, I was going down a hillside in a litter. And I remember they scraped my back they apparently a rock or something and just sort of right down your back. And I could feel that. Then I went onto a field hospital. I remember being in a line of litters. And I don't remember another thing until I woke up in a hospital in Pistoia - P-I-S-T-O-I-A - Italy.

GROSS: When you woke up in the hospital, you still didn't have any movement.

DOLE: No. I didn't have any movement for a long time.

GROSS: Or sensation in a good deal of your body.

DOLE: No. I could talk. I could see people. I mean, my - I was alert. I just couldn't do anything. And people helped me. They bathed me. And they took me to the bathroom and - which is humiliating, as you might guess. And - but you get accustomed to it because it has to be done. And the nurses and the orderlies and the other technicians, they consider that's their job. I'd always apologize. I'm sorry. I have to do this. But I've kind of joked that I think I could have learned to feed myself more quickly, but the nurses were so nice, and there was somebody to talk to. They'd bring your food in. If I could talk to them for a half hour or 45 minutes, whatever it took, that was always kind of a nice - you know, something a little different.

GROSS: You know, you describe how your mother basically moved in to take care of you. She took care of you in the hospital, and, of course, she took care of you when you got home. And, you know, here's what I'm thinking. Like, you had no physical ability then. You couldn't take care of yourself. You couldn't control your body functions. You couldn't...

DOLE: Right.

GROSS: ...Feed yourself. And, you know, a mother is somebody you never have to feel embarrassed around. And I think, you know, that's - don't you think that's one of the wonderful things about a mother...

DOLE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Taking care of you then?

DOLE: Oh, with a mother - you're right, Terry. The mother - I've only once seen my mother really, really sob - I mean, really, uncontrollably crying. And that's when she first got a glimpse of me when I arrived in Topeka, Kan. But she went back. She left to - say, for 5 minutes, and regained her composure and come back - and like nothing had ever happened. And I could tell - you can tell in people's eyes that they've been crying and - but mothers are great. And you learn to appreciate your mother - and your father, of course. But the one thing that really pleased me - when we found all these letters, I didn't know they existed. I couldn't remember what was in the letters. But I read them all and read the letters that were sent to me. And I was - I thought I always respected my parents, but reading the letters back and forth confirmed that opinion that we had a great relationship. We weren't the hugging kind of family, but we were the caring kind of family. People can express themselves in different ways.

GROSS: You know we were talking about how you never have to be embarrassed around your mother, so it's wonderful, like, when a mother comes in and takes care of you when you're really sick, as you were. You married...

DOLE: It's still a little embarrassing. Maybe if it was - you're dealing with one of your daughters. But, you know, it's still embarrassing for a grown young man to have...

GROSS: Good point (laughter).

DOLE: ...His mother...

GROSS: Good point. I'm thinking like a girl. Good point (laughter).

DOLE: Yeah. Well, no, not sure of that. But I...

GROSS: That's a really good point (laughter).

DOLE: I was always a little embarrassed my mother had to empty the bedpan or...

GROSS: Right.

DOLE: ...You know, give me a bath. And - but never bothered her. I mean, she would just say, you know, just be good now; let me do this (laughter). So I tried to be good.

GROSS: Oh, that's a very excellent point, though, yes.

DOLE: She used to hold cigarettes for me, too, which was a - she tested anybody who smoked, and here she was holding my cigarettes.

GROSS: Do you think you would have gone into politics if you weren't injured in the war? Do you think your life might have taken a completely different direction?

DOLE: I think so. I've wondered about that a lot, if let's say nothing had happened. The war was about over, three weeks to go, and I wouldn't have been injured. But, you know, what do you do if you come back? Would I have gone back to school? I think so, but I'm not certain. But having this injury, I knew I had to do something. I had to finish my education. And I used to say if I can't use my hands, I'll use my head and go to law school and do whatever you do with a law degree. So I think I realized that, you know, you're going to - you're in good shape now. You've got a future ahead of you, and you've got to prepare for it.

DAVIES: Bob Dole recorded in 2005. He died Sunday at the age of 98. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. Our critic at large John Powers has an omnivorous taste for books, movies, TV shows and sports. Each year at this time, he singles out a few people or things for special attention. Here's what's dazzled him this year.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Although the world began slowly opening up this year, I still spent countless hours in my home, plowing through movies, TV shows and books, many of which I reviewed on this show. As 2021 comes to an end, I want to single out for praise seven revelatory people or things that I haven't talked about but that surprised me or filled me with delight.

Topping my list is something you might not expect - a professional athlete. Steph Curry shoots a basketball better than anyone who ever lived. Even other NBA stars are in awe. Yet a few years ago when his Golden State Warriors were unbeatable, his genius became the target of nitpicking and resentment. This year, he's enjoyed a renaissance. We're now back to the point at which a shiver of pleasure goes through the crowd each time he touches the ball. And even better, in an era when too many sports stars grimly chase titles or relentlessly push their brands, Steph invariably exudes ease, joy and playfulness. He's the Fred Astaire of American sports.

You find the same lightness of spirit in the most enjoyable scene of the new James Bond movie, "No Time To Die." When 007 crashes a specter soiree in Havana, he meets up with a newbie agent played by Ana de Armas, the Cuban-born actress best known for "Knives Out." What follows is a beautifully choreographed sequence in which the two banter, flirt and blast their way out of a death trap, punctuating the pandemonium by knocking back martinis that are surely shaken and not stirred. Although this theater hopes to shake us with its air of romantic tragedy, de Armas stirs this with something far better. She unleashes the fun side of Daniel Craig.

It would be misleading to say that George Saunders' "A Swim In The Pond In The Rain" unleashes the fun side of Russian literature, but his book fills you with the life-enhancing excitement one can get from reading the likes of Chekhov or Tolstoy. Based on a writing class Saunders teaches at Syracuse University, the seven essays in this volume are an inspiring masterclass in how to read, how to write and how reading and writing can help us learn how to live. As a one-time literature professor, I read Saunders' book with the odd admiration of an ordinary basketball player watching Steph Curry shoot.

I suspect many actors feel that way watching Jean Smart, who in her 70th year reached the pinnacle of a crackerjack career. If she was terrific as Kate Winslet's snappish mom in "Mare Of Easttown," she was flat-out brilliant in "Hacks" as Deborah Vance, a legendary Vegas comedian whose past is as layered with struggle and pain as her dialogue is studded with wisecracks. Here, she's first meeting her new young writer Ava, played by co-star Hannah Einbinder.


JEAN SMART: (As Deborah Vance) Are you a lesbian?

HANNAH EINBINDER: (As Ava) Not sure you can ask me that.

SMART: (As Deborah) Oh, what? Someone's going to show up and arrest me?

EINBINDER: (As Ava) Since you're my employer, it is illegal. If you're genuinely curious, I used to only hook up with men. In college, I finally hooked up with this amazing TA, Phoebe (ph), and I realized that I could connect more emotionally with women, which led to deeper sexual experiences. So anyway, I'm bi.

SMART: (As Deborah) Jesus Christ. I was just wondering why you were dressed like Rachel Maddow's mechanic.

POWERS: The comedy is far rougher in the movie "Zola." Based on a viral Twitter thread, this feminist shaggy-dog story stars eloquent-eyed Taylour Paige as a Black stripper named Zola who gets lured to Florida by a saucy white stripper - that's Riley Keough - with the promise of making a fortune. Although their trip spins dangerously out of control, the movie doesn't, thanks to sharp, inventive filmmaking by Panamanian-born Janicza Bravo. From its wild and woolly characters to its witty sex scenes, "Zola" deals with a series of hot-button topics - race, sex work, online madness - through eyes very different than the white male gaze.

As it happens, white male gazers are the main villains of the addictive Korean series "Squid Game," in which 456 poor people engage in a murderous battle royale for $38 million that hangs over their heads in a huge glass pig. A triumph of pop storytelling, the show's two best episodes highlight the pointed critique of contemporary capitalism. Without spoiling anything, I'll simply say that in Episode 2, the participants learn that merely winning a democratic vote won't save you if you're poor, while Episode 6 shows that when you're caught in a system based on winning and losing, there's no way to survive and stay morally clean. Dark, paranoid and hyperviolent, "Squid Game" is 2021's biggest worldwide hit, which tells you a lot about how life feels to people these days.

But let me end this list not with oppression but creativity. On Thanksgiving night, my sister and I were watching "The Beatles: Get Back," Peter Jackson's documentary series about the Fab Four, rehearsing to do an album and TV special The series contains fascinating things, from George Harrison walking out on the band to Yoko Ono sitting among the quartet like a ghost. Yet the moment that really got us talking comes when the staggeringly talented Paul McCartney sits there, seemingly goofing around on his guitar, and before our eyes, he goes from making sounds to making music to creating a song that would reach No. 1 on the charts. I can think of no better antidote to our dread of the latest COVID variant than to hear the song that McCartney created while waiting for the ever-tardy John Lennon to show up for rehearsal.

DAVIES: John Powers is our critic at large.


THE BEATLES: (Singing) Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner, but he knew it couldn't last. Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona, for some California grass. Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged.

DAVIES: On Monday's show, how the pandemic has reshaped the way we think about work and opened up new opportunities for work from home. We talk with Anne Helen Petersen, co-author with her partner Charlie Warzel, of the new book "Out Of Office: The Big Problem And Bigger Promise Of Working From Home." A couple of years ago, they gave up office life to become independent journalists working from home. Hope you can join us.


THE BEATLES: (Singing) Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged. Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged.

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Diana Martinez. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Meyers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


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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