Pin It
Karina Longworth, You Must Remember This
Karina Longworth, You Must Remember This

Karina Longworth on the intriguing new season of You Must Remember This

We talk to the writer and presenter of this compelling podcast as she turns her attention to the Rat Pack – Hollywood’s last gasp of white, middle-aged cool

Whether you’ve wandered around its famous boulevards in the flesh or gained entry via the magic portal of the cinema screen, the landscape of Hollywood is a kind of emotional and cultural cartography we’ve all internalised in our own unique ways. We can’t help it. From Sunset Strip to Santa Monica Boulevard, this little enclave of Los Angeles possesses a kind of shadowy density of cultural history that has permeated our consciousness in a variety of ways, coming to exist as a complicated but alluring metaphor for a matrix of contradictory but compelling ideas. 

You Must Remember This is the podcast transporting listeners back into the world of 20th century Hollywood. Writer and presenter Karina Longworth excavates the mythology of Tinseltown and its notable – or forgotten – inhabitants. 

In one seminal season of the show, Polly Platt: The Invisible Woman, Longworth takes an in-depth look at the extraordinary life of this Oscar-nominated production designer, screenwriter, producer, and executive whose legacy has been criminally overshadowed by her film director ex-husband, Peter Bogdanovich. With exclusive access to Platt’s unpublished memoir, YMRT shines a light on the vast contribution this under-appreciated figure made to Hollywood, from shaping the aesthetic of 1970s cinema in films such as The Last Picture Show, being one of the lone voices championing Wes Anderson’s debut, and first introducing James L. Brooks to The Simpsons.  

While other previous series of YMRT have also tackled subjects such as the insidious influence of Charles Manson, the notorious film Disney would prefer we all forgot, and rigerously fact-checking Kenneth Anger’s cult classic Hollywood Babylon, in the latest season, Longworth delves into the stories of Dean Martin and Sammy Davies Jr. 

As household names and members of the Rat Pack, the narratives of Martin and Davis Jr. run concurrently as they navigate show business in the powerful orbit of Frank Sinatra. Longworth points out that both of these matinee idols were considered men of colour when they were born in the first quarter of the 20th century. But Martin, an Italian American, came to be perceived as white by the time of his death in 1990, while Davis Jr, as a Black man, never lost that stigma. The stories of these two icons provides a fascinating lens through which to observe shifts of power and perception in American culture, and the systemic mechanisms of othering and its legacy of creating insiders and outsiders.

Below, we talk to Karina Longworth about the new series of You Must Remember This, how she created a career from her compulsive interest in cinema, what elements make a perfect Hollywood tale, and which film stars she’d choose to fuck, marry, and kill.

For the uninitiated listener, could we begin by just talking a little bit about You Must Remember This and how it came to be?

Karina Longworth: I started the podcast in 2014. Before that, I had spent my 20s in New York writing film blogs, mostly doing freelance film criticism, and reporting from film festivals. And then I got hired to be the film editor at the LA Weekly, which, when I was growing up in Los Angeles in the 90s, was the important countercultural source of news... it was where you found out where to buy Doc Martens, how you found out about punk rock shows, and repertory film screenings and, like, all the things you needed in order to be cool. And it had left-leaning, anti-police politics and stuff. So it was really formative for me. 

But, by the time I got there in 2010, things had changed quite a bit. By then, people weren’t going to newspapers to read about cool things to do, so much had moved to the internet. So, for me, I had been offered what had been my dream job but then pretty quickly I realised that my dream was not a reality. 

In addition to that, I got really burnt out being a weekly film critic, because you have to see everything and have an opinion about everything. I had gone to graduate school to study the history of Hollywood and, increasingly, it was that stuff that I was interested in and wanted to write about. I was not interested in new Hollywood movies. 

So I quit my job in 2013 and I spent a while just kind of trying to figure out, is there a path for me? How can I possibly do the research and writing about the history of Hollywood that I want to do and get paid for it? It just didn’t seem like that was a possibility. And then, as somebody who consumed media, I realised that I was listening to podcasts more than I was reading websites or taking in information in other ways. 

As somebody in 2014 who listened to podcasts, there never seemed to be enough. I was always getting to the point where I had reached the end of the podcast and there was nothing left to listen to. And so I figured, if I started a podcast, at least it wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh no, not another podcast.’ Nowadays, maybe people would think that. But in 2014, it really felt like there wasn’t enough to listen to. So I just started hearing what it would sound like if I was to make a show, and then I taught myself how to make it.

What elements do you look for in a story when you’re searching for stories to feature on You Must Remember This? What would make a perfect Hollywood tale?

Karina Longworth: For me, it’s usually something that I’m a little bit interested in and know a little bit about, but there has to be room for me to dig into it and make discoveries. I also think it’s got to be something where the general listenership would feel like, ‘Oh yeah, I kind of know who Hedda Hopper was but I don’t really know.’ So there has to be some kind of familiarity, but then there has to be room for me to do a lot of storytelling.

So it’s about balancing on the axis between something people have a curiosity about, but not something that’s been excavated to the point where it feels like there’s nothing new to say?

Karina Longworth: Yeah, but, you know, there are some people or some topics where you think, ‘What could you possibly find something new to say about them?’ And those are the ones that are maybe even more interesting to dig into... the Manson murders, or Marilyn Monroe. These are things that people think they know all about, but actually, there’s a lot of things people probably don’t know.

Have there ever been any stories that you’ve been interested in covering, but you've decided that they are perhaps too controversial or too problematic?

Karina Longworth: I don't think I’ve gotten into anything like that yet. I guess I’ve had a couple of people say, ‘Why don’t you do something about Scientology?’ And, yeah, I’m scared to do that. But I think that’s different than what you’re asking... I think when you say problematic, you mean things that don’t seem acceptable today. And I think that that kind of thing I’m usually happy to cover.

The YMRT seasons I’ve found most compelling so far were Jane and Jean (which follows the extraordinary stories of Jane Fonda and Jean Seberg), and Polly Platt: The Invisible Women. Which, for you, are your standout favorite stories you’ve ever covered?

Karina Longworth: I think the Song of the South series about Disney’s most controversial film is pretty unique because that was just something I was able to kind of go pretty deep in a few different directions on. But I think Polly Platt is really special too. She’s somebody that I have been fascinated by for decades. At one point, I had even written a book proposal for a book that would have been about the women of Easy Riders and Raging Bulls. So it would have focused on Polly Platt, Marcia Lucas, and Toby Rafelson. 

I would still love to tell Marcia Lucas’s story. But in terms of Polly and Toby, and some of what it was like to be a woman in 1970s Hollywood, I got to do that in the podcast. And the reason why I got to do it was because Polly’s daughter shared her mother’s unfinished memoir with me. So that was just a really special kind of dream project which will always stand out for me. 

Please could you tell us a bit more about Marcia Lucas and Toby Rafelson?

Karina Longworth: Toby was the wife of director Bob Rafelson and she was his production designer on his first three or four films, like Five Easy Pieces, and The King of Marvin Gardens. And she was somebody who had the kind of partnership with him that Polly Platt had with Peter (her husband, the acclaimed director Peter Bogdanovich), where she was more than a production designer and more than a wife, she was really his trusted advisor in a lot of ways. 

Much like the Polly and Peter relationship, Bob was somebody who was a little drunk on his fame and power. It was the 1970s and he couldn’t be faithful to his wife but he still wanted to work with her. I interviewed her for the Polly Platt season, and so she appears in a couple of those episodes. 

And then Marcia Lucas was married to George Lucas and she was his editor. She also edited Taxi Driver, New York, New York, and The Candidate. She was considered to be very instrumental to George being able to execute his vision. Then she actually had an affair and their marriage ended in the early 80s. And she never worked again and, for all intents and purposes, disappeared. She’s still alive, she’s still around, and people who knew her then still know her and talk to her, but she’s never written a memoir. Her story remains pretty much untold other than the interview that she gave in the book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. I’ve always really been fascinated by her and her story.

As someone who’s excavated so many stories from Hollywood’s mythology and who is scrupulous in their biographical research, how did you feel about the way Quentin Tarantino rescued Sharon Tate from her terrible fate in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

Karina Longworth: On one level, I find it charming. I’m so happy that he has this kind of emotional connection to her and was able to put that into a film. I also think that it’s a really great movie until the last act. I think his actual handling of the Manson murders is not for me and felt to me like it was ruining what was a really great movie about masculinity and these two guys and their relationship. 

Maybe I would have felt differently about it if I hadn’t felt like he had done that better in Inglourious Basterds and also if I hadn’t felt close to the story, and if I hadn’t thought so much about the way that those murders were a very real thing that happened and had reverberations on so many other people and things. 

The finale of your Charles Manson’s Hollywood season was an incredibly difficult episode to listen to. It must have been quite harrowing for you to be immersed in that research. 

Karina Longworth: Yeah, researching Charles Manson was really tough. But it was tough for a couple of reasons.. not just because of the gory details of the crime, but also getting really deep into the mind of Roman Polanski. He wrote an incredible autobiography. It’s probably not politically correct to recommend it, but it really is a very fascinating work. 

I really like reading the autobiographies of these men who just tell you about their sex lives and their attitudes towards women with no compunction and no self-awareness. Elia Kazan’s biography is like that too. For me, something that was a little bit darker was reading Roman’s tales of the aftermath of the murder. And even just the way he treated Sharon when she was alive, some of that he is self-aware about and some of it he has regrets about, but then he doesn’t seem to understand that it’s not that cool that he then went to Switzerland and just started having sex with teenagers.

“Researching Charles Manson was really tough. But it was tough for a couple of reasons.. not just because of the gory details of the crime, but also getting really deep into the mind of Roman Polanski” – Karina Longworth

Thinking about Sharon Tate, you did a season of YMRT called Dead Blondes exploring Hollywood’s legion of blonde-haired legends who died unusually young – from Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe, to the story of murdered Playboy pinup Dorothy Stratten. After investigating all those different stories, did you draw a conclusion about what this archetype represents as a cultural signifier?

Karina Longworth: Well, I think, in a lot of ways – and especially in Hollywood – the allure of the figure of the dead blonde is almost about cheating death, even though, obviously, these women died. But it’s about freezing an image in time; an image that’s forever young and forever perfect. 

I’d had these ideas before, but they really coalesced when I was writing about Grace Kelly… because that’s kind of how she functioned when she was alive and working in Hollywood. She was constantly being cast against these much, much older men in these ways in which it was almost vampiric on their part. Actors like Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant could seem younger and more virile again, and kind of recapture their own youth and their diminished sexiness and vitality by being cast opposite this young blonde. 

And I think that, maybe in a different way, that does carry across into a mainstream version of people being fascinated with white women who get killed or go missing. I mean, people don’t have that kind of fascination when it comes to women of colour who get killed or go missing.

Thinking about the new series, can you tell us a little bit about what drew you to Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.?

Karina Longworth: There’s this really great book about Dean Martin called Dino written by Nick Tosches. It came out in the 90s while Dean was still alive, but he didn’t participate. I think that it had an effect on this thing that happened in the 90s when I was a teenager, where the Rat Pack kind of had a resurgence of interest and their music was brought back. Frank Sinatra’s death had something to do with that as well. But, as late as the 90s, there was a sense that the Rat Pack was pretty cool. 

I read that book Dino four or five years ago and it’s really fascinating. I’ve always liked Dean Martin as a singer and as an actor, but what kind of held on to me were two things... One is that the Rat Pack seems so uncool now, and why is that? Is it just because it's white men? A thing that seems so glaring about the Rat Pack is that it was this sort of iconography of white, middle-aged cool, and the last gasp of the white, middle-aged guy being an idol. But it’s not just white men, Sammy is there as well. So how does he fit into that? So I wanted to explore that. 

“A thing that seems so glaring about the Rat Pack is that it was this sort of iconography of white, middle-aged cool, and the last gasp of the white, middle-aged guy being an idol” – Karina Longworth

But then it was also that the story of Dean Martin is the story of America itself – a kind of facade where, behind the scenes, it’s all rotten. Tosches talks about that in terms of the music business being corrupt and in terms of the mafia having their hands in places that you wouldn’t even expect them to have their hands in. One of the things that made Dean Martin unique amongst Hollywood stars was that he understood it was all kind of a facade and that, behind the scenes, the people who really had power – whether they were gangsters or politicians – were all crooks. 

Something that I’ve increasingly become interested in is this idea that there’s no ethical capitalism. And Hollywood is a business. As much as we can have deep emotional relationships with movies, and really love them and idolise film stars, at the end of the day, no matter what the product is, there was probably a corrupt business practice behind it... somebody got cheated, somebody’s labour was exploited. So I thought there was an interesting way of uniting those two ideas. 

In episode one of this new series, you talk about the fact that neither men are considered white at the time of their birth but, during the course of their lifetimes, that changes for one of them. That’s such an interesting story through which to illustrate how perceptions on race have shifted and evolved.

Karina Longworth: Dean is not somebody that anybody can really pin down in terms of what he felt about things. But one thing that seems really clear is that, as an Italian American, he felt like he was an outsider in America. And that fact coloured his attitudes towards things… his sort of persona as somebody who was like, ‘Nothing can touch me, nothing matters. Let's just have a good time.’ That comes from this idea that they would never let an Italian have any real power, the best you could have was money.

Do you feel that there are any modern film stars capable of commanding the same kind of fascination as the figures who populated old Hollywood?

Karina Longworth: Yeah, sure. I think there are some great movie stars right now. And, actually, I think for a long time there was this cultural idea that stars don’t matter anymore. But I think you’re seeing right now with somebody like Timothée Chalamet there's a cult around him. And that’s getting young people going to the movies, which is something that is really super important. 

I think Oscar Isaac is an incredible movie star. He's somebody who has the kind of thing that Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn had, where it’s like, no matter what the material is, you can’t take your eyes off of him. And he makes everything he’s in better. So yeah, I mean, I’m very pro-movie star. And I think that there are a few people who might have a chance of resurrecting movie-going in a weird way.

Have you ever considered making any kind of incursions into the 21st century in the podcast? If so, which stories would you find appealing to cover? 

Karina Longworth: I wouldn’t do that with this podcast. This podcast is specifically about the 20th century and I feel like I need the distance of time in order to really be able to do what I do. So I don’t know that I would necessarily be that interested in covering anything that’s happening right now.

“The story of Dean Martin is the story of America itself – a kind of facade where, behind the scenes, it’s all rotten” – Karina Longworth

Have you ever played the game Fuck, Marry, Kill? If you had to choose figures you’ve featured on YMRT to either fuck, marry, or kill, who would you allocate to each fate? I suppose we could call it Passionately Kiss, Marry, Kill if we were going to make it more Hollywood-themed.

Karina Longworth: I guess you have to kill Charles Manson. You have to kill Hitler if you have the chance, right? And, to keep it to like the current season, let’s say fuck Dean Martin and marry Sammy Davis Jr. Although it didn’t go so well for the white woman who married Sammy, but that’s something for later in the season.

If you were to take readers on a 48-hour whistlestop tour of Hollywood, where would we go and what would we do?

Karina Longworth: I actually like a lot of places in LA. I like to just hang out at a lot of places that have history, too. I’ve spent kind of a strange amount of time at the Chateau Marmont. I very weirdly stayed for a while during the pandemic in the room that Somewhere (by Sofia Coppola) was shot. That’s definitely an interesting place.

One of my favourite restaurants in Los Angeles is Dan Tana's, which I think was opened in the 60s when this Serbian guy, Dan Tana, open an Italian restaurant that became a hangout for people like Jack Nicholson and Harry Dean Stanton. And you go in there and it’s all red walls and red booths with a combination of thrift store paintings, posters for Broadway shows, and Lakers memorabilia. So it has this vibe of mashing up a lot of LA things and show business things. At the centre of the room is this big bar that gets really crowded, and I’ve just had so many great nights there. It does have this kind of Hollywood history, and I love it so much. 

And then my other favourite restaurant probably is Musso and Frank, which is this old school steakhouse where F Scott Fitzgerald used to hang out and where Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford started United Artists. There’s this booth in the front that was their booth and a waiter once told me that Charlie liked that booth because, in 1919 or whatever, he used to ride his horse to the restaurant. And, back then, that’s where the horse parking was, so he could keep an eye on his horse while he ate. And they basically have the same menu that they’ve had since the 20s or 30s. Both of these are places where you could just go and order a martini, and you just kind of sink into the past.

“I have a sort of a kitschy love for the Hollywood Walk of Fame... that area of Hollywood just kind of has this seedy life of its own. There’s just always going to be this almost underground life happening in plain sight, which I just find fascinating” – Karina Longworth

Are there any other sites of historical interest we’d go on this fantasy tour? 

Karina Longworth: I have a sort of a kitschy love for the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I think it’s fascinating. And, as somebody who grew up in LA, I’ve seen that area of Hollywood go through all these different evolutions. It’s always a cyclical thing, where it’s like some kind of commercial reason to try to clean it up and create a new development to basically provide something wholesome for tourists to spend money on. But then what ends up happening is that area of Hollywood just kind of has this seedy life of its own. It’s like it would be if the old Times Square in New York was completely resistant to becoming the new Times Square. So you’re always going to go to Hollywood Boulevard and there’s always just going to be people doing drugs in plain sight. There’s just always going to be this almost underground life happening in plain sight, which I just find fascinating.

But so many things don't exist anymore. When I was growing up – I grew up in Studio City – and Bob Hope was still alive. And once a year, he would just open his home to the public and you could just walk through the crazy mansion that Bob Hope lived in.

What excites you at the moment culturally, in terms of novels, music, film and art?

Karina Longworth: I'm listening to this podcast right now called Once upon a time at Bennington College by my friend Lili Anolik. I’ve never read Donna Tartt before and so, because of the podcast, I started reading The Secret History. I knew Bret Easton Ellis's work really well, and Jonathan Letham’s work slightly less well, and then I knew absolutely nothing about Donna Tartt. And so that podcast has made me really excited about her work. 

I was away from Los Angeles for a long time and just returned the past months. And so I hadn’t had an opportunity to start going to the movies again after getting vaccinated until really recently. And so I’ve just been like going to the movies like crazy and going to see new stuff and going to see old stuff. Last weekend I saw the rerelease of Possession, I saw David Cronenberg’s The Fly, I saw The Last Duel, and I saw Last Night in Soho. And so it’s like I’m really excited about just voraciously consuming movies in public because it’s obviously something I couldn’t do for so long. And what got me into this making this podcast is just loving going to the movies.

Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This is available to listen to now