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Leonard Maltin on Movies (2014)

Maltin2015MovieGuidefinalLeonard Maltin, whom I interviewed here in 2011, recently announced that his annual paperback volume Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, which has been produced in some form for 45 years, will cease publication. He explains in the new introduction to the final edition, on sale next week, that today’s market precludes a profitable production.

I interviewed Leonard Maltin almost three years ago to the day and, though I am saddened to lose the rich and treasured Movie Guide, I look forward to reading this one, last edition, the new, forthcoming edition of his Classic Movie Guide, his Web site, and whatever he creates in the future. I know I’ll see Leonard Maltin soon at the movies. Until then, I am glad to know that one of the world’s most serious and knowledgeable film scholars is here in Hollywood where he belongs.

This is an edited transcript. To purchase the book, click on the cover image.

Scott Holleran: Would the story of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide make a good movie?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t think so. The real story of the guide—of how I came to be hired at 17—would make an amusing sequence but not a movie. The story of actually producing the guide day to day, from year to year, is the story of doing drudge-like research, confirming spelling, facts, and it’s not the stuff of great drama.

Scott Holleran: You write that it was created to offer “terse, telegraphic-style reviews” yet each entry also captures a movie’s essential facts—year of release, cast, director, plot, characters—too. Which does the reader seek more: facts or analysis?

Leonard Maltin: I’ve been told both. People ignore the opinion and focus on facts and I’ve heard the opposite, too.

Scott Holleran: Is it possible to be objective about film?

Leonard Maltin: Oh, no. It’s not objective at all—it’s completely subjective. As I remind people who rant [about a review] it’s just an opinion. Movies matter to me a great deal, but an opinion on a movie is just an opinion. We try very hard [in the Movie Guide] to convey the essence of each movie. There are critics who are much smarter, more articulate and more analytical than me. I think of myself as a kind of middle-brow person and critic. I hope I’m a good communicator.

Scott Holleran: Are there plans to release your out of print books on iBooks?

Leonard Maltin: I’m not at liberty to say [yet] but we’re working on [Amazon’s] Kindle versions of [previously released books by Maltin such as] Selected Short Subjects, The Real Stars and The Great Movie Comedians.

Scott Holleran: Among your peers of movie critics, pundits and scholars of our time—Ebert, Siskel, Pete Hammond, James Lipton, Robert Osborne, Rex Reed, Vincent Canby, Gene Shalit—who is your favorite and why?

Leonard Maltin: I’m a huge admirer of Todd McCarthy who was at Variety for 35 years and is now at the Hollywood Reporter. I think he’s brilliant and incisive. He has a tremendous film knowledge and he’s a great communicator. I also love reading Roger Ebert’s old reviews online because I never got to read him. I’ve really come to appreciate him as a writer. He’s really an essayist. Now I can access his vast library of reviews online.

Scott Holleran: Given the culture’s current state, what sort of movie—if you think that movies will exist—do you think will dominate in the future?

Leonard Maltin: The evidence seems to point to the blockbuster continuing to dominate the world movie scene except at awards time when more intelligent, challenging and daring movies come to the fore which may be the best thing about awards season—to throw a spotlight on movies that need the notoriety that awards hype gives them. People are finding new business models for film all the time and that’s very encouraging. In a year that contains Boyhood and Captain America: The Winter Soldier—one of the best in the comic book series I’ve ever seen—there’s a reason for optimism.

Scott Holleran: Please discuss your approach to reviews. How do you track what happens in the plot—do you take notes during a film? Does your wife Alice assist? Do you call the studio or rely on press notes?

Leonard Maltin: Press notes are always useful but more for background information. But I don’t write lengthy reviews, so I don’t have to worry about outlining and recapitulation and I’ve fallen out of the habit of taking notes [during the film]. My wife Alice and I love watching and discussing film and she’s very perceptive, so she often opens my eyes. But we do disagree.

Scott Holleran: Do you read other reviews before you write your own?

Leonard Maltin: No.

Scott Holleran: Do you subscribe to Netflix?

Leonard Maltin: The household does, though I haven’t really taken advantage of it.

Scott Holleran: Is the press—including the movie press—too close to those in power?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t think so. I’m more concerned that during awards season here in L.A. both the trades and the L.A. Times have to generate so much copy to just sell the [awards] ads they want to sell.

Scott Holleran: A movie was initially and wrongly blamed by the U.S. government for the Islamic terrorist attack at Benghazi. Do you see any danger of censorship in the near future?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t think so.

Scott Holleran: Let’s do a lightning round of your thoughts on movies as we did last time. Snowpiercer with Chris Evans.

Leonard Maltin: I missed it.

Scott Holleran: Jersey Boys.

Leonard Maltin: Pretty good, but I’m not yet convinced that the story is the stuff of great drama.

Scott Holleran: Lovelace.

Leonard Maltin: What an interesting story; I don’t know why the film wasn’t better received.

Scott Holleran: Frozen.

Leonard Maltin: I enjoyed it but didn’t fall in love with it as other people have.

Scott Holleran: Admission with Tina Fey.

Leonard Maltin: Disappointing.

Scott Holleran: The Company Men with Ben Affleck.

Leonard Maltin: Good and it got a bum wrap.

Scott Holleran: Dinesh D’Souza’s America.

Leonard Maltin: Didn’t see it. I can’t see every movie.

Scott Holleran: Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Leonard Maltin: Great first half, disappointing clichéd finale.

Scott Holleran: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Leonard Maltin: Terrifically well made but didn’t win me over completely.

Scott Holleran: Lincoln.

Leonard Maltin: Excellent.

Scott Holleran: Ida.

Leonard Maltin: Intriguing.

Scott Holleran: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

Leonard Maltin: Pleasant. I was hoping for something more.

Scott Holleran: The Hundred-Foot Journey.

Leonard Maltin: A little too bland for my tastes, though people I meet seem to love it.

Scott Holleran: Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Leonard Maltin: One of the best comic book superhero movies ever made—proof that such a film can be intelligent and compelling without being pretentious.

Scott Holleran: Amazing Spider-Man.

Leonard Maltin: Pointless.

Scott Holleran: Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Leonard Maltin: Didn’t see it.

Scott Holleran: 12 Years a Slave.

Leonard Maltin: Arresting.

Scott Holleran: Gravity.

Leonard Maltin: Phenomenal in every way.

Scott Holleran: Mud.

Leonard Maltin: My favorite film of 2013. Matthew McConaughey’s best performance, deeply felt by writer and director Jeff Nichols, who I think is one of our brightest young talents.

Scott Holleran: Philomena.

Leonard Maltin: Awfully good.

Scott Hollerann: Dallas Buyers Club.

Leonard Maltin: Terrific.

Scott Holleran: Nebraska.

Leonard Maltin: I liked it even better the second time—because it’s a rich and resonant film.

Scott Holleran: Her.

Leonard Maltin: I loved the first hour. Then, it petered out.

Scott Holleran: Emperor, the movie about Douglas MacArthur in Japan.

Leonard Maltin: Misfire.

Scott Holleran: 42.

Leonard Maltin: Well meaning and it’s an important story to tell. I wish it were a better movie.

Scott Holleran: Prisoners.

Leonard Maltin: Well done but too dark for my taste.

Scott Holleran: Man of Steel.

Leonard Maltin: Frustrating because the first half works so well. If only they’d quit while they were ahead; you lose sight of the characters and it became a slugfest.

Scott Holleran: Let’s talk about actors. Charles Durning?

Leonard Maltin: Great presence.

Scott Holleran: James Garner.

Leonard Maltin: Irresistible.

Scott Holleran: Robin Williams.

Leonard Maltin: Unique and wonderful.

Scott Holleran: Richard Attenborough.

Leonard Maltin: What a fantastic career—on both sides of the camera.

Scott Holleran: Lauren Bacall.

Leonard Maltin: Great with Bogart but really came into her own as a character actress in such movies as Birth, The Mirror Has Two Faces, even Dogville.

Scott Holleran: Doris Day.

Leonard Maltin: Can I say irresistible again? She makes me smile.

Scott Holleran: John Wayne.

Leonard Maltin: One of a kind. Still underrated.

Scott Holleran: Barbara Stanwyck.

Leonard Maltin: Always compelling.

Scott Holleran: Bob Hope.

Leonard Maltin: Underappreciated as a film comedian.

Scott Holleran: Katharine Hepburn.

Leonard Maltin: Indomitable.

Scott Holleran: Thelma Ritter.

Leonard Maltin: She elevates every film she’s in.

Scott Holleran: Eli Wallach.

Leonard Maltin: Versatile and reliable.

Scott Holleran: Mickey Rooney.

Leonard Maltin: One and only—a career like no other and still somewhat unappreciated for his versatility and dramatic skill. I think of him in Drive a Crooked Road (1954) a little film out on DVD, a very minor film noir but he’s so convincing in it—you believe that he really is that car mechanic.

Scott Holleran: Shirley Temple.

Leonard Maltin: Still adorable.

Scott Holleran: In the introduction to your Classic Movie Guide, why do you write that “old movies are better than ever”?

Leonard Maltin: They give me a kind of satisfaction and joy that few contemporary movies do. A great old movie can lift my spirits and make me feel better. What higher achievement can there be for any work of art?

Scott Holleran: What movie are you most looking forward to?

Leonard Maltin: The whole fall lineup looks good—Mr. Turner, Birdman, Foxcatcher.

Scott Holleran: What book would you like to see adapted as a movie?

Leonard Maltin: If I love a book, I don’t want to see the movie. Richard Attenborough learned in trying to adapt A Chorus Line that it was meant to be a theater piece, though there are great exceptions. If I read a book and love it, I don’t want to have that experience recreated or altered in any way. I’m completely satisfied with it.

Summer Update

This summer, I’m writing stories, preparing for an adult education course on social media, giving workshops in midtown L.A., helping businesses produce, compete and communicate and finishing studies in an advanced writing course. For some time, though, I’ve wanted to interview experts with whom I’ve been acquainted for many years, so look for new interviews about law, medicine and art on the blog. If you enrolled in my blogging class this week, or you’re reading the post after class, this is an example of teasing the reader with the promise of new material to come. In the near future, I plan to post three new and exclusive interviews about movies, a deadly infectious disease and man’s rights under the law. For me, the interviews are nostalgic because to varying degrees I’ve known, admired or studied with these men through changing, often challenging, times. For the reader, the interviews are intended to inform, enlighten and activate the mind through three distinct voices of clarity and reason. The blog is as always an informal forum for my thoughts but it is for a general adult audience, not a private or semi-private group of chosen friends or followers as on social media. To this end, I hope you like what is coming soon.

New Articles on New Trier’s Experiment

“You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.” — O’Brien, 1984 by George Orwell

1984It is with irony that this quote from Orwell’s classic novel comes to mind. I recently wrote for a suburban Chicago publication about what was for me a painful, if mercifully brief, modern education experience during my youth. It was a high school within a high school called the Center for Self-Directed Learning, part of a New Left educational movement that sprouted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Center, as it was known, occupied New Trier’s room 101.

The former study hall had been converted in 1972 into the place where 600 students, including U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R, IL) and actress Virginia Madsen, would enter and exit during the course of their high school studies. The Center existed for 10 years without grades, teaching or classes. I recently interviewed the school’s co-founder, Arline Paul (read the interview here), the only New Trier faculty member to serve during the Center’s entire existence. Mrs. Paul, who had taught me political science in the traditional high school, was assigned as my “facilitator”, and she was kind enough to grant me an interview for the local newspaper. I asked tough questions and she answered them. It is interesting to go back and revisit high school as a journalist covering this radical experiment. I also reviewed the book of faculty and student memoirs she co-edited (read the review here). I wanted to provide a clear, factual account of this example of modern education.

My overall experience in government-sponsored education was atrocious. It was so bad that the quote from Orwell’s 1984 – which, ironically, I read while enrolled as a student in the Center – strikes me as an apt prelude for these articles about the Center. I’ve already heard from one reader who defends the whim-based approach to education. I have also heard from another reader. He tells me that he is young and that he, too, experienced the ravages of today’s modern, anti-conceptual education. He wrote to tell me that, after reading what I reported about the widely acclaimed New Trier, he thinks that his experience was worse. This is what I hope to counter. This is why I wrote these pieces, which I intend as an honest report and review of the facts of modern education.

Interview: Brett Goldsmith on ‘Hotel Sessions’ by Olivia Newton-John

Brett Goldsmith - image by Carbie WarbleMusician, producer and photographer Brett Goldsmith recently talked with me from Melbourne, Australia, about his new work with Olivia Newton-John, Hotel Sessions. The record is an extended play (EP) collection of previously unreleased demo tracks that he made with his famous aunt between 2002 and 2011 at various Melbourne hotels (read my review here.)

Goldsmith, 52, is the son of Olivia Newton-John’s late sister, Rona Newton-John, to whom Hotel Sessions is dedicated. Hotel Sessions is available at the Flamingo Las Vegas, where ONJ is an artist in residence for her premiere residency program, Summer Nights, as CD and digital download on her Web site and soon for downloading on iTunes. This is an edited transcript.

Scott Holleran: What would Rona Newton-John, to whom Hotel Sessions is dedicated, think of the record?

Brett Goldsmith: I think she would like it. My mother was a fan of Olivia’s. She was a big fan of Olivia’s voice. Being a fashion model and hanging out with rock stars, my mom Rona was a super cool kind of chick. I think she would especially like [the song I co-wrote with Olivia Newton-John] “End in Peace”. I would send my records for her reaction and she would criticize them in terms of my songwriting and my voice, which she told me she thought was getting better. A couple of lyrics were written while she was alive. I think she would like certain parts of Hotel Sessions. She would be the first to say what she didn’t like.

Scott Holleran: Do you consider this record a tribute to your mother?

Brett Goldsmith: I do now, yeah. It was almost like this record was never going to come out. The inspiration [for release] was Olivia cancelling her [impending] Las Vegas show after Rona’s death. Then, we said let’s make this happen and put this in some sort of cohesive order. We figured Rona would like that we were working together. Some of the songs mean a lot to us. Hotel Sessions was originally for me to put my production sound on Olivia’s voice. That’s how it was originally conceived.

Scott Holleran: How did Hotel Sessions evolve into an extended play record?

Brett Goldsmith: I had made an album in 2002 called Drive Time, which I’d made in a room on my own featuring songs I had written [that were] recorded by eight different vocalists—all Australian—and I was thinking it would be great if [my aunt] Olivia sang “Best of My Love”. She sang it and then went back to L.A. to [her manager and the record’s executive producer] Mark Hartley—or I sent her a mix—and she wanted to re-record the vocal and do another performance, so I went [to L.A] and did the vocal. While we were there, we wrote “End in Peace” in Malibu. After that, I think Mark Hartley turned to me and said how would you feel about taking a few of these songs and turning it into an Olivia record? I didn’t have to think about that for very long. So, Mark was very instrumental. I had pretty much let it go, storing these songs for whatever reason. I thought one day it might come to fruition. When Rona passed [due to brain cancer on May 24, 2013, in Los Angeles], I don’t think Olivia wanted to sing for while. So Mark was instrumental in pulling this together. Her publicist Michael Caprio and his partner, Randy Slovacek, also helped put Hotel Sessions on track. Randy in particular with his input and enthusiasm was a champion for making it happen. I shot the cover, we added dance remixes from David Hornos as DayBeat, because he had a good groove about him, and Mark went along with all that. It was very organic.

hotel+sessionsScott Holleran: When was your cover photo taken?

Brett Goldsmith: After Mom died. It wasn’t planned. Unless I’m shooting [photographs for] a fashion story—that’s all premeditated—it’s improvisational. Olivia had asked me to find an image for the cover. I was actually at a soccer match—and I’m not that into soccer—and I saw this flock of seagulls. My iPhone was actually on the HDR setting—which means it takes two or three images in one hit and you get a flock of seagulls—and I happened to get that shot. So, I didn’t lay the images together. The double image was some weird anomaly. The phone was in portrait [not landscape mode] and [the image was] super grainy. And the city shots [on the back and inside the compact disc packaging] were taken during the same soccer match when the iPhone was pointing at Melbourne. I remember [looking out and] thinking that the city [Olivia’s hometown] would be a great shot. When I sent the images to Olivia, she loved them. There was no manipulation of the image, though. It just looked so haunting.

Scott Holleran: How was working as a producer for Olivia Newton-John?

Brett Goldsmith: Like most artists, Olivia knows exactly what she wants. She left me alone – she respects me as a photographer and as a musician – to work. The same goes with production. In fact, there wasn’t a moment when she questioned my grooves, arrangement or production. We’re talking about a singer with absolutely perfect pitch. I think I know what she wants, I know where the vibrato works and I know she has an incredible ear. When you’re cutting vocals with Olivia Newton-John, you’d better be on your best behavior. She’s a serious singer.

Scott Holleran: Are there any unreleased songs not included on the CD?

Brett Goldsmith: I did record one other song written for Olivia—but I got another engineer to come into the hotel and unfortunately he distorted the vocal. It sits in my computer. There were meant to be more songs.

Scott Holleran: Do you have plans for another ONJ collaboration?

Brett Goldsmith: Olivia’s the artist, I’m the producer and it’s her call. If she rings me up, of course I would jump at the chance. I would actually like to do a kind of modern country record or something in that type of genre.

Scott Holleran: You’re also a singer and your own music album includes the original version of “Ordinary Life”. Why no duet with Olivia on Hotel Sessions?

Brett Goldsmith: I never thought about that. I mean, Olivia sings duets with [singers such as] Tony Bennett. Every time we recorded in one of the hotels, I would literally go pull it apart. I would bring a Macintosh, a pre-amplifier, microphone, microphone stand and headphone and engineer and record her vocal in a hotel. I would hear the room as it is and record one song at a time. Because her time was so limited and frankly I was not sure if she was recording these songs as a favor – I could only do a couple of songs in Melbourne at different hotels while she was in town for the hospital in order to raise money, so it wasn’t a priority. I had these songs sitting on my hard drive and, as formats would change, [keeping up with upgrading technology] was crazy. In fact, I just found some video footage [of the hotel recording sessions]. I had happened to record some footage of Olivia and I’m there coaxing her through the vocals—she didn’t like her vocal—she wanted to record it more like the way I had done it. I knew I could get a beautifully tuned, unedited performance and maybe some harmonies. I think I managed to do that under tough circumstances.

coverScott Holleran: On your version of “Ordinary Life”, you sing a different lyric than Olivia sings on Hotel Sessions. Why change the lyric?

Brett Goldsmith: I wrote that song reflectively talking about myself. When we got to sit down, she changed a lot of lyrics—we did it together just before we tracked the vocal, to change perspective [to reflect] her age and feeling. When I get up and sing, I sing whatever comes out. It starts with a melody. I never really think about it once I have the first verse. Olivia wanted to change a few things.

Scott Holleran: Had you recorded with Olivia before Hotel Sessions?

Brett Goldsmith: I did the world leg of her Physical tour and I’ve been in the studio with her, though not with musicians, bands and producers. We recorded “End in Peace” at a home studio in L.A. Olivia bought my first guitar for me and encouraged me to become a musician. She’d told me: ‘you’re a great songwriter’. I wish I had been in the studio during her country records in the 1970s. I’ve never really thought about this until you asked.

Scott Holleran: Is it possible that Olivia will perform the Hotel Sessions songs during her show in Las Vegas?

Brett Goldsmith: I really hope so. I would love that. If she put them in a set, that would be awesome. There’s no going back years later and fixing this or that. I’m glad it’s been released as demos, other than “Ordinary Life”.

Scott Holleran: Let’s talk about the impetus for each song on Hotel Sessions. What made way for “Ordinary Life”?

Brett Goldsmith: The whole point of the lyric is feeling pretty ordinary. The flipside is feeling pretty extraordinary. We all have ordinary types of days. The idea is that you can get through them, no matter how mundane [things seem]—you have an extraordinary story. We tend to feel ordinary based on fear of the unknown—I’ve had those days and all have been scary and worked out just fine. You remake yourself. Making records of my own is another reinvention. Now, I’m a photographer. But I was not until after I was 40 years old. Every one can remake oneself.

Scott Holleran: What is the impetus for “Best of My Love”?

Brett Goldsmith: It’s a love song, really, with a bit of heartbreak. It’s a story about people who give their all and get nothing back. I had that Emotions record [an entirely different song, “Best of My Love” on their Rejoice album] and it reminds me of [producer and musician] Nile Rodgers. So, I wondered if I could sing that title and lyric. I had to sing that [other] song in order to find Olivia to sing [mine]. I’m not a big fan of my own vocals—but she kicked it.

Scott Holleran: What is the impetus for “End in Peace”?

Brett Goldsmith: I watched 9/11 happen. It was overwhelming. I’m Australian—not American—and everyone was so sad about what happened. That’s all I had. When I went to L.A. to re-record the vocal for “Best of My Love”, we wrote “End in Peace”. I didn’t want to tell Olivia [what moved me to write the tune] because I am not an American. It was not really my place to say something but 9/11 was the impetus. I gave it to Olivia. Within an hour, I was sitting around the pool, playing verse chords and that’s when she wrote it. It happened quickly and I didn’t preempt her writing with my meaning. I’ve never even told her that. I didn’t think it was appropriate.

Scott Holleran: What is the impetus for “Bow River”?

Brett Goldsmith: The song is written by Ian Moss [of the Australian band Cold Chisel] and I came up with the idea to completely change the groove. I slowed it down. I recorded the whole music track in a particular key, then I rang up Olivia and she ended up nailing the vocal. It was originally done by Cold Chisel. Their song was literally in double time. Who knows what they think of it.

Scott Holleran: What is the impetus for the cover of Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings”?

Brett Goldsmith: I wish I had more originals but I just had an idea to produce a version of that song even though I wasn’t a huge fan of the original. I must have picked up my guitar and I think it was in A minor with no singer in mind. I got a groove and I thought this record was really cool. So I flew it over without the vocal. They liked it and it ended up being on there because that’s all I had. The five you have on the record is the five I had.

Scott Holleran: How did David Hornos, as mixer DayBeat, become involved for the dance remixes?

Brett Goldsmith: Unbeknownst to me he had been recording and remixing Olivia’s songs. He had actually sent them but I didn’t know it [because his messages were unopened]. There had been some other dance remixes [of Olivia’s songs] I’d heard. Most of them including mine were awful. Then David’s [messages] turned up and I was quite embarrassed and said what have you got. He’d done a remix of “Broken Wings” and he mixed his beats and added piano. I gave him the vocal and he got it back in two weeks. Then I also sent him the vocals for “Best of My Love”. He did a great job.

Scott Holleran: Your parents, nightclub entrepreneur Brian Goldsmith and Rona Newton-John, divorced when you were three years old and your dad owned music clubs and bars in Australia. Did having access to your father’s businesses influence you?

Brett Goldsmith: Yes—in everything. You couldn’t find a 14-year-old collecting every vinyl record [like I did]. My dad having the hippest clubs when I was 14 or 15 years old, I was playing my record collection—from Kool and the Gang to orchestral music—and my music to an audience and seeing them out on the dance floor. It was amazing. Between the experience of his nightclubs and his encouragement for me to become a musician and letting me be who I am was really encouraging. I went to a stuck-up private school—it was sort of Ivy league and people became lawyers and doctors—and my dad was great. Between Olivia and him, I felt very encouraged [to pursue a career in the arts]. That and I’m really good at reading manuals.

Scott Holleran: Some people might not realize that growing up privileged with an aunt who’s Olivia Newton-John might not always be so fabulous—

Brett Goldsmith - image by James NewtonBrett Goldsmith: —That’s true. My sister Tottie and I had a band called the Chantoozies—we were a kind of cheesy Bananarama type band—and we had a couple of hits in Australia. We toured for years. I got to write those songs and it was my dad who paid for our first video. So, there’s no doubt that our upbringing was privileged and, yes, there is a lot of pressure to live up to expectations. I can certainly see how difficult it is. Privilege and money can be the kiss of death. And there are people out there that just up and go about their lives without much money. So, it’s a personal drive that everyone needs to have—you have to eat well and get sleep—and if you wind up in the wrong place, know that there are people who want to help.

Scott Holleran: We’re coming up on Mother’s Day in the U.S. What to you is your mother Rona’s legacy?

Brett Goldsmith: She was the coolest. She is known by people who didn’t know her as being beautiful—and my mother was beautiful—but within and behind that beauty was a great fashionista and reader and writer and movie watcher who had talents of her own. Some of them were fulfilled and some were unfulfilled, just like all of us. Her legacy is that she was witty, sarcastic, brutal, funny and cool—she didn’t brag—and she lived a life and married interesting men, met presidents and traveled with Olivia and was a super cool chick. She had style and she loved my photography—she was a model and I started as a fashion photographer—and she was a fan of mine. And I am a fan of hers.

Interview: Thomas Doherty in Defense of the Infidel

TD/Brandeis infidelAfter being abused by Moslems in Somalia, Ayaan Hirsi Ali moved to the Netherlands. She became an outspoken critic of Islam and wrote a screenplay for Submission, a 2004 movie that specifically critiques Moslem treatment of women. The picture’s director, Theo van Gogh, was murdered by an Islamic fundamentalist. A note found on his corpse threatened to assassinate Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who’d become a member of Dutch Parliament.

Ali, who denounced Islam following the 9/11 attack on the United States, wrote about her internal struggle with her Islamic faith in Infidel, a 2007 New York Times bestseller reprinted with a foreword by the late Christopher Hitchens, which, according to a Publishers Weekly review, “delivers a powerful feminist critique of Islam informed by a genuine understanding of the religion.”

Ali was recently named as recipient of an honorary degree by Brandeis University, which invited her to speak to students during commencement—and promptly withdrew the honor and invitation after a fundamentalist Islamic group raised objections and coordinated a campaign against the infidel, a term which is Latin for without faith.

Upon the controversial Brandeis decision, few spoke up in defense of Ayaan Hirsi Ali—and, I noticed, almost no one from Brandeis University came to the infidel’s defense.

As a longtime intellectual who never attended college, I have nevertheless become aware that college professors do not typically speak out against colleges that placate political correctness or submit to smear campaigns, let alone speak up against a college for whom they are employed.

But I recently discovered—and talked with—one who did.

His name is Thomas Doherty, a film scholar at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Doherty, cultural historian with special interest in Hollywood cinema, is chair of the American Studies program at Brandeis, an associate editor for the film magazine Cineaste and film review editor for the Journal of American History. His books include Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration (Columbia University Press, 2007) and Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 (Columbia University Press, 2013).

Following the Brandeis-Ali affair, Doherty gave a short interview to the press in which he said he refused to sign the letter and added that he thinks Ali is a “courageous freedom fighter”. We spoke briefly before the interview, confirmed the interview in e-mail correspondence and talked at length about the author Ali, the university and the risk of speaking out for reason. This is an edited transcript.

Scott Holleran: Why have you chosen to defy the university by speaking out for a known infidel—an atheist against Islamic fundamentalism—who has been targeted by terrorists, singled out by your employer for denunciation and cast out?

Thomas Doherty: This wasn’t a difficult call. 86 faculty members of about 350 faculty members at Brandeis signed the letter [denouncing Ali and demanding her removal from the list of honored recipients]. I got a call from Associated Press and they asked what I thought. I said that she’s a courageous feminist who is putting her life at risk to defend women’s rights. I didn’t know her work well. I knew her mostly from her film Submission. I thought she was a great choice for receiving an honorary degree from Brandeis, which typically names white males. When I first heard about the letter, I thought it was bizarre that there was controversy. When I read the letter, I was shocked. It’s pretty depressing.

Scott Holleran: What is the most common response if any to your comments supporting Ayaan Hirsi Ali from the Brandeis administration?

Thomas Doherty: I’ve heard nothing from the administration. When you’re tenured, it doesn’t matter. What can they do—give me a smaller raise?

Scott Holleran: What is the most common response if any from fellow faculty members?

Thomas Doherty: I got a very gracious letter from Bernadette Brooten who wrote the [denunciation] letter. I’ve received support and agreement from a couple of my colleagues but that’s here in the American Studies department—so we study America and we might be considered an outlier.

Scott Holleran: What is the most common response if any from students?

Thomas Doherty: I haven’t talked to students yet. I must have gotten 40 or 50 letters in support saying ‘what happened to the university I graduated from?’ Those are mostly from lawyers and professors, alumnus of Brandeis. Frankly, I’d never raise something like this in class.

Scott Holleran: When you first became aware of the campaign against Ali, did you think the campaign would fail or succeed?

Thomas Doherty: First, I was stunned. They announced the honorary degree and then my wife told me Megyn Kelly was talking about the university’s decision on Fox News. I had heard that the women’s studies professors were upset with choice of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. That didn’t sound right to me. Then, I read the letter. I didn’t think their campaign would succeed—I thought it would fail. I was surprised how quickly Brandeis University collapsed.

Scott Holleran: Have you seen Submission?

Thomas Doherty: Yes. I just checked out her new film Honor Diaries. It’s sort of an arty protest against Islam. It has pictures of women in a chador with projections of the Koran over it. It’s your basic art protest against an ideology which happens all the time in film. There are protests against patriarchy, Mormonism, Catholicism. I didn’t think of her [2004] film Submission as especially formidable or controversial. It really came to my knowledge when the movie’s director, Theo van Gogh, was assassinated [by an Islamic fundamentalist]. I thought at the time that people in the arts should have been more aware of that. So I was surprised that the Oscars in 2005 did not honor [Van Gogh]. The guy was literally killed for making a film. I got in touch with a friend at the [trade publication] Hollywood Reporter who confirmed that Van Gogh was not mentioned during the [Academy Awards] ceremony. There wasn’t any kind of homage. I thought then that if there had been a gay filmmaker who made a film against Christianity and had been assassinated by a Christian fundamentalist, there would have been an homage.

51b6YKbnkjLScott Holleran: Have you read Infidel?

Thomas Doherty: No. I have read sections of it. I’m not an expert on this woman. I’ve never met her. I’ve had no contact with her. I’m mostly a film guy, so she came to my consciousness through film. What I know about her is that she was mutilated under [Islamic] law and severely abused and when she told her story in film, someone murdered the director and put a death sentence on her. When someone’s been trying to kill you for 10 years and you speak out against them, it’s not insane.

Scott Holleran: Is it possible that the university became aware of the campaign against Ayaan Hirsi Ali and decided that it was unable to protect and defend the students and faculty against the threat of initiation of force by Islamic jihadists?

Thomas Doherty: I have no idea how the decision was made.

Scott Holleran: Do you agree with Brandeis alum Jeffrey Herf, author of Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009) and The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust (Harvard University Press, 2006), who wrote to Brandeis President Fred Lawrence that the university’s decision is “an act of cowardice and appeasement”?

Thomas Doherty: Yes.

Scott Holleran: Do you agree with Mr. Herf that “… the Nazi interpretation of Christianity as well as the core texts of the Christian tradition itself, were used by the Nazis to justify their mass murders”?

Thomas Doherty: The Nazis would use anything to justify their mass murders. If you look at the Nazi propaganda, they were propagandizing against the pope too. Look at the cartoons—they did it because Hitler wanted no gods before him, so there’s a lot of anti-Catholicism.

Scott Holleran: Your work centrally addresses the conflict between the individual and the state in your books Hollywood and Hitler and Hollywood’s Censor. Do you see your opposition to the university’s withdrawal of the honorary degree as part of a career theme exploring submission to slavery?

Thomas Doherty: No. This is an easy call. If you believe in freedom of expression then you support people who believe that as well. I oppose the totalitarian mindset. She’s put her life on the line since 2004—we are talking about someone who has literally put her life on the line. The notion that 13 members of the faculty in women’s studies would oppose this woman is mind-boggling. I have no idea why.

Scott Holleran: Both feminists and multiculturalists claim that all people and cultures are equal in every sense, so they accept the egalitarian ideal that all cultures and religions, for example, are equal in every way—if religion means female genital mutilation, so be it—and one must never judge—

Thomas Doherty: —That’s what they put forward but there’s obviously a judgment here in the end against Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I believe in feminism but you have a Third World Somali woman so how much more multicultural can you get? This woman’s being shut down. If someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali isn’t under the umbrella of feminism, who is?

Scott Holleran: What is your estimate of her new movie, Honor Diaries?

Thomas Doherty: I like it. She’s interviewed in it and she executive produced the film. It’s about nine Moslem women fighting to improve conditions in predominantly Moslem countries ruled by Sharia law, with female genital mutilation, and other than Ayaan Hirsi Ali, most of the women self-identify as Moslem so the theological criticism is from within the orb of Islam. [Islamic advocacy group Council for American-Islamic Relations, which drove the campaign to pressure Brandeis University to withdraw Ali’s honorary degree] wants to shut the film down, too.

Scott Holleran: The Brandeis statement said that “[t]he selection of Ms. Hirsi Ali further suggests to the public that violence toward girls and women is particular to Islam or the Two-Thirds World, thereby obscuring such violence in our midst among non-Muslims, including on our own campus. We cannot accept Ms. Hirsi Ali’s triumphalist narrative of western civilization, rooted in a core belief of the cultural backwardness of non-western peoples.” But the Brandeis University motto is: “Truth, even unto its innermost parts.” Is the Brandeis motto a fraud?

Thomas Doherty: In this case it certainly is. If you look back to the 1950s, Brandeis was founded not just as a celebration of the Jewish experience but also from the very beginning we welcomed the liberal leftist college professors—we got Herbert Marcuse—so to see this particular arc come around is particularly distressing given the Brandeis tradition.

Scott Holleran: Do you think your own life may be at risk for speaking out for the infidel?

Thomas Doherty: I hope not. [Pauses] No, I don’t think so. I’ve received no death threats. Brandeis is a great place. [Pauses] There’s an expression in Yiddish shanda which means you’ve disgraced us and reflected poorly on Jews—shanda. This is a big shanda.