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Elizabeth Taylor's Legacy: AIDS Activist, Movie Star

Fresh Air's critic-at-large John Powers was raised to dislike Elizabeth Taylor. But he soon fell for her charms. He remembers the legendary actress who was a siren on-screen -- and a committed supporter of HIV/AIDS research.


Other segments from the episode on March 25, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 25, 2011: Interview with Mark Wahlberg and David O. Russell; Review of the television show "Mildred Pierce"; Obituary for Lanford Wilson; Tribute to Elizabeth Taylor.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Wahlberg, Russell Enter Ring With 'The Fighter'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for
Terry Gross.

The movie "The Fighter," starring Mark Wahlberg as boxer Micky Ward, continues
to generate momentum long after it hit theaters. Last month, the movie won
Academy Awards for supporting actor Christian Bale, who plays Micky's boxing
half-brother, Dicky Eklund, and for supporting actress Melissa Leo, who plays
Alice, their firebrand mother and manager.

"The Fighter" is now out on DVD, and this week, reports are swirling that the
filmmakers are close to committing to a sequel.

Our guests today are Mark Wahlberg, the star of "The Fighter" and one of its
producers, and the movie's director, David O. Russell, who also directed
Wahlberg in the films "Three Kings" and "I Heart Huckabees." Terry Gross spoke
with them in January.

But before we get to their conversation, let's hear a clip from "The Fighter."
Old brother Dicky's boxing career has been cut short by his crack habit, but he
and his mother continue to work with little brother Micky. Micky's new
girlfriend Charlene, played by Amy Adams, think they're holding him back, and
she and his boxing coach, Mickey O'Keefe, who plays himself, convinced Micky to
stop working with his mother and brother.

When they hear that news, they show up at the gym to confront the coach, the
girlfriend and Micky himself. In this clip, the trainer speaks first.

(Soundbite of film, "The Fighter")

Mr. MICKEY O'KEEFE (Boxing Trainer): (As Himself) We're going to train, they
gotta go.

Ms. AMY ADAMS (Actor): (As Charlene Fleming) They gotta go, Mick, come on.

Ms. MELISSA LEO (Actor): (As Alice Ward) Ask him, George. Ask him if he
would've won Sanchez without his brother.

Mr. MARK WAHLBERG (Actor): (As Micky Ward) No, I wouldn't have won Sanchez if
it wasn't for Dicky.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) How can you say that to O'Keefe?

Mr. WAHLBERG: (As Micky) Because it's true. All right, I went in with our game
plan. It wasn't working. So I went back to what I learned with Dicky. And I
wouldn't have won without you, either, O'Keefe, OK? I mean, you know that. We
worked hard. You got me ready.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) You got your confidence and your focus from O'Keefe
and from Sal and your father and from me. Dicky's a junk bag.

Mr. WAHLBERG: (As Micky) Hey.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) He's a junk bag.

Mr. CHRISTIAN BALE (Actor): (As Dicky Eklund) Why am I the problem? I'm his
blood. I'm his family.

Mr. WAHLBERG: (As Micky) I'm the one fighting, OK? Not you, not you and not
you. I know what I need.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) And you need Dicky?

Mr. WAHLBERG: (As Micky) I want Dicky back, and I want you, Charlene, and I
want O'Keefe. I want my family. What's wrong with that?

BIANCULLI: Mark Wahlberg had wanted to make a movie about Micky Ward for years.
They first met when Wahlberg was 18. Wahlberg grew up close to Lowell,
Massachusetts, where Micky and Dicky were from. Terry asked Mark Wahlberg how
he prepared for this very physical role.


Now, you trained for four years to play a boxer, and during those four years,
you made other movies. So how is a boxer's body different from the kind of body
you've needed for other roles because, you know, you've been muscular for other
roles, but maybe the muscles of a boxer are different.

Mr. WAHLBERG: You know what, it's not so much the way you look as far as your
physique. It's the way you move, the way you punch, footwork, all of those
things. You know, if you look at a lot of boxers, a lot of boxers don't look
like bodybuilders, don't necessarily have a beach type of physique.

But, you know, it's just - I didn't want to look like an actor who could skip a
little rope, and if you shoot him the right way and edit the right way that he
could look pretty decent in the ring. I wanted to look like a real boxer who
could actually go and win the title.

And that meant just - you know, the only way to do it is to put the work in.
And, you know, being left-handed, and Micky was right-handed, and wanting to
really look like Micky did in those fights, and the only thing that would
separate this film from other boxing movies was in the realism within the
fights themselves.

GROSS: So David O. Russell, Mark Wahlberg trained for four years to do this
movie, and then you had to direct him in the ring. And he had to take a lot of
punches in this film because the boxing strategy of his character is to take a
lot of punches and just kind of stand there until he could deliver a real body
punch to his opponent in the hopes of knocking him out, which he sometimes
succeeds in doing.

So when you were directing Wahlberg and his boxing opponents in the ring, were
you concerned about real injuries that might happen or real pain that they'd be
inflicting on each other unintentionally, even if you plan on giving 60 percent
in a punch, it might end up being more?

Mr. DAVID O. RUSSELL: (Director, "The Fighter"): Absolutely. You don't want
your star to get hurt in the ring, and yet at the same time it was a blessing
that Mark is someone who had been in a lot of fights on the streets and had
been to prison.

And so he wasn't going to pamper himself, either. So we knew that we could get
great - something that's all very raw and very real and push it to the edge.
You save some of the hardest hits till your last takes, though, just to be
careful, just to be - because then, you know, if you get - you get it in the
last take but it hasn't ruined the day.

GROSS: Now you actually asked an HBO film crew from the early '90s, from the
period that the movie is set in, to shoot the boxing scenes so that it would
look just like HBO was televising it. What are some of the things that they did
and some of the places they put their cameras that you might not have thought
of yourself?

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, they have sort of this way that covers the whole ring. It
was from one direction. It mostly covers it from one direction where they have
six cameras. You know, they have two that are parked in the middle stands
looking at the ring from one side, different distances, and they have two on
the other side.

So that's three sides of the ring. And then they have two floaters, who - if
you, I never noticed this until I saw it. There were these guys dressed all in
black, and they stand on what's called the apron of the ring, which is just
outside the ropes, and they walk everywhere handheld. And those kind of became
my favorite guys because the handheld style or the steady-cam style is what I
like the best.

GROSS: David, when you were asked by Mark Wahlberg to direct "The Fighter,"
what did you relate to about the story? Unlike Mark Wahlberg, you didn't grow
up near Micky Ward. He was probably not one of your heroes. I'm not sure you
were even interested in boxing. So what spoke to you about the story?

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, I immediately recognized that the characters and their world
were very - they had a quality of realness that was kind of fascinating to me
and that they were just characters that I was fascinated by, which some of my
favorite movies have.

So right off the bat, you know, I recognized some of the flavors from my own
family, you know, whether it's my family in The Bronx or Brooklyn, my own
mother, you know, and the fact that there was the women. The women made the
story very special to me with - in combination with these brothers and the
brothers' dynamic.

The bartender - you know, the women helped make the men what they were or were
so pivotal to the story, and I had not seen that before. And I had been an
organizer up in those parts. So I did know these people to some degree, of
course not to the degree that Mark did. But I also knew it was a piece of
Mark's heart, and I knew that there was going to be something very good and
real there.

GROSS: Let's play a scene from the film and we'll hear how everybody talks. And
this is a scene where Micky, the Mark Wahlberg character, has decided, at the
urging of his girlfriend and his boxing trainer, to fire his family, basically
to tell his mother she's not managing him anymore.

And so the mother is really angry, and she gathers all of her seven daughters
in the car and drives over to Micky's girlfriend's house, where Micky and his
girlfriend, played by Amy Adams, are.

And so they all get out of the car. The mother's furious. The sisters are
furious, and they're all ready to give Micky hell. So the first person to speak
is Charlene, Micky's girlfriend, played by Amy Adams.

(Soundbite of film, "The Fighter")

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) Hi.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) Well, well, well, look at this.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) Look at what?

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) Are you hiding from us, Micky?

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) He's not hiding.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) I wasn't talking to you. I was talking to my son. What are
you doing, Mickster, huh?

Mr. MARK WAHLBERG: (As Micky Ward) I'm right here. I ain't hiding from nobody,

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) What are you going to do, turn your back on Dicky next,
huh? All we ever wanted for you was to be world champion.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) Mickey's a grown man. He can think for himself.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) Shut your mouth, skank.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) Don't call me skank. I'll rip that nasty hair right
out of your head.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) I'm his mother and his manager.

Mr. WAHLBERG: (As Micky) You're not my manager anymore, and I'm not waiting for
Dicky, OK? I'm not getting any younger.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) Who's going to look after you, sweetheart? I mean, come on.
I know you don't understand it, but I had nine kids, and I love every one of
you the same.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) You've got a funny way of showing it, letting him get
beat up, letting him get his hand broken.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) You're crazy.

Unidentified People: (As characters) (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of screaming)

GROSS: Such a great scene.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSELL: I think you could just watch - you could just hear the audio the
whole movie, it's...

GROSS: No, yeah, it's great. And so David O. Russell, I have to ask you. You
said you were interested in the realness of the characters. But one thing I
like about the movie is that the characters are all slightly more real than

They're, like, slightly notched-up, which makes you feel like you're really
watching a movie. And I was wondering if you told everybody when you were
directing them, like, give me just, like, a little bit more than real life.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Well, if you make the real people, you'll realize that it's
actually a tone down. It really is because that's why - you know, it was great
for me seeing, you know, allowing the audience to see the real Dicky and Micky
together. And - well, not only the dynamic between the two of them but also how
big a personality Dicky is, as was Alice and Charlene and George and the rest
of the sisters.

I mean, there really is - it's a toned-down version of them. I know that's hard
to believe because these people seem larger than life, but...

Mr. RUSSELL: They're not a far throw from a lot of my relatives. And I love
them, and I still am friends with them and go up there and see them.

GROSS: There are seven daughters in the movie.

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah, seven beautiful sisters.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSELL: And I do think they're beautiful. People always say, oh, those
sisters, those ugly - I don't think they're ugly.

GROSS: Well, as portrayed in the movie, from my point of view...

Mr. RUSSELL: You thought they were ugly?

GROSS: Well, here's the thing - they're so consumed by anger and resentment
most of the time that it turns them - and bitterness, that it turns them kind
of ugly or in some cases even grotesque because they just always seem to be on
the verge of growling.

Mr. RUSSELL: That's the pity, I think, of cinema sometimes. You only have two
hours to do the story. Because we shot - I have a lot of love for those
characters, and that's one of the, as I said, one of the things that made me
want to make the movie.

And I get what you're saying, which I think is true because for the economy of
telling the story, they come in like a hammer a bunch of times, and they're
this intense pack, you know, or like some people call them to the - compare
them to the witches in "Macbeth."

GROSS: Or they're like their mother's entourage.

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah, well, they are. They're like her gang. And they're forceful.
My mother's family, Italian-American family, same deal. She had four aunts who
were like a gang, you know, with her mother and very powerful women.

But we shot other stuff, even though we didn't have a lot of time to do it. We
shot interviews with them that I think we'll put on the DVD, which I had hoped
- and the editor, Pam Martin(ph), and I had a hard time letting go of these
because we were using that movie-within-a-movie structure of the HBO movie that
became the notorious thing of Lowell. A and we were just - it gave us license
to interview all the characters, including the (unintelligible) that become the
bookends of the film, with Micky and Dicky, which was not scripted.

But they - we would interview the sisters, and they were talking about how much
they loved Micky and how they wanted to help him and how unfair a fight was.
And, you know, you just see a more mellow - them in a more mellow vein. But, I
mean, I get what you're saying.

GROSS: One of the sisters in the movie is played by Conan O'Brien's sister, and
I'm wondering how you cast her.

Mr. RUSSELL: She just showed up at a casting call in Boston. And I didn't know
she was his sister, although when you step back, she looks like him in drag,
you know, I mean, if you really think about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSELL: Kate O'Brien, and she's a teacher, and she's - you know, and I
don't think she acts a lot. She was a real - we had a lot of real people we
cast in the film like Jill Quigg...

GROSS: Is she the one who was in "Gone Baby Gone"?

Mr. RUSSELL: Yes. (Unintelligible), every time she speaks, she gets a laugh.

GROSS: She has an incredible face.

Mr. RUSSELL: It's that (BEEP) girl, Charlene.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Ma, it's a girl from the bar, Charlene. We've got to get rid of

Mr. RUSSELL: And the way we didn't have 10 different accents, as some movies
have, is that I said just follow Mark. Don't do no more or no less than Mark.
And interestingly, it had been pointed out by another director that an accent
can be a veil, not a performance. So you've got to keep reminding the actors
that they're actors that their accents...

Mr. WAHLBERG: The great Mike Leigh.

Mr. RUSSELL: It was Mike Nichols.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Mike Nichols, sorry. Wrong (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But she's from the neighborhood. So she probably was just talking like

Mr. WAHLBERG: Oh, yeah, she's the real deal. We probably duked it out a couple
times when we were growing up.

BIANCULLI: Actor Mark Wahlberg and director David O. Russell of the movie "The
Fighter," which is now out on DVD. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview from January with actor Mark
Wahlberg and director David O. Russell of "The Fighter." It's been released on
DVD, and there may be a sequel in the works.

GROSS: Mark, after you made "The Departed," you told me in an interview that
your mother was really tough. I think you described her as one of the toughest
women you'll ever see. Did you find characteristics from your mother in Mickey
Ward's mother or at least in the Melissa Leo portrayal of her?

Mr. WAHLBERG: Well, there's so many similarities between my life and Micky's
life, Alice and my mom, you know, not just the fact that they both had nine
children. Both had - Micky and I both had the older brother, who was very much
the apple of Mom's eye and could do no wrong. But, this is a true...

GROSS: Was that Donnie?

Mr. WAHLBERG: Yeah. But this is a true story. I was talking to my mother on the
way over here on the phone, and she was like, you know, next time, when you do
an interview about me, can you just say how I was the best, not that I was a
machine or that I was tough or that I kicked your ass or that I threw your
friends out of the house?

Because she - I guess she had watched - I was on Ellen DeGeneres, and she had
watched the show and I always liked telling the stories of my mom when she
like, you know, slaps me down or, you know, brings me back down to reality. But
she literally, on the way over here, and I didn't tell her that I was doing an
interview, but I am now going to say, she's the best.

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah, God bless.

Mr. WAHLBERG: So now I can talk about how tough she was again.

GROSS: Yeah. Exactly. And tell me a tough story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAHLBERG: Oh, God. I remember her coming to LA with Father Flavin, who is
my parish priest, who has baptized all of my children, buried all my relatives
that have passed, married my wife and I, and, you know, he's been such a huge
part of my life for a long time. We went to an event together. I think it was a
premiere, actually. And my mom was like, you know, don't worry about me. I'm

So I sent her in the car home with Father Flavin, and I think they got a little
bit lost trying to get up to my house. They weren't driving. They had a driver.
And then when I got home she just gave me the, who the (BEEP) do you think you
are? You're not a (BEEP) movie star. You're nothing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAHLBERG: I was like whoa, you said you were going to be OK. I mean, I sent
you in the car, in a limousine home. But we laugh about that.

Mr. RUSSELL: Oh, so can I tell the story about George and your dad?

Mr. WAHLBERG: Yeah. Sure. Tell the story.

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah. There was a - there, when we met George, Micky and Dicky's
father, the roofer, who is a good man, one of the first things he said was to
Mark - was he said I knew your father in jail, and he's a really good man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSELL: I love the fact that Mark's father and Micky and Dicky's father
were in prison together and both good guys.

GROSS: Wow, that's amazing.

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Small world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah. Or a large prison or...

Mr. RUSSELL: There's one situation where people...

GROSS: So Mark Wahlberg, David O. Russell, you've worked together on three
films: "Three Kings," "I Heart Huckabees" and now...

Mr. WAHLBERG: Oh God, you're right.

GROSS: ..."The Fighter."

Mr. WAHLBERG: Well, I like everything about working with David. But my favorite
thing, going back to "Three Kings," you know, he's the writer-director, so
obviously he's looking for something very specific. And my whole job and all I
want to accomplish is making the director happy at the end of the day.

So some tough emotional scenes were coming up, and I just went to him and said:
Dude, I really would rather you just kind of try to explain to me or show me
what it is you're looking for. And he immediately would act out the scene.

So it just became like a daily occurrence where I'd come to him and I was like:
Dude, you've got to show me. And certainly for my own entertainment, watch him
acting these scenes out. And it was just wonderful to watch.

And really, he allowed me to become more confident as an actor and to let go of
my fear and my insecurities, and that was what made me commit my undying
commitment and passion and love and dedication to David.

GROSS: Was that on the first film you did together that he did that?

Mr. WAHLBERG: Yeah, that was on "Three Kings."

GROSS: So give me an example of what he did that you wouldn't have realized

Mr. WAHLBERG: Well, you know, like crying for instance. There was a scene where
I was supposed to be crying over my friend's body and, you know, there's many
ways to cry: do you want the slow build, do you want the big bawling, what do
you want to do?

And, you know, he was just - he just jumped right in there and did it and I
just - I loved him for that. Because, you know, there's a crew of people, you
know, everybody standing around and just kind of looking and watching and, you
know, it could be awkward. And for him to kind of make me feel comfortable in
that way and to show that he was willing to do anything to help me, that meant
a lot to me.

Mr. RUSSELL: I think the key to it, I think, is if I'm willing to let go of my
sense of embarrassment and that's - I want to create an environment where
everybody feels loose on the set, and I think that's what you're saying.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Yeah. And I also, I come from a background of, you know, you're
worried about how you're being perceived, how, you know, being a musician,
being a rapper, being from the street, got to be cool, got to be tough, that
whole thing.

That was an issue for me for quite a while, you know. And that was obviously
something. That's a problem when you're an actor because, you know, you want to
be able to be as versatile as possible and play a lot of different roles and...

GROSS: Including vulnerable.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Exactly. And I had that with "Boogie Nights," but this was
different and David was, you know, he was just, you know, helped me overcome

GROSS: David, did you pick up on that, that Mark was having trouble or was,
like, self-conscious about playing vulnerable because he was so used to needing
to be, like, strong and hip and all that stuff?

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah. I remember one of the first scenes is when he danced at the
beginning of the movie with Spike Jones.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Oh, I hated that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSELL: And he had danced for a living on stages all over the world, and
he said you do it. And, you know, you're in front of like a hundred extras a
hundred casts and so, you feel you got - I like it, I appreciate it as a
director because you get what it feels like. Oh, OK, now I've got to dance.
What am I going to do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSELL: So, but then I created the way I wanted it to look, and then it
cracked him up. And whenever you can crack people up while you're doing some
work, that's a good energy.

BIANCULLI: Actor Mark Wahlberg and director David O. Russell, speaking to Terry
Gross in January. "The Fighter" is now out on DVD, and if the rumors are
accurate, there may eventually be a "Fighter" part two. I'm David Bianculli,
and this is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
'Mildred Pierce': A Masterpiece Of Modern Film Noir

(Soundbite of music)


This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli.

At the start of the fall TV season, HBO gave us the best new series of the year
with "Boardwalk Empire," which was set in the Prohibition era in Atlantic City,
New Jersey. This weekend, HBO launches an ambitious, impressive five-hour
miniseries, and as with "Boardwalk Empire," it's set during the Depression.

But this one, called "Mildred Pierce," is more intimate and, in the end, more
emotional and more haunting. It's based on the 1941 novel by James M. Cain,
about a middle-class woman trying to survive and feed and nurture her young
daughters during very tough times. In 1945, it was one of three Cain stories
made into a hit Hollywood movie in as many years - after "Double Indemnity,"
but before "The Postman Always Rings Twice." And the title role of "Mildred
Pierce" won Joan Crawford an Oscar.

This new HBO version hands the title role to Kate Winslet, who does wonders
with it. It's directed by Todd Haynes, who wrote the screenplay adaptation with
Jon Raymond, and they put almost all the drama's weight on the shoulders of
their leading lady. Todd Haynes also directed "I'm Not There," that brilliant
fable of a movie in which different actors and actresses played Bob Dylan at
various times in his life. But for "Mildred Pierce," it's all about keeping it
real - astoundingly real, down to the period magazines and wallpaper, the food
on the diner plates and the slightly muted photography.

Remaking the story of "Mildred Pierce" at this point in this decade is
particularly shrewd. As the drama opens - in Glendale, California, in 1931 -
Mildred's marriage to her husband Bert breaks up suddenly. It leaves her, in
the early years of the Depression, with two young daughters, no prospects for
work and no idea how to keep going.

It's easy to relate that sort of anxiety to today's financial meltdown; and
even easier because Kate Winslet, early on, vanishes completely into the role
of Mildred. She's determined to provide for her daughters, but a visit to an
employment agency generates nothing except a lecture about how she isn't
qualified to do anything but cook or clean; and, during hard times, there are
plenty of people willing to do that.

But when Mildred is asked out for a date by a predatory friend of her soon-to-
be-ex-husband's, her neighbor has some more practical advice. And the neighbor
is played by Melissa Leo, who follows up her Oscar-winning role in "The
Fighter" with another winning performance.

(Soundbite of HBO movie, "Mildred Pierce")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MELISSA LEO (Actor): (as character) Since when was Wally Bergin interested
in you?

Ms. KATE WINSLET (Actor): (as Mildred Pierce) I don think he ever was but the
second he heard Bert was gone...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WINSLET: (as Mildred Pierce) ...almost funny the effect it had on him.

Ms. LEO: (as character) Yeah, I forgot to mention that. The morals they give
you credit for, you'd be surprised. To him, you are a red hot momma the second
he found out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WINSLET: (as Mildred Pierce) Found out what?

Ms. LEO: (as character) Grass widow. Well, from now on honey, you're fast.

Ms. WINSLET: (as Mildred Pierce) Are you serious?

Ms. LEO: (as character) I am and they are.

BIANCULLI: At first, this seems like a very old-fashioned, unenlightened
narrative, suggesting that the only way for a woman to survive is to throw
herself at a man. And even when the employment agent calls back with an out-of-
the-blue job offer, Mildred doesn't see it as suitable.

Unidentified Woman: (as Mrs. Turner) I was over in Beverly's the other night
and I got talking to this lady that's going to marry this director. He doesn't
know it yet but his house is in for a big shakeup. So, she needs a housekeeper.
And on account of all that fine domestic efficiency you were telling me about,
I told her about you.

Ms. WINSLET: (as Mildred Pierce) Well, I hardly know what to say. You see, I
recently came across a similar job, it's a waitress and I...

Unidentified Woman: (as Mrs. Turner) And you turned it down?

Ms. WINSLET: (as Mildred Pierce) Well, I mean I couldn't. I – I just can't go
home and face my children knowing their mother works all day at taking tips and
wearing a uniform and mopping up crumbs.

Unidentified Woman: (as Mrs. Turner) But you can face them just fine when
there's nothing left to eat?

Ms. WINSLET: (as Mildred Pierce) That will never be the case, Mrs. Turner.

BIANCULLI: It's no accident that in these early scenes, Mildred doesn't talk
much. It takes a while for her to find her voice, and even longer to find a
direction - especially since the thought of taking that waitress job makes her
sick. Literally sick. But she takes it anyway, and uses her skill at baking
pies to bring in some extra money from the diner, and to start her on her way.

But this is James M. Cain, not some fairy tale, so not every turn in the story
is a triumph, and not every man she meets is a prince. As actors, however, the
men in Mildred's life, led by Guy Pearce as a dashing young playboy, are

And it's not until the fourth hour that Mildred's eldest daughter grows up
enough to be played by Even Rachel Wood - the vampire queen from "True Blood" -
but she's worth the wait. Her defiant disdain of her mother's work ethic is one
of the key elements in this miniseries, and, ultimately, provides its biggest
payoff. And it's a different payoff than the one in the 1945 movie because this
version is more faithful to the original novel.

I really, really enjoyed this miniseries - especially because it's perfect as a
miniseries. The sheer length of the drama, and the journey Mildred has to take,
makes her struggles more potent, more painful and more real. "Mildred Pierce"
is a masterpiece of modern film noir - or, if you prefer, TV noir - and it's
anchored by a performance by Kate Winslet that is unlikely to be beaten at next
year's Emmys.

Oh, and one last thing: HBO's "Mildred Pierce" will make you hungrier for pie
than any television offering since "Twin Peaks" and "Pushing Daisies." Select
your TV snacks accordingly.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Coming up, we listen back to part of a 1992 conversation between
Terry Gross and Lanford Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who died
this week.

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Playwright Lanford Wilson


Lanford Wilson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1980 play "Talley's Folly,"
died this week with complications from pneumonia. He was 73 years old. Wilson
is one of the playwrights who created the off-off-Broadway scene in the 1960s.
His work was so popular it ended up on Broadway. John Malkovich starred in the
Broadway production of Wilson's "Burn This," and Wilson's other acclaimed plays
include "Balm in Gilead," "Hot L Baltimore," "Fifth of July" and "Lemon Sky."
He also co-founded New York Circle Repertory Company, which produced plays by
Jules Feiffer, Larry Kramer, Sam Shepard and others.

Terry Gross spoke with Lanford Wilson in 1992.


In the late 1960s you co-founded Circle Repertory Theater in New York. What was
the philosophy of the group?

Mr. LANFORD WILSON (Playwright): Frankly, we wanted to have - we wanted to
become the great American theater - the great American theater company. But we
had done a number of plays with the group even before we were founded. Marshall
and I and Rob Thirkield and Tanya, we'd done a number of plays that had large
cast and ensemble acting that just took forever to rehearse and forever to get

And in order to create an ensemble you have to trust everyone else on stage
with you, because otherwise you're going to make a very large choice and the
actor is going to leave you hanging out there. I've seen actors on stage
actually look at the audience like what in the hell was that all about when
someone makes this huge enormous choice. So the actor, you have to trust that
person to be there for you.

And then and if that person is there for you, you can make deeper choices and
that person can make deeper choices and it just - you can just create a much
fuller, farther out, more profound experience, and that can only happen in
ensemble or if you happen to know the actor very well or if you happen to be
directed right.

And so we wanted to create an ensemble, that kind of an ensemble that would
take chances and would not leave the other person hanging out there.

GROSS: One of your early successes was "Hot L Baltimore." And this is about
people in a hotel that's condemned.

Mr. WILSON: Yes.

GROSS: And in your early days in New York you lived in welfare hotels, right?

Mr. WILSON: Right. I lived at the – I first lived in a place that I never did
learn the name of it. I think the hotel did not have a name.

GROSS: Was it called Hotel?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: Yeah, it should have been. It was right across the street from
Manhattan Hotel. And they answered the phone with something incomprehensible. I
never did hear what it was. It sounded sort of like hevrow(ph), and so we
called it the Hevrow Hilton.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: But it was - it was definitely a welfare hotel. And then I moved
from there down to the down to Broadway Central and the week I moved out of the
Broadway Central the hotel collapsed.


Mr. WILSON: It fell completely into the ground. Fortunately, it did it slowly.
He did it over a period of about a day and a half so everyone got. But, so I'd
had a lot of experience with that kind of hotel.

GROSS: Did you lay awake often at night overhearing fights that were happening
in the halls or in other rooms?

Mr. WILSON: No. I did – when I slept was the hours that – I didn't go to sleep
until about eight in the morning back then. And so I had a nice, quiet sleep. I
was part of the people that was making the noise so other people couldn't
sleep, probably.

GROSS: What were you doing all night?

Mr. WILSON: Well, I was writing and the whole neighborhood was such a - it was
the middle of the Needle Park. It was such an enormous shock to me and so
thrilling because the neighborhood was filled with hustlers and pimps and
prostitutes and drag queens. I'd never seen anything like it in my life.

GROSS: Not everybody would find that thrilling.

Mr. WILSON: Well, it was thrilling to me. I thought it was the most colorful
place I'd ever seen in my life. Also, there were a bunch of guys from Colombia,
so I, you know, I was learning Spanish and, which I didn't learn...

GROSS: Not Columbia University.

Mr. WILSON: Not from Columbia University.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: From Colombia and Costa Rica, and Costa Rica University. So I just
found it thrilling.

I would walk right up to a pusher and say, how exactly does a drug transition
work? And where do you get the dope from? And they'd say, get out of here kid.
Because I just wanted to know how everything worked. I thought it was really
exciting. So I was usually downstairs and this is all "Balm in Gilead." I was
usually downstairs with the "Balm in Gilead" crowd in that coffee shop.

GROSS: Yeah. Let me explain that "Balm in Gilead" is a play that takes place in
what, an all night diner and...

Mr. WILSON: An all night diner. Yeah.

GROSS: And it's a diner that's frequented mostly by drug dealers and pimps and
prostitutes and other small-time criminals.

Mr. WILSON: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: So, now what attracted you to people like that? You were from the

Mr. WILSON: Yeah, from a very proper upbringing in the Midwest. Farm yet, grew
up on a farm. And I just think it was a, I think, you know, it was raw
enterprise that attracted me. Everyone was out to make a buck, which is true of
everyone everywhere, but it was just so raw and bold and obvious there that
when I was writing "Balm in Gilead" I always said I could really be writing
about Wall Street. It would be exactly the same, and that's why I was trying -
I was looking at the economics of it.

Also they had such a great sense of humor about themselves. There were at least
five- there was a drag queen and a drug dealer and a fantastic prostitute, who
just would sit around dishing the dirt and it was the funniest dialogue I'd
ever heard in my life.

There were - I didn't ever get the prostitute into a play until I wrote "Hot L
Baltimore" and then finally the part that Conchata Ferrell played, April, April
Green, finally I got that prostitute into it. You couldn't say a word to that
woman without a comeback.

GROSS: So what did all the hustlers and con men and drug dealers bring out in
you? What surfaced in you?

Mr. WILSON: Oh, I was their pet. I mean they knew I was writing down every word
they said because I was - and I would walk up and say, would you repeat that,
please? And they thought I was the cutest thing they'd ever seen. You know,
they thought I was really very silly. You know, they kind of protected me. I
think they felt very protective. When I finished the play "Balm in Gilead," I
gave it to a couple of people I had written about, like an idiot, to read and
check for errors.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: And they read it and said well, that's more or less what it's like,
you know.

GROSS: You know, if you weren't so naive it wouldn't have been that easy.

Mr. WILSON: Oh, I'm sure. If I hadn't been that naive I would probably have
been horrified. But - and now I'm a little bit shocked at the society that I
moved in back then. I still, yeah, I can't quite believe that I was in the
place when someone was murdered there. That was really horrifying enough.

GROSS: What happened?

Mr. WILSON: Well, someone walked in with a knife and stabbed someone and turned
around and walked out. We didn't know the person was stabbed at all. They were
from another neighborhood and we didn't know the people who stabbed him. It was
just very alarming but it was the sort of thing that could easily have happened
there at any time, it just hadn't.

GROSS: Well, after your plays like "Balm in Gilead" and "Hot L Baltimore," you
eventually turned to completely different subject matter, which was a family
from the Midwest, the "Talley" series.

Mr. WILSON: The "Talley" series. Right.

GROSS: It's a family from the Midwest, from Lebanon, Missouri, which I think is
where you're originally from.

Mr. WILSON: Yeah, I was born in Lebanon.

GROSS: Yeah. So this is a family that's not your family but not probably

Mr. WILSON: Not at all my family.

GROSS: OK. But, yeah. But your family must have some connection to them. So how
did you turn from this family that was very exotic, very not like you at all,
you know, the...

Mr. WILSON: Mm-hmm. Correct.

GROSS: ..."Balm in Gilead" crew, turn from that to a Midwestern family, who
absorbed you for five plays?

Mr. WILSON: Yeah, I think they were kind of exotic to me. My connection with
that family is my mother cleaned for them.


Mr. WILSON: So they were sort of - these were the rich people that lived up on
the hill, and they were exotic to me. I'd always wanted to write about them. I
had spent hours talking to various members of this family and other people like
this, so the whole class. I'd go with my mother and she would clean the house
and I would talk to the cook and the lady of the house and the kids that lived
there. So I always was very strongly attracted to all of those rich kids
because we were very poor and examined them.

I mean, you know, I would, on the rare times when I went to their houses, you
know, I would ask the mother to take me through the house so I could see the
way they lived. It was fascinating to me.

GROSS: Explain what it was about the Talley family that you created, the family
that was originally loosely based on the family that your mother cleaned for. I

Mr. WILSON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What absorbed you in that family enough to bring you back about five
different times?

Mr. WILSON: I think they were America for me. I think they were - and they were
changing so much. The war had been so, had had a very profound effect on them.
The country was changing and they were changing. They were not coping
particularly well with the change, and that I think was the first thing that
drew me to them.

The whole idea of family is very interesting to me because it's not at all the
way the politicians talk about. We have to create a strong family unit and
everything is for the family. Well, bull hockey. I mean families are about the
most destructive things that's ever been invented. They're horrible. And there
are so few families that work, half the families in - half the people in the
country don't have two parents.

You could name on one hand anyone in a class of say 60 that has one meal with
the entire family sitting down together. It doesn't happen anymore. I wonder if
it ever did. And also the meals that we had at home were the most horrible
experiences of my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What kind of food?

Mr. WILSON: Well, the – it wasn't the...

GROSS: Was it the food the problem - the company?

Mr. WILSON: It wasn't the – no it wasn't the food so much, it's everyone –
yeah, it was the company. As my stepfather telling us all how to eat and, you
know, and it was his only chance to torture the family altogether and so he
made the most of it.

GROSS: Do you have a group of people you think of as being your family, even
though it's not a nuclear family?

Mr. WILSON: It - yes. Yes. The Circle Rep is my family. Yeah. Either Circle Rep
or there's another small little adjunct to that. I live in Sag Harbor and there
are a few people, few neighbors there that are I also feel love as very, very
important to me.

GROSS: So what are you going to wear to the opening tonight?

Mr. WILSON: I have to find a shirt. I've got a really nice suit, a sport coat
and a pair of gray pants that don't quite match. I've got my hard shoes in
town, I'm going to wear my hard shoes and a pair of clean socks. I got clean
pair of shorts, new T-shirt, and I have to find a shirt. Either that or I have
to iron a shirt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: I did all of my laundry and so all of my shirts are very clean but
they're really kind of rumpled. So I have to go out and find a shirt or a
sweater or something to wear with that jacket.

GROSS: Well, I'll let you get to it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: Thanks a lot.

GROSS: Thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. WILSON: It's been fun.

BIANCULLI: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson who died this week
at age 73. He spoke with Terry Gross in 1992, just hours before the opening of
his play "Redwood Curtain."

Coming up, critic at large John Powers notes the passing of another significant
arts figured this week: actress Elizabeth Taylor.

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Elizabeth Taylor's Legacy: AIDS Activist, Movie Star

(Soundbite of music)


Elizabeth Taylor, one of the most iconic screen legends of the 20th century and
one of the world's first and most tenacious AIDS activists, died Wednesday at
age 79.

Since her death, our critic-at-large, John Powers, has been thinking about what
truly makes a movie star.

JOHN POWERS: I was raised to dislike Elizabeth Taylor. My mother, who taught me
about the movies, disapproved of her countless men - she never forgave Liz for
stealing Eddie from Debbie – and she flat-out scoffed at her acting. She's only
beautiful, Mom would snort, a line I found convincing - until I reached
puberty. Then, like almost every man in the world, I felt the tidal pull of
that violet-eyed, raven-haired beauty, whose ethereal perfection contained
within it the promise of carnal delight.

Taylor was only 12 when "National Velvet" made her famous, and she spent the
next 67 years in the public spotlight. The obituaries keep calling her the last
movie star, meaning she was the last star from that era when movies were the
center of American culture. And I sometimes think she was the purest of them
all. Not because of what she achieved on-screen - next to John Wayne or Barbara
Stanwyck her career was flimsy - but because her glamour seemed to soar over
anything so pedestrian as a single movie or single performance.

This isn't to say that she was a bad actress, although she spent much of her
career drifting through forgettable films that were delighted to treat her as
only beautiful. She did have a great run in the '50s, from Angela Vickers in "A
Place in the Sun" to call girl Gloria Wandrous in "Butterfield 8," a role that
won her an Oscar.

While she never found the director to properly nurture her - as George Cukor
did Katharine Hepburn - she was clearly jazzed by working with the giants of
method acting. She did some of her finest work with James Dean, Marlon Brando
and, above all, her beloved Montgomery Clift - himself so beautiful that in
Steve Erickson's great Hollywood novel "Zeroville," the hero's skull is
tattooed with the image of Taylor and Clift in "A Place in the Sun."

Here, in a famous scene from that movie, Liz's Angela Vickers first meets
Clift's George Eastman, the man who will kill to have her, as he's alone
shooting pool.

(Soundbite of movie, "A Place in the Sun")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ELIZABETH TAYLOR (Actor): (as Angela Vickers) Hello.

Mr. MONTGOMERY CLIFT (Actor): (as George Eastman) Hello.

Ms. TAYLOR: (as Angela Vickers) I see you had a misspent youth.

Mr. CLIFT: (as George Eastman) I guess it was.

Ms. TAYLOR: (as Angela Vickers) Why all alone? Being exclusive? Being dramatic?
Being blue?

Mr. CLIFT: (as George Eastman) I'm just fooling around. Maybe you'd like to

Ms. TAYLOR: (as Angela Vickers) Oh no. I'll just watch you. Go ahead. Do I make
you nervous?

Mr. CLIFT: (as George Eastman) Yes.

POWERS: It was Taylor's fate to be at her peak just as the old Hollywood was
dying and the new Hollywood was yet to be born. She became the first million-
dollar star when she agreed to do "Cleopatra," that great barge wreck of an
epic that was both a symptom of Hollywood's decline and perhaps the first movie
to become best-known for what happened off-screen: Taylor's great love affair
with Richard Burton.

Liz and Dick quickly became the Adam and Eve of today's celebrity culture,
pursued everywhere by paparazzi, every detail of their lives duly noted. And
what details they were. Theirs was a life, we were told, just bursting with
booze, humongous diamonds, extravagant fights and equally extravagant makeup
sex. They made Puerto Vallarta world famous just by showing up there. So what
if their lives often seemed vulgar. Their appetites - their greedy embrace of
life - only made their passion grander and more comprehensible to those
fascinated by their every split and reconciliation.

Of course, such living took its toll. While Burton died young, Taylor's
excesses seemed to be symbolically punished, most visibly in her struggles with
her weight, a distinctively American punishment that also claimed other icons:
Fat Orson, Fat Elvis, Fat Marlon.

And once the '60s counterculture took root, she started seeming more like a
blousy joke than a goddess. On "Saturday Night Live," her eating was cruelly
lampooned by John Belushi, whose own unruly appetites killed him at 33. I'm
betting Liz felt more empathy for that wayward soul than he ever did for her.

You see, through it all, Taylor didn't simply keep on living as she chose; she
helped others live, too. Always close to gay men - perhaps because they didn't
view her as a sex object - she was one of the world's leaders in fighting AIDS,
helping to raise money through her organization AmFAR and, far more important,
being willing to talk about it freely in public at a time when the president -
also from Hollywood - wouldn't even say the word. Born of the human compassion
that was inseparable from her human appetites, her AIDS work was her life's
great achievement.

Still, that's not what will assure her own enduring place in the sun. Watching
clips from her films in recent days, I was reminded that she was one of those
rare stars who could flood your head with the image of a world richer and
lovelier and more magical than our own, a reality outside of time and space
that mere mortals could only dream of touching, which is to say, Taylor
embodied the boundless allure that is, or perhaps once was, the movies.

BIANCULLI: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.
And you can download podcasts of our show at

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

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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