If you missed my interview with David Heeley, check it out here.
Documentary directors David Heeley and Joan Kramer aren’t lying when they titled their biography, In the Company of Legends. There’s very few classic film stars they didn’t meet at some point in their careers, or, even better, create a documentary about. Their work has endured, right up to being showcased on TCM a few weeks back. I was fortunate to spend nearly 90-minutes talking to both Heeley and Kramer, in a series of conversations that made me feel as if I found two kindred spirits.
My interview with Kramer clocked in at nearly an hour. By the end, we were just listing off movie titles at each other and commenting on them, so I’m presenting a truncated, coherent version of our talk. Suffice it to say, Joan Kramer is the type of person I want to be one day, a true classic film devotee with vim and vigor!
Kristen: Hi, Joan! It’s great to talk to you!
Joan Kramer: It’s great to talk to you!
K: I was just telling David, I recently got back from the TCM Classic Film Festival to discover you two were having a tribute on TCM! What was that like, sitting down with Robert Osborne?
JK: First of all, that was really so generous of TCM, so kind of them to do it in the timing they did it to talk about our book. They chose the five films, and I think they chose very well, we’re very proud of the five shown the other night. Robert is someone we know. We’ve known him for a long time. I’m just thrilled he was okay, as you know he didn’t go to the festival. I was just happy he was okay because we have such a good time. He’s such a genuinely nice man. I use the word nice…I mean it!
K: Did you guys ever anticipate that making these documentaries would be shown years after filming?
JK: Most of them were made with the elements cleared for use in perpetuity. When you do a documentary, it may look smooth and easy, but it ain’t. Finding and licensing film clips is time consuming, complicated, and difficult effort. But, as we cleared most of those elements, in perpetuity, we knew the shows could be seen for a long time to come. They weren’t just for the PBS window. But, whether or not anyone would want to show them after their initial broadcast, was up to the people who broadcast them. So we’re delighted that they still have a life and people are still interested in the people we profiled. Does everyone out there still know who Jimmy Stewart is?
K: I’ve met people who don’t, sadly.
JK: Are we gonna look back on that time, the ’80s and ’90s, as the new Golden Age? I’m not being denigrating…
K: But in the grand scheme of things, the stars have definitely lessened with how controlling PR is now.
JK: I know. And what’s interesting to me is the dichotomy of the star’s personalities we were doing profiles on were protected by the studio system, nurtured by the studio system, and yet we had direct access to them and a free hand to do their stories as we wanted, with no interference. Today, there is no studio system, people aren’t protected and nurtured in the same way. I think the publicists and agents today would never gives us that free hand. Today’s stars are completely shielded, in a different kind of way then they used to be. I can’t put my finger on it.
K: David mentioned you guys had such unfettered access that wasn’t the norm. He said he was surprised that more documentarians weren’t looking at these subjects. Personas are so ingrained, controlled, and confined with today’s stars.
JK: In the studio system, and Jimmy Stewart told us you appeared in big parts and small parts, and if one failed your career wasn’t over. Today, these people are making millions of dollars for one film, and if it doesn’t work they’re in trouble. So, therefore, how do they learn their craft? They have to learn their craft under fire. Whereas the studio system let them learn their craft. Jimmy Stewart made movies where he was ice skating. He made some peculiar movies, but he was working all the time, as they all did…[We start discussing how George Clooney works within today’s studio system.] I remember Pandro Berman, the head of RKO in the ’30s, I said to him, “How did you feel when one of Katharine Hepburn’s movies was less successful?” He said, “You know something, I didn’t care. Because, while her movie was a flop, I had Fred and Ginger in Top Hat.” They were releasing so many movies, with so many people…studios have gone under now as the result of one movie!
K: Fox almost lost their shirts over Cleopatra!
JK: I remember Esther Williams being on television once, and telling a story that after she got out of the tank, swimming all day, she’d go home in a towel and bathrobe driving her own car. She said, in those days, “No one gave me a limousine.” Did you read the book?
K: I did, I reviewed it!
JK: I know, I saw the review. Your review was the first big review that came in and we were thrilled.
K: Thank you so much!
JK: We were thrilled. We’ve, now, gotten some good press, but yours was the first one.
K: Thank you. I read so many books, and this one, you guys are the duo I wish I had the opportunity to be. You had such amazing access to so many amazing people. You talked to people I could only dream of meeting.
JK: Where are you?
K: I live in Sacramento, California.
JK: If you lived closer I’d invite you over because I’ve got a house filled with scrapbooks.
K: Oh, thank you! And that’s what I loved about your book. You and David each have individual perspectives that come together for this beautiful partnership.
JK: There is an element of good cop/bad cop. People have described David and me as George [Burns] and Gracie [Allen] because David, with his British wit, is always coming up with quips. He always calls me the greatest straight man in the world.
K: I told him that I liked how, in the book, he’s the one defusing the situation while you’re stressing yourself sick. He did say I was allowed to find that funny, but what I ended up appreciating was how you included those elements of minutiae in the book to show both the stress and the humor within.
JK: You know, what we didn’t want to do was 1) Betray no one. I don’t think we betray anyone’s trust in this book. This was not a book that was going to get interest from the National Enquirer. The second thing we wanted to do was make it sound like our voices. It’s our stories. The stories that happened to us were the stories we wrote about, which is why we decided to do the breakdown. We started writing it as a plain narrative, and realized it was sounding very clumsy. It was much better to define it as “When I did that.” It became more of a dialogue.
K: Well, and too often autobiographies can become a sequence of names and dates.
JK: I call it a laundry list.
K: Considering you’ve interacted with so many amazing people, do you have a favorite of your documentaries?
JK: Did you ask David that question?
K: I did and he said it was extremely difficult for him to answer.
JK: It’s like asking a parent to pick a favorite child. It’s like asking Fred Astaire who his favorite partner was. If someone put fire under my fingernails, there’s no question that meeting and knowing for 18 years, Katharine Hepburn, was a real high. She was an extraordinary person. I was thrilled to meet and work with Audrey Hepburn; I was thrilled to meet and work with Johnny Carson and Jimmy Stewart. That was a genuine friendship, those two. That wasn’t put on; they really cared about each other, off-screen. I was thrilled to work with Julie Garfield. And, of course, my friendship with Joanne Woodward and the late Paul Newman was a very real friendship. Working with people who are your friends can be very complicated. Joanne is still my friend. She still comes to dinner.
K: David did bring up that some of the documentaries are imperfect to him. He brought up Starring Katharine Hepburn, and he said that, if he could go back, he’d like to fix. Do you think any of them would benefit from polishing in hindsight?
JK: I’m a tinkerer. I can fiddle with something from now till Doomsday. Therefore, every show, I can recognize things that we could have extended, maybe we could have cut someone’s interview shorter. But, for the most part, I think we’re very happy with the result.
K: Well, and like I told David there’s nothing sycophantic…
JK: I hope not, and I hope the book isn’t sycophantic. We’ve always been asked, often, “when you were in the presence of these people, were you intimidated?” I’m not intimidated by talking to anybody as you can probably gather! I was never intimidated. We knew we were in, excuse the pun, the company of legends, but it wasn’t sycophantic. They would have run for their lives.
K: And that’s where that weird moment with Bette Davis that came to nothing, even then a lesser author would make fun.
JK: No, that wasn’t funny.
K: And you still remained respectful even then it didn’t work out. There wasn’t too much praise nor was there lampooning.
JK: I don’t know if David told you, but when we did the show on Errol Flynn, Patrice Wymore Flynn…she very rarely talked to anybody because everybody wanted to talk about the salacious side of Errol Flynn’s life. We contacted her and we had a lovely conversation. We went to Jamaica and she agreed to participate in the program, and one of the first things we said to her “Pat, we’ve gotta ask you a personal question. We cannot do a puff piece about Errol Flynn. The stories about your husband we can’t gloss over. He had a dark side and dark periods in his life that may not be what you want to talk about, but we can’t leave it out of the show.” And she said to us, “Do whatever you think is appropriate.” Pat Flynn flew to New York….and watched when it premiered. She said something to us that, even now, I get a lump in my throat. She said, “He would have been so proud. It’s the first time anyone’s taken him seriously as an actor.” But, all that stuff swirling around, all those stories about him…overshadowed, for so many years, that he was a damn good actor! That was, strangely enough, despite all the great reviews, was the most meaningful.
[A brief divergence to discuss Richard Dreyfuss and his “claims” to Errol Flynn. And apparently him and I share the same problem with finding Tivo space for all our TCM viewing.]
K: The last question I have is, I ask everyone, do you have any favorite classic films?
JK: My own favorites?
JK: How long have you got? You’ll be surprised by some of my answers. David always asks, “do you want to admit some of these are your favorites?” I adore Affair to Remember.
K: I haven’t seen it.
JK: You haven’t seen An Affair to Remember? With Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr?
K: I know!
JK: I love The Philadelphia Story, The Lion in Winter, Harvey, Casablanca. Are you ready for this…a movie called Fiesta.
K: I’ve never heard of that.
JK: Of course you haven’t! Fiesta stars Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban, and the debut of Cyd Charisse. The movie is ridiculous! I adore it. First of all, it’s filled with the local color of Mexico. It’s filled with dancing. I didn’t know Ricardo Montalban was a dancer. Ricardo Montalban and Cyd Charisse are incredible. It has Esther Williams, who I always wanted to be.
[From there the conversation devolved into discussing favorite classic films….and Joan has a lot! So much so we spent the final 30 minutes just mentioning our favorites!]
K: You’ve given me enough food for thought for the next few months. I’ll have to dedicate a year to Joan Kramer nominated movies.
JK: That’d be great!
K: Thank you so much for talking to me!
JK: Thank you so much!
Thanks must go out to David Heeley and Joan Kramer for allowing me to listen to their amazing stories!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.