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Q&A: Clinton on movies

This is the transcript of my conversation with Bill Clinton on December 18, 1999. There was a little chat before this where as we were being miked. Clinton talks about the AFI list of the top 100 movies and then switched to the HBO movie, "RKO 281," about the making of "Citizen Kane."

WJC: I think, I think Melanie Griffith now that she's getting older and she's playin' some of these different kind of roles turns out to be a little better than most people think. I think she makes a very good Marianne Davies.

RE: Well, she's been the...

WJC: And the guy that played Hearst is the guy that played the crooked cop in "L.A. Confidential." What's his name?

RE: Not Russell Crowe, but the other guy.

WJC: He was the old guy. The guy that was in charge of the whole deal.

RE: Oh, James Cromwell.

WJC: Yeah, yeah. God he's a good actor.

RE: He was also Babe's farmer.

WJC: Yeah yeah, Babe's farmer. He is so good.

RE: Yeah, yeah.

WJC: And it's interesting you know his whole career just exploded in his fifties I guess

RE: Right.

WJC: or early sixties or however old he is, but he's really good.

RE: Yeah, he's also in "The Green Mile." He's the warden in "The Green Mile."

WJC: Really. He was great in "L.A. Confidential" I thought. I think that's a great movie.

RE: I love "L.A. Confidential." Yeah, yeah.

WJC: "L.A. Confidential," I made a list of the ones I thought weren't on there {he means the AFI list} that just off the top of my head I thought should have been on there.

RE: Okay, what should be on there that they missed?

WJC: Well, "L.A. Confidential," although maybe it came out too late to get there. I think at least one of Mel Brooks' movies should have been on there.

RE: "Producers?"

WJC: Probably. Either "Producers" or "Blazing Saddles" or the one about the, not "History of the World -- Part 1." Either "Producers" or "Blazing Saddles."

RE: "Young Frankenstein?"

WJC: Or "Young Frankenstein" or the one that was a comedy, but more semi-serious where they were the Jewish performing troupe.

RE: "The Twelve Chairs."

WJC: Remember that?

RE: Yeah.

WJC: God that's a great movie! Yeah, I couldn't remember the title of that.

RE: With Brooks crawling up the guys leg and chewing on his pants

WJC: Yeah.

RE: he's so eager to get a role.

WJC: Yeah. You remember that? It was so great. But I mean, as a body of work, he's probably the best comedic producer we've ever had.

RE: Mel Brooks?

WJC: Yeah.

RE: Oh, I agree.

WJC: Just stunning. So anyway those And I like, maybe it was because I was young, but I thought "The Ten Commandments" was a good movie, they put "Ben-Hur" on.

RE: Well, of course it plays every Easter on television along with "Ben-Hur" and people love it so. And the parting of the Red Sea is one of the great

WJC: And Brynner's great in it. He's great. You know his Ramsees, his obsessive Ramsees it was just great.

RE: You know, it's almost like these movies knit us together as a nation because they're the one art form that everybody shares. Everybody knows what you talk about when you mention "The Ten Commandments." They may not have read every book or seen every play, but

WJC: They do. You know, in some ways the movies are the defining element of American culture.

RE: You know, one thing that has struck me this year, there's been a whole group of movies that seem to be very negative about affluence or consumerism. There was this very popular movie "Fight Club," where the guys

WJC: I saw it.

RE: You saw it.

WJC: Tough movie.

RE: Where they had to fight each other in order to feel authentic because they're Ikea couches were not doing it for them. What did you think about that?

WJC: Um, well I thought it was a pretty compelling movie. I think Norton and Pitt were good in it. I mean, they played their roles really well. And I think that it is, now that we have the most prosperous society we've ever had and we've got a thirty year low on unemployment and a twenty year low on poverty, I think that it's a good thing for people to remember that life is about more than money. But I also think it's important not to disparage prosperity for it gives people the opportunity and the leisure and the security to think about other thing. And you know, so maybe it's the public servant in me, but I think the proper response to the questioning of it is to try to make sure that the people who don't have enough, have enough and then to think about what we're going to do with time and the fruits that we have. But you know, so it was a little to neolist for me, but I thought it was very compelling. I thought that those two guys were great and I think that Helena Bonham Carter was in it and she was a very compelling figure in it. I thought it was quite good.

RE: I loved the performances and I loved the first half of the movie, but it seemed to me that

WJC: It gets old though. Doesn't it?

RE: Well, they have to fight each other in order to feel real. It seems to me that there's enough suffering in the world without having to go out and find it.

WJC: There is. And it's simply not true that this that the material advances we've had are inherently bad or empty. They give you the power to define your life more. And I don't mean just for rich people, I mean people that have a decent middle class life. You know, to have the lowest African-American and Hispanic unemployment rates we've ever had, to have a twenty-year low in poverty, to have a forty-year low in female unemployment. These things are not bad. It's just not enough. It's not all there is to life, but it creates the possibility of fashioning a life that has integrity and meaning.

RE: I think so. I gave a negative review to the movie and I got an email from somebody who said, "Well, my generation," this is an amazing email, "my generation has been denied the opportunity your generation had to fight a war like Vietnam. We don't have any way to test ourselves so we have to go to movies like "Fight Club."" And I'm thinking, "That's not what wars are for." His reasoning seemed to be so screwed up.

WJC: Well, the young people they don't have to deal with Vietnam, but I think if they had they would find it was way overrated. You know, losing 58,000 people and a whole other generation of people who were alienated from it and the traumas that so many people went through and there's not a person who went through it who's still not marked by it in some way. Or even more importantly, the civil rights movement, you know that was a very positive thing, but for the people who suffered under the oppression of segregation or who like Congressman John Lewis had their lives threatened because they stood up for civil rights. You know, I wouldn't wish that on the young people of this There's still a lot of problems in this world. You know, if they really want to throw themselves into something they could figure out what to do about the AIDS epidemic, threatening Africa and increasingly Indians in Asia. They could figure out what to do to save a lot of these kids that are still being lost in our own country. There's still mountains to climb out there. There are things outside yourself to throw yourself into. You don't have to get beat up by somebody you know.

RE: A lot of people think that one of the Academy Award front runners is "American Beauty." And one thing that I wonder is why suburbia is always such a punching bag in the movies? As if, if you live in suburbia then therefor you are a fit subject for a movie satirizing your lifestyle.

WJC: Well again, I think in a funny way it's like "Fight Club." It's like, you know, there's got to be more to life than this. Okay so we've got this nice little neat suburban lifestyle and we're comfortable and now what? I must say it was also a disturbing movie, but I thought it was an amazing film.

RE: "American Beauty?"

WJC: Yeah.

RE: It's on my list of ten best.

WJC: Spacey was amazing, Bening was great, other role players, the kids they were just great. Everybody in that movie did their part. I mean, it was an amazing movie.

RE: What movie has moved you the most deeply? Either recently or your whole lifetime?

WJC: Oh you know, that's very hard for me to say because I'm such an ardent moviegoer. I try to see everything. I'm embarrassed to do this because I can't remember what the American title is but the story of the five German singers and the piano players.

RE: "The Harmonists."

WJC: "The Harmonists." I loved that movie.

RE: That was a good movie.

WJC: It was profoundly moving to me, recent movies. You know, the idea that these three Jews and three Catholics and free Nazi Germany had this sort of jazz group with this sort of five part very tight written harmony. That they model it off of an American group they heard, that they became the rage of Europe, they went to the United States, they had to decide whether to stay together. The Nazi's say they can't sing anymore because they can't allow the Jews and the Catholics to sing together. I mean, God it was a moving thing.

RE: And they thought they would get away with it. They were so popular that they would get a pass.

WJC: Yeah, they thought they were so big. Yeah, and they were well meaning, they were good guys and made people happy. You know, the sort of earnestness and almost naive joy of what they did as against the darkness of the systematic evil that ran up against them. I mean, I thought it was a very compelling movie.

RE: You know, I have to say if I were to sit down and talk to almost anyone in this society of ours, I wouldn't find someone who immediately impressed me as being as knowledgeable about the movies as you just have. Because you've mentioned some particular titles, including "The Harmonists," I thought I was the only person who had seen that movie. You really are a moviegoer.

WJC: I was quite moved by Walker Percy's book, {titled "The Moviegoer."} Did you ever read that?

RE: Yeah I did. Yes.

WJC: Interesting. I try not to be not quite that bad a moviegoer but. You know when I was an only child until I was ten, both my parents worked. You could go to the movies for a dime when I was a little boy and so I saw every movie that came my way when I was a child and I spent a lot of time in the movies. They fired my imagination, they inspired me you know. I think it's quite interesting that I'm 53 years old and my favorite movie is "High Noon," a movie I saw when I was six. You know, that And I've seen it more than twenty times since. I don't get tired of seeing it. So I have always loved the movies. And I still So to me as President, the best perk of the White House is not Air Force One or Camp David or anything else, it's the wonderful movie theater I get here. Because people send me these movies all the time.

RE: Well, it was ten cents when I started going too. I'm just a few years older than you are and if you had fifteen cents you could load up on candy and popcorn.

WJC: Absolutely.

RE: Cost a penny for an all day sucker and the five color cartoons, the newsreel, the coming attractions and everything. But when the movie started, it was real. I mean, Gary Cooper was really there. It was like a role model I think, for us. And John Wayne.

WJC: I just read a fascinating biography on Cooper, which was really interesting because he came into the movies at the very end of the silent era. So you see the movies against the background of the technological changes from silent to talkies to color and you also see that terrible period where you know, the black listing was going on and the McCarthy era and all that. It's a great book because it chronicles not only Cooper's career, but the background and what was going on in the movies, what was going on in society. And I love the movie also because the author said that he thought "High Noon" was the greatest western ever made. So I found one person in America at least who agrees with me.

RE: Well, Cooper stood up during that blacklisting period. He had a lot of moral courage.

WJC: He did. And you know, he did it in a very classic way. They called him for these congressional hearings and he was still the number one box office star. And unlike Robert Taylor, whom I liked very much as a boy, but who just ratted people out in I thought a shameful way that Cooper just sort of aw-shucksed his way through the hearing and said he didn't rightly know any communists. It was pretty effective. And you know, when I see the things that our country's been through over two hundred years and the periodic temptations to abuse of power for us citizens, even a very wealthy and prominent one like that just to take a simple, courageous act of declining to participate in the [indistinct word]. That's a very important thing.

RE: I know, probably about the number two movie on your favorite list is "Casablanca" and the thing that amazes me about that is it's almost sixty years old, it's in black and white, it takes place in the backwater of the war, there aren't any battle scenes.

WJC: In Morocco. Yeah.

RE: Most people don't even understand all the business about the letters of transit and yet it's one of the classic movies that young people still look at and that everybody still treasures. What do you think is so timeless about it?

WJC: First of all, it's a story about love and honor and courage. The stuff that people care about. I mean, at the end of life when you look back that's what you treasure, the moments of love and honor and courage. You know, secondly, Bogart is fabulous in it and Bergman brings tears to your eyes. I mean, I still can't watch the movie without saying, "God I wish I'd known that woman." You know, she's just riveting on the screen, you know.

RE: My favorite actress.

WJC: Just riveting. And so you know, when Hillary and I, when we were in law school, I never will forget this, we were in the moot court competition, you know the trial and the students had to prepare the trials so we conceived this whole trial around "Casablanca." Victor Laslow gets murdered the Paul Henreid character you know, so the question is "Who did it?" And so that's just an example of how it captures your imagination. I think also, I think another thing that really made it come alive was the Even though it's the backwater of the war the circumstances are inherently interesting. I mean, he's got this kind of neat little bar you know, and these people come in trying to while away their lives and trying to reconcile their differences. And Claude Rains is fabulous as a representative (unintelligible). So you get a sense of the drama of it and you know these people really do love each other and they do the right thing anyway.

RE: They do the right thing.

WJC: She goes off, he takes a risk and then Claude Rains turns out not to be a thug and they all walk away in the fog. It's really quite a It's a.. You know, just wonderful. There's just nothing about it that's not wonderful.

RE: It's just about the perfect movie in a way.

WJC: Yeah it is.

RE: You know, here's Bogart who wasn't very tall, wasn't very handsome, had kind of a lisp, needed a hairpiece, smoked too much and is just about the most popular movie star of the century just ending.

WJC: He's just fabulous. I was thinking about The other day I watched "African Queen" again, the other day just to see it, because it's just an unbelievable movie. You know, and he just There was something about him.

RE: There was.

WJC: And he was magic. He was great in the dramas, he was a great comedian, he was really funny in the funny roles he had and in the movies where he played a bad guy he was a compelling bad guy, but it didn't destroy his box office appeal. And he could do things, he could get away with anything on the screen because he was so authentic. I don't know enough about his life to know, but he was gangbusters. And the range he had was stunning.

RE: He was great. You know, I have a theory that the real movie stars for me are the ones who were movie stars when I was still growing up at home. In that, the movie stars I meet now as a movie critic are just other people who are about my age. In other words, when I met John Wayne for the first time I was in awe, because he was John Wayne, but if I meet Al Pacino well he's Al Pacino. Is there anybody living who you've met who strikes you in the same way as the movie stars of your childhood.

WJC: Yeah. DeNiro and Streep. I think they're of that quality.

RE: So that even when they're in the room with you they have the star quality that let's say Bogart had on the screen.

WJC: Yeah. They both I've been friendly with them, Hillary and I have, and they've been uncommonly kind to us and they're my contemporaries in age, Meryl's younger than I am a little, but they're just They're gifts and they're range are so extraordinary. Look at all the different roles DeNiro's been in, he's a Jesuit in 16th century south Brazil and he's a Jake LaMotta and he's great in all those Italian mobster movies, but he's got a real range you know. And I think Meryl Streep's one of the two or three greatest female actresses ever on the screen.

RE: Oh, she is.

WJC: I think that there are very few actresses ever in the movies with the range and power she has.

RE: People talk about her accents, even in "Music Of The Heart" as a music teacher, that's really an accent, that's not the way she talks.

WJC: No. She did great as Roberta Guaspari (sp). She was great. That's a great movie. But you know, how did she develop the accent for "Sophie's Choice?"

RE: I don't know.

WJC: And she also is the best actress when she's not talking of anyone I've ever seen. When they make her in "Sophie's Choice," she's got to make a decision between which one of her kids to give up. You know, the most inhuman thing, just about, the most sort of non- physically violent, inhuman thing ever on the screen, you know just the picture of her face. And I remember those in "The Deer Hunter," which is my favorite Vietnam War movie, the guy comes back to their little Pennsylvania town to tell her that her, the love of her life was killed in Vietnam and she's working in the grocery store and he keeps following her around and he's trying to tell her and she's fooling with the merchandise. I mean there's a long period of time where she doesn't say a word, it's one of the most effective scenes I've ever seen in the movies.

RE: And that was just about the first time we had seen her.

WJC: Yeah. But she's dazzling in this thing. And she doesn't open her mouth there for a good long period of time, but just what she does, it's amazing.

RE: It's her whole being is involved.

WJC: Yeah. So there are a lot of other people I know in the movies that I still feel like they're movie stars when I see them, even though I like them. But just for pure film excellence I think they are truly extraordinary.

RE: I think you have real good taste. I think actually DeNiro's best picture is maybe "Raging Bull." I really

WJC: And he gained all that weight and learned about boxing.

RE: Yeah.

WJC: Hanks, I think has got that kind of range too. He's sort of tactile. He's skinny for "Philadelphia" and he puts on this weight for this last movie and he does all this stuff. I'll make you another prediction though, I just saw the other night, I don't think it's been released, "The Hurricane." And Denzel Washington had to lose all this weight and become a middleweight boxer for it. And of course it's an inherently compelling story. But I think it will be taken very seriously.

RE: Denzel for best actor? I've seen it too and I agree with you.

WJC: Don't you think it's amazing?

RE: Yeah. And it starts kind of slow. You kind of wonder, "Well you know, this is another prison picture and he doesn't belong behind bars." And then what really grabbed me, I was so touched that his book inspired this young boy and then the people he lived with to try to take up his case and that his love for that boy and his care for the boy's future kind of gave him a second wind and suddenly it's about the heart. It's not about injustice or wrong imprisonment, although that's what it's about too, but it's about this kid. That's what's so moving.

WJC: I agree with that. You know that's How people manage to stay human under inhuman conditions and what it is that keeps them going is one of the great questions of life. You know, that's what makes Mandela's story thrilling. Not just that he endured for twenty-seven years and got out of prison, but that when he got out he was a bigger man with a bigger heart than he was when he went in.

RE: They're filming that now with Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela.

WJC: Yeah. Great choice. He's also a great actor.

RE: Yes he is. He's got that authority. He's says something it stays said.

WJC: I must say, even though a lot of the great movies for us are the older movies, there are probably more talented people acting today than ever before. And there are probably, maybe more bad movies being made than probably more good movies being made than ever before. I mean, it's still a vital, vibrant part of our lives.

RE: I know a lot of movie critics would say, and I agree, that the last four months have been like a season of miracles, because all of a sudden there have just been an explosion of good pictures. "Three Kings," "Being John Malkovich."

WJC: I loved "Three Kings." Did you like "Three Kings."

RE: Oh, I loved it.

WJC: I loved it because it accomplished all these different things. It's a great cheap thrills movie, Clooney's unbelievable you know the screen loves him and he's compelling and all the other guys are good. And it's a tragedy as well as a comedy. You know, there's heartbreak. And then they do all that sort of high tech stuff showing you how bullet wounds effect the body.

RE: Oh yeah. The bullet goes right in the body.

WJC: And they do that a couple times, which I thought was fascinating. And they tell the very sad story that our country has to come to terms with of how we falsely raised the hopes of Shiites in the south of Iraq. And what has been done to them since then. Draining those swamps, changing their lives after thousands of years. It's an atrocity what Sadam Hussein did to them. Not just the ones that were physically hurt, but they literally had their whole lifestyle taken away he could continue to be a dictator over a people with a culture that is very alien to that kind of a government and that kind of oppression.

RE: It also shows how small the world is. I mean, here you have a guy who you want to objectify as your enemy and he has an MBA from an American university and we bombed his convenience store. And then the guy is kept prisoner, our guy is kept prisoner and he can use a cell phone to call his wife at home. I mean, it's not like wars take place over there. They're all connected with the CNN microphones right in the back. I love the complexity of that film.

WJC: Well it really shows us a world and a society in transition you know. I hope that the communications revolution will make wars more difficult in the future and will make oppression less sustainable. That's what I hope and you know there's a little of that in there. It's kind of interesting. But I thought that was a great film. What else you like that's come out?

RE: "Being John Malkovich."

WJC: I didn't see that one.

RE: That's a good one. That's fun.

WJC: I like Malkovitch a lot. I just haven't seen the movie.

RE: "Boys Don't Cry." That's another good one.

WJC: Haven't seen that one.

RE: You know, when I look at movies like "Three Kings," I think that one of the reasons we have wars is that we do kind of, we're kind of tribal. We think, "Well, we're the good guys and you're the bad guys and we objectify you as evil." And movies help us to empathize with other people so that we can see things from more than just our own point of view. I think that's the most valuable thing a movie can do.

WJC: Yeah, I loved that aspect of "Three Kings." And I hope they'll be more movies, you know you can only make so many that are a wild ride like that, but I hope they're will be more such movies because one of the things that most troubles me on the edge of this new millenium is that we have all this wonderful technology that is bringing us closer together and also throwing us into the future. And not just economically, but environmentally. A lot of hopeful things on the horizon. The unlocking of the secrets of the human gene, which will change life expectancy and life quality in dramatic ways over the next decade. I even think sometime in the next century we'll find out what's in the black holes of the universe.

RE: I hope so.

WJC: I think this is going to be a very exciting time. But you have to set that off against the fact that the biggest problem we have in human society's now is the oldest most primitive problem, which is our tribalism, our tendency to go beyond a natural pride in our group, whether it's a racial or an ethnic or religious group or whatever, to fear and distrust and dehumanization and violence against the other. And that is a big problem. So what we got to learn to do is not just to tolerate each other, but to actually celebrate our differences. And the only way you can do that is to be secure in the knowledge that your common humanity is more important than your most significant differences.

RE: And movies can help do that.

WJC: And movies can help do that. I mean, it's really, really important.

RE: We export a lot of movies. The French are all mad at us right now, because three quarters of them go to American movies, but of course Jack Valenti isn't over their with a gun to their heads, they take their francs and they go to American movies because they like American movies. But that's true all over the world. I just came back from India where American movies are playing all over Calcutta. And I wonder what we're exporting when we export our films. Is it a two edged sword? Is it good and bad both or?

WJC: Well, I sympathize with countries that want movies that reflect the talent in their own countries and the culture they have. And if they want to do as the French do and others do, to subsidize their movie industry to make those movies I think they should. But I don't think they should deprive their people of making the choice of coming to American movies. They should give greater support to their own movie industry. Of course, now even American movies are increasingly being made in other venues. A lot are being made in Canada and there's a lot of rumbling in Hollywood about whether it's unfair economic incentives offered to go to Canada as opposed to the United States, but that's a sort of different story. You know, I've seen Indian movies that I've enjoyed. I think there are a lot of fabulous Australian movies. And of course there are still good movies coming out of Great Britain and France and Germany and elsewhere. So I think that other countries don't have anything to worry about. They should lift up their own culture and not try to keep out the movies The reason the American movies do so well is that they have a certain universal appeal. Now the universal appeal, if the movies have too much gratuitous violence you know or emphasize just the material things in life, they may not be good appeals, but that's a very uni- dimensional view of what American movies are. Look at the movies we've just been talking about. And the one of course "The Harmonists" I mentioned was a German movie.

RE: You have Within the near future you're going to have to find a new job I guess. Would you enjoy doing something like running the MPAA?

WJC: Oh, I don't know. I'd enjoy doing anything that allowed me to see every new movie that came along.

RE: That's what I was thinking.

WJC: And I like people in that line of work. But I never gave it any thought. I do want to find something useful to do. I want to be able to do something that will give me enough free time to pursue as a citizen the kinds of public issues that I can still make a difference in. Global and local reconciliation across racial and religious lines and minimizing discrimination against gays, things that I've really worked on. The educational empowerment of children, the economical empowerment of poor people, the balancing of the environment and the economy. These big issues I care a lot about. I want to have a chance to continue to have an impact there and to be a good citizen when I leave office. I really think when a president leaves office, you've been given the greatest gift the American people can give, to be able to serve here and you've got to give something back.

RE: I'm getting these We're out of tape I think. You're wonderful. You would be a great

WJC: Maybe I'll be your new partner.

RE: We've had all these co-hosts on "Siskel & Ebert" and you out class all of them.

WJC: Before we run out of tape I've got to say this, I liked and admired your partner.

RE: Gene was a

WJC: And I'm honored to be here with you. Gene was a great guy.

RE: Gene was. And his chat with you here was one of the high points of his entire life.

WJC: We loved it. We had such a good time.

RE: And it was only Did he seem like he was in good health that day?

WJC: Yes he did. He was terrific.

RE: Well, it was twenty-four years. Not many shows are on the air that long.

WJC: Well, that's because we all like to watch you.

RE: Well, and we all like to watch the movies.

WJC: Yep.

RE: You know, I'm not a job counselor, but I really thing the MPAA would be a fascinating job because you know, it's not just movies now, it's this whole global communications thing and digital technology and satellites beaming movies down everywhere. Movies like "The Hurricane," which made me kind of cry at the end.

WJC: Yep. It's a great film. I hope everybody sees it.

RE: We're shut down right. We're not taping. Less than ten seconds. This has been a great pleasure.

WJC: I enjoyed it.

RE: Thank you very, very much.

WJC: Bless you.

(Still to come: After the interview Clinton tells a funny story about Roberto Benigni. We have video but the only audio is the camera audio, which was not caught on the transcription cassette.)

Distribution: Roger Ebert REBERT Mary Kellogg Barbara Warren

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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