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Prize-Winning Biographer A. Scott Berg to Present the Sweeping Multimedia Story of the Birth of Hollywood

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The following guest post is a Q&A conducted by Marie Arana, co-director of the Library of Congress National Book Festival.

A. Scott Berg. Photo by Aloma.
A. Scott Berg. Photo by Aloma.
You probably know A. Scott Berg as the author of numerous prize-winning biographies of American originals, among them “Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius,” which won him a National Book Award when he was barely out of college (the book began as his senior thesis); “Lindbergh,” which won him the Pulitzer Prize; and, most recently, “Wilson,” a resonant portrait of a fascinating American president. But Scott is also the author of books on Hollywood greats: “Goldwyn: A Biography,” for instance, in which he gives us the whole arc of the birth and flowering of the American film industry; or “Kate Remembered,” in which we are given a strikingly intimate portrait of the magnificently feisty Katharine Hepburn. Each of his books is filled with drama on a grand scale. Little wonder that his book “Genius” will soon be released as a star-studded movie with Colin Firth, Jude Law and Nicole Kidman.

Scott will present a sweeping multimedia tour of early Hollywood history in the “Books to Movies” segment of the National Book Festival on Saturday, Sept. 5, at 8 p.m., and then he will join Lawrence Wright (“Going Clear,” “Thirteen Days in September”) and Anne-Marie O’Connor (“The Lady in Gold”) in a lively conversation about how it feels to have your nonfiction book made into a movie. That latter exchange will be moderated by Ann Hornaday, film critic of the Washington Post.

I managed to catch Scott on a busy day in L.A., but he generously took time to answer my questions. Don’t miss the opportunity to hear and see his wonderfully entertaining show!

You grew up in Tinseltown (as some call L.A.) and in an energetic and creatively engaged Hollywood family. How has that influenced you as an author?

I grew up realizing that a filmmaker’s primary task is to engage an audience by telling a story. A biographer–to say nothing of a songwriter, a novelist, or even a poet–faces the same challenge. A biography should be more than a compendium of facts; it must present those facts in a dramatic and compelling fashion. As the son of a motion picture and television writer-producer and as a movie fan, I think I subconsciously adopted a cinematic style of writing–one in which I become the camera eye for the reader, presenting close-ups of my subject and supporting players as well as panorama shots that show the world my characters inhabited. And call Hollywood “Tinseltown” if you must, but remember the words of the local wag who said, “Beneath all that phony tinsel . . . you’ll find the real tinsel.”

Your presentation at the NBF this year takes the long view, from Sam Goldwyn’s very early 20th century (the subject of one of your books) to Katharine Hepburn’s career (another of your subjects) to modern-day Hollywood. How do American history and American film connect for you?

Because all my subjects are 20th-century American cultural figures, it is almost impossible for me to separate American history from American film. Movies have played a part in all their lives, as they have played roles in the life of film. In writing “Lindbergh,” for example, I saw how motion pictures contributed to the frenzy that made this impossibly photogenic young aviator the first modern-media superstar. Charles A. Lindbergh’s takeoff from Roosevelt Field in 1927 was the subject of the first newsreel footage with sound, which contributed to the lifelong frenzy that surrounded him. Woodrow Wilson’s 1912 campaign for president was the first to use film as part of a political campaign, (and you can view it at the Library of Congress website); he was the first president to grasp the power of movie stars, several of whom he drafted to sell bonds during World War I; he was the first president to run a motion picture in the White House–the wildly (and deservedly) controversial cinematic masterpiece “The Birth of a Nation.” And upon reading about a tariff bill Wilson intended to push through Congress, a Polish-born glove salesman in New York City realized his business was about to suffer, and so he sought a new industry in which he might make a name for himself. Thus, Samuel Goldfish left the glove business during Wilson’s first year in office and produced the first feature-length film ever made in a Los Angeles neighborhood called Hollywood; a few years later, he changed his name to Goldwyn. For decades, Katharine Hepburn portrayed “modern” women in her films, intelligent and articulate role models for women seeking careers outside the home, women who wanted to wear pants! In so doing, she enjoyed the greatest career in Hollywood history–some 65 years as a star. Even the great book editor Max Perkins took in the occasional movie. He was a great fan of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” with Errol Flynn. (Actually, just the charge itself–as he would go to the theater with one of his daughters and wait in the lobby until she summoned him for the climactic charge, after which they would leave.)

You published a prize-winning biography of Maxwell Perkins in 1978. Thirty-eight years later, in 2016, that book will be released as a movie. How does it feel to have a work so firmly in your past brought forward in another era and another medium?

It feels great–something of a relief–because the book has always been in my “present.” Not only have I continued to give talks about Perkins over the decades, but the book has almost always been in development as a film since 1978. The first actor to express an interest in the lead role back then was Paul Newman. Now we have a magnificent cast, headed by Colin Firth, who is, in my opinion, the most ideal man for the role ever, somebody born to play the part. And he gives a stunning performance. Even with my book still out there, I believe Perkins remains the least known important figure in American literature. The movie–called “Genius”–should bring his story to a wider public; and that should give people a better sense of his great contributions.

Tell us about the complicated process of transforming the life of a book editor (in which so much happens at a desk, writing, thinking) into a visual story.

Actually, the process of transforming a book into a movie–even one about a sedentary book editor–isn’t necessarily complicated. The key is to look for the basic drama of the story, that which is inherent in the relationships of the primary characters. Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan–who won the Tony Award for his play “Red,” about painter Mark Rothko–recognized that Max Perkins editing books should be secondary in the film. The central story of the movie is the friendship between Perkins and novelist Thomas Wolfe and the intense feelings these two men had for each other while producing some of the mightiest literature of the day, and how their work together threatened Perkins’s marriage and Wolfe’s relationship with the celebrated theatrical designer Aline Bernstein. Actually, the hardest part of bringing a serious book to the screen–especially about a literary subject–is in convincing financiers that the public would be interested in such a story.

Can great books be made into great movies? What, in your mind, are examples of the most successful?

Great books can be made into great movies, but they should never be considered the same thing. They deliver different experiences to their audiences. At best, a movie can capture a book’s essence–some of its plot and characters. A movie can deliver images that might surpass those of some people’s imaginations, but it can’t necessarily capture what may be the greatest delight of a book–its diction. You can’t film language. That’s why, I think, it’s always been difficult to bring F. Scott Fitzgerald to the screen. How do you photograph the line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past?” All that said, Maugham and Dickens have certainly been adapted well. I like the film versions of “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” and a Goldwyn classic, “Wuthering Heights.” And don’t forget the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1937: Gone with the Wind.”

A. Scott Berg will appear in the National Book Festival’s Special Programs Pavilion, Ballroom B, of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, from 8 to 10 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 5. He will sign his books “Wilson,” “Lindbergh,” and “Goldwyn: A Biography,” from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the Lower Level of the Convention Center.