by Susan King
My lifelong love affair with all things cinema got off to a rocky start. I was around three when my parents took me to the local drive-in to see the re-release of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” I sat in the front seat of our 1956 Buick Century but quickly made my way under the dashboard crying my eyes out because I was terrified. We quicky left the drive-in and I didn’t see “Snow White” again until I was 21!
The next movie I saw in a theater was 1958’s “Houseboat” with Cary Grant and Sophia Loren. I sat in rapt attention during the comedy. That’s when I fell in love with the movies. By the time I was five, I had seen “Some Like It Hot” “Pillow Talk,” and “The Apartment.” I was just seven when we returned to the drive-in to see Sam Peckinpah’s 1962 classic “Ride the High Country.” I devoured all the movies on television especially Shirley Temple musicals, Tarzan adventures and Bob Hope and Bing Crosby “Road” comedies.
Little did I know that years later, I would interview the stars of many of those movies including Loren (four times); Ray Walston, Tab Hunter, Jack Lemmon (five times), Tony Curtis (twice); Shirley MacLaine (seven times); Joel McCrea, Shirley Temple and Bob Hope.
I discovered the world of foreign films in 1972 when PBS aired a Friday evening series “Film Odyssey” which featured a plethora of classics including Francois Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim,” Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” and Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion.”
I ended up writing my master’s thesis on Truffaut when I was studying film history and criticism at USC. And on Dec. 6, 1977 at around 3:45 p.m., I called the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and asked for him — a friend’s friend worked at the hotel and told me he was in town. Our conversation was brief, but he seemed to be thrilled I was writing my thesis on his films.
When I did call him, Truffaut said he had to turn down the television. To this day, I wonder what he was watching. “The Gong Show’ was on at the time, as well as heavily edited version of the 1966 film “This Property is Condemned” with Robert Redford and Natalie Wood. I think it would have been great if I interrupted him watching the Unknown Comic.
I quickly discovered after I graduated that getting an M.A. from USC didn’t open doors in Hollywood. I ended up a receptionist at a once famous literary agency that had seen better days and then as a receptionist at a video tape post-production company that was pretty much a nightmare. But occasionally we had some famous folks come through the doors — Albert Brooks, Carol Lawrence, Hans Conried, Monty Python’s Graham Chapman who came in with Timothy Leary and the piece de resistance, Orson Welles! He was literally and physically larger than life.
I never had any aspirations to become a writer, let alone interview everyone from Sidney Poitier, Olivia de Havilland, Gregory Peck, Loretta Young and George Clooney, who was sporting a mullet and an earring. But then I was hired by the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1979 as the secretary to the executive editor. I was a disaster as a secretary but would eventually become a writer in Calendar. In 1988 alone, I interviewed Daniel Day-Lewis — be still my heart — Helen Hayes, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and River Phoenix.
Journalism was a totally different animal then. And the Herald Examiner was trying to recover from a long strike. Money was scarce. There were countless turnovers of staff and editors. They tried everything to get the readers back they had lost to the Los Angeles Times during the strike — including a game called WINGO.
We still had manual typewriters. Instead of personal computers, we had outdated VDT-video display terminals. But not enough for the entire staff. So, things got quite competitive to get one in the mornings. And they often started to smoke!
Two months after the Hearst closed the Herald Examiner on Nov. 1, 1989, I started work at the L.A. Times and stayed there for 26 years. When I arrived, the paper was huge. Massive. There were so many people on staff that there was a shortage of desks. I got a drawer to put my stuff and a phone number and everyday I’d ask the two telephone operators on our floor who was out sick or on vacation. Sometimes I had to move desks three or four times a day. Finally, after 18 months, I got my own desk.
And just a few months after I arrived at the Times, I was sent off to Jacksonville, Florida for a set visit of the TNT production of Tennessee Williams’ “Orpheus Descending” with Vanessa Redgrave and Kevin Anderson. And then I drove to Orlando for another set visit, a HBO movie “Somebody has to Shoot the Picture” with Roy Scheider.
Access to set visits and actors and directors were much easier at the Times. But the newspaper industry soon started to change, and it wasn’t long before there were involuntary buyouts. And until I left these buyouts became the norm.
And so did the importance of the web. Getting clicks and subscribers were of utmost importance. I was assigned to contribute to the Calendar section of the L.A. Times website. I found myself writing blogs on such subjects as actors who should never had done nude scenes. The blog got a lot of traffic.
I had a popular column in Calendar called Classic Hollywood that led to a Facebook page. Before I left the Times seven years ago, we had over 900,000 followers. I also won a few honors including the Roger Ebert Award from the African American Film Critics Assn. and an innovation award from the Times for the Classic Hollywood Facebook page. And I took the stage in 2012 at the Beverly Hilton ballroom to accept the Publicists Guild Press Award.
Since taking a voluntary buyout from the Times seven years ago, most of the work I have done has been for Internet sites. A few things I have noticed about going digital — when I was writing movie anniversary pieces for both Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, as well as for the Times, publicists always want to know if the story would also appear in print. Most ended up online. Interviewees may not like what they said or think they have come up with a better quote after they read their interviews and want their quotes changed.
But we are living in a digital world, and I have become a digital girl. You must be smart and learn how to adjust to change. And I find doing blogs exhilarating. You can be far more open and have more fun writing for websites such as Film Masters.
Susan King was a film/TV/theater writer at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years specializing in Classic Hollywood.