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How Karina Longworth Brought Sex and Sleaze Back to Hollywood History – Rolling Stone

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Chasing golden-age ghosts and Los Angeles’ forgotten secrets with the brilliant mind behind You Must Remember This
Contributing editor
Karina Longworth
Ye Rin Mok for Rolling Stone
Karina Longworth’s house is, quite possibly, haunted. This is not necessarily something she has experienced herself, she tells me of her pale-pink 1926 Mediterranean, where Longworth could be found one July morning on the frond-shadowed patio. But it is something she has on authority from a friend who drunkenly stumbled in from the pool one night and heard, in the empty home, a dinner party going on in the dining room upstairs. Since then, the hauntedness or unhauntedness of Longworth’s abode has become a matter of some debate. “My friend thinks my house is haunted,” she says wryly. “I think he drinks too much.”
Either way, there is certainly no one better at reviving Hollywood’s ghosts than Longworth. A film critic and historian, she is best known for the podcast You Must Remember This, which she researches, writes, and records in a tiny foam-lined closet off the downstairs office of her husband, director Rian Johnson. In the eight years since she launched the podcast with an episode on Kim Novak and a promise to expose “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century,” Longworth has proven herself to be a definitive source on Hollywood lore, from the abuses of MGM’s studio system to the politics of the Rat Pack. The season on Charles Manson has been cited as one of the best cultural examinations of his Family out there, even though “I didn’t come to it from the perspective of true crime,” she says. “I came to it through Doris Day.”

The skill with which Longworth can connect those dots has garnered her hundreds of thousands of listeners and a cult following that includes Tavi Gevinson, Chloë Sevigny, and Natasha Lyonne, who heard about the podcast from producer Eli Roth and then reached out to Longworth in the hopes of developing a show based on a Hollywood-blacklist episode. “I remember cold-calling her, and I was kind of shaking, you know, just totally star-struck,” says Lyonne, who has since voiced both Clara Bow and Mae West for the podcast, and who cooked up the upcoming Peacock series Poker Face with Johnson while they were waiting for Longworth to finish signing books after a reading. “Karina sees the underbelly of all our systems, what we’re capable of in the reach for power and relevance,” says Lyonne. “It’s dark. It’s inherently eerie material.”
From the beginning, Longworth has leaned into that eeriness. (“I feel like I don’t even have to talk about David Lynch because he’s obviously the patron saint of the podcast,” she says.) The show almost has the feel of a séance — a comparison Longworth herself has made — from the opening, in which the distorted voice of Dooley Wilson singing “As Time Goes By” is drowned out by ghostly murmurs, to the breathy way that she invites the listener to “Join us, won’t you?” But the ghosts she conjures, fleshes out, and humanizes aren’t just the famous ones. They are also the ones who’ve long been forgotten, buried in the archives of the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library, lost to the fleeting fancies of public opinion, starring in films that will never be seen again because not a single copy is still in existence. Her signature move is to use a subject people think they know about to tell a more profound story — especially if it involves a woman whose legacy has been plastered over by that of a man.
Longworth is 42 and has the heart-shaped face of a silent-film star. On the morning we meet, she is wearing houndstooth pants and loafers, and is sitting at a wicker patio table strewn with 1990s editions of Movieline (“How Luke Perry Spent His Spring Vacation”), Premiere (“Richard Woos Another Pretty Woman”), and Ms. (“Shere Hite Is Back”). She is in the process of researching her 211th episode, which she thinks will be about Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, and which will kick off a season called “Erotic 90s,” slated to be released this fall. It’s a follow-up to “Erotic 80s,” Longworth’s most recent season, begun after the pandemic shut down the libraries and archives where she usually turns for research. She had been collecting entertainment magazines from her youth, so she delved in. “If you read every single review of a film that you can find, you do see narratives,” she says. “You do see waves. You see a lot of people coming to the same conclusion at the same time.”

She picks up a Movieline, on the cover of which Drew Barrymore wears pink satin gloves and a sultry expression. “I vaguely remember this,” she says. “I definitely remember the narrative that they’re telling, which is: ‘She went to rehab, but she’s still a bad girl. She’s so sexy. Who cares that she’s only 17?’ ”
In an episode of YMRT, that narrative would be teased out, dissected, animating the past by undercutting any assumptions that it was less contradictory or bewildering than the present. The through line of Longworth’s work is her skill for not only untangling myth from reality (no, Jean Harlow was not killed by her hair dye), but also interrogating the cultural conditions that led to the creation of the myth — and using the contours of myth to do so. “I love a rise and fall,” she says. “I love a three-act narrative.”
Suddenly, there’s a noise from the house. Longworth goes inside to check it out, but it turns out to not be a ghostly visitation. It’s just her salad being delivered from Sweetgreen.
If Longworth’s life were a movie, it would be hard to tell what genre it would be. A sardonic, self-aware tragedy? A coming-of-age dark comedy? Here are the facts: She grew up in Studio City, California, at a time when, she says, “every Starbucks was filled with half-employed screenwriters who’d talk about what it used to be like to work at Mary Tyler Moore’s studios. At 13 years old, you could just get a mocha and sit and listen.”
Longworth was inclined to. She grew up with an accountant dad, a mom who was “sort of an artist, but mostly a housewife,” and the so-close-so-far feeling endemic to the Valley. When she was a kid, her mom took her to all the rereleases of the Disney films, but didn’t pretend that life was a fairy tale. “I definitely saw my mother chafing against expectations and being very depressed and wanting to do something outside the home, but not really knowing what it was,” says Longworth. When she was 11 and her little sister was four, their mother killed herself. Their father — British and stiff-upper-lipped — was “overwhelmed” as a single parent. Of this period, Longworth says, “I really had a hard time making friends and just being a person in the world.” She spent long afternoons alone in her room reading about the much more glamorous but sometimes equally tragic lives of the stars.

Junior high was a turning point. Kurt Cobain was singing about Frances Farmer. David Lynch was channeling Alfred Hitchcock and Federico Fellini. By the time Longworth started high school, she had fallen in with a group of friends for whom “it was important to go see movies from the Sixties and Seventies. You were supposed to have seen things like Easy Rider or 2001. I felt like it was also important for me to rent Citizen Kane. I should see Kurosawa movies. I should see Godard and Truffaut.” She took to reading the old-movie listings in the back of TV Guide: “I knew that Myrna Loy was a thing before I had ever seen a Myrna Loy movie.”
Longworth left home as soon as she could, first for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and then the San Francisco Art Institute, where she studied experimental film and began making videos that mashed up autobiography with film analysis. Her thesis was about “this probably apocryphal story that Judy Garland had an affair with Frank Sinatra, that I was also loosely connecting to my own [breakup].”
When no one knew what to make of this, she decamped to NYU for a master’s in cinema studies, taking classes and working full time at a specialty grocery store to cover rent. While still a student, she helped set the tone of the early blogosphere, writing snarky, funny, insightful reviews (at $7 a pop) for sites like Cinematical, which eventually helped her land the job of film critic at LA Weekly in 2010. She had thought it would be a dream job; instead, she found it stifling to have to have an instant “take” on everything.
Longworth pivoted to teaching at Chapman University in Orange County, but “it was very difficult to speak with all those people looking at me.” She wrote a few books. Then, in 2014, she thought that making a podcast could maybe open doors, even help her get a job at Turner Classic Movies. Over spring break, she taught herself GarageBand and recorded her first episode. She was surprised when, only three or four episodes in, Entertainment Weekly mentioned YMRT. Once the semester ended, she began doing the podcast full time. “She has an incredible ability to see the big picture and also know exactly what detail captures it, brings it to life, and makes you understand exactly what happened,” says her friend Amy Nicholson, who took over as film critic at LA Weekly. “You just feel like if she’s interested in something, there’s a reason it’s interesting.”

Once Longworth decides on a subject, she turns to Google, reading everything she can and then using it to direct her to books, biographies, and contemporaneous sources: magazines, studio correspondence, telegrams, blind items. With the help of her research and production assistant, she organizes information into a timeline (“I can only think chronologically”), sometimes color coding what she thinks she’ll use. A single episode can take her months to research and prepare.
“She is the most disciplined writer I’ve ever met,” says Johnson, who met Longworth in 2009 when she moderated a Q&A for his film The Brothers Bloom. “And with any of the topics that she explores, she always finds a personal, emotional way into it.” For Longworth, that way in is the point: “If I can humanize anybody who makes movies to the extent that it makes people want to watch the movies, and then the movies help them understand themselves better, that’s the ultimate goal.”
Choosing where to dine with Longworth is a Hollywood history lesson in and of itself. There’s Musso and Frank, the steakhouse where Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford started United Artists. There’s the Chateau Marmont, where John Belushi fatally overdosed. There’s Dear John’s, where Sinatra and his crew hung out, and the Smokehouse, plopped across the street from Warner Bros. Longworth had even recommended my hotel, the Hollywood Roosevelt, where Marilyn Monroe (Room 1200) and Montgomery Clift (Room 928) had been posthumously sighted; according to her, it is famously haunted.
Eventually, though, she admitted that going to Old Hollywood establishments can feel to her like “cosplay.” As she put it, “People sometimes have this idea that I’m wearing a vintage dress all the time. I’m not Dita Von Teese.” In the end, we decided on Silver Lake’s Cafe Stella, about which she texted there would “probably be someone that is famous from a streaming show.” There wasn’t, but our sidewalk table did have a distant view of the Hollywood sign, the “H” of which actress Peg Entwistle had thrown herself off in 1932 when her part in a film was cut from 16 minutes to four, as I’d learned while listening to episode 93 in my haunted hotel.

In high school, Longworth took to reading the old-movie listings in the back of TV Guide. “I knew that Myrna Loy was a thing before I had ever seen a Myrna Loy movie,” she says. 
Longworth is not Dita Von Teese, but there is something about her that seems anachronistic, even if she no longer wears cat-eye glasses and sharp bobs. She’s got a fairly bookish quality in person, but after a glass or two of Bordeaux, the lines between the actual Longworth and her dishy podcast persona blur: The YMRT version does not seem like a character she’s playing so much as a slightly heightened version of who she is, if with more precise and clipped diction. “I have more of a Valley Girl voice when I’m not speaking in front of a microphone,” she says.
She is also more of a realist than her subject matter might suggest. If so much of Old Hollywood exists in this “hazy space of smoke and wish fulfillment,” as an episode on Garland attests, Longworth resists falling prey to nostalgia by baldly commenting on its appeal. She frequently pits accounts against each other, examines her own misconceptions, teases out which sources are likely to be more credible, and then highlights when the answers fail to reveal themselves. “Most of the time it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack — and understanding what that needle looks like,” she says of her research. “You are making choices. What if in a moment I was tired and didn’t see the most important thing?”
And it’s possible that the most important thing just doesn’t exist anymore. “Los Angeles is very good at erasing its own history,” she says as night falls. “It’s the same impulse that caused the film industry to set movies on fire, to melt them down, to save the silver nitrate, which is why most silent films are lost.” YMRT acknowledges that this sense of loss is as much a part of the landscape as anything. “There’s a loneliness to Los Angeles. There’s a lot of isolation here,” Longworth says.
Just as the best movies reveal something of the human condition, Longworth’s work helps her explore something of her own self. Her most poignant season may be 2017’s “Dead Blondes,” which explores the lives of stars from Marilyn Monroe to Veronica Lake — and our fascination with their tragic ends. It’s the season she wrote after her father’s death from cancer. She was with him the whole time.
“It was really, really hard for me,” Longworth had told me earlier. “I didn’t connect it at the time, but as soon as the season was over, it was so obvious to me that it was my grief season.” She can see why the past beckons to her, why she’s made a career “thinking about the ways that the people left behind deal with the legacy.”

But the past doesn’t make that easy. The past buries itself. Even revived, the ghosts hold on to their secrets. Longworth doesn’t begrudge them. “I wish I believed more that the line between life and death was porous,” she says, not unhappily. “But I don’t.”
In This Article: Hollywood, Karina Longworth
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