The Greatest Interviews of All Time (at least according to The Guardian)

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Though it didn't win any of the five Oscars for which it was nominated, Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon is a very good movie. But it's also a movie that benefits from some very good subject matter: The true life encounter between a lightweight journalist and the disgraced president of the United States in which he finally apologizes for one of the most sinister and legendary screw-ups in presidential history.

The 1977 David Frost-Richard Nixon interviews stand as some of the greatest interviews of all time -- but there are others, folks, other great interviews in which a cunning interviewer has managed to coax some semblance of life or reality from behind the facade too often put up by public figures. Great interviews are the ones in which the audience — and sometimes the interviewer and interviewee themselves — comes away with a sense of great truth revealed.

In the years since the first credited interview -- that would be the New York Tribune's Horace Greeley talking to Brigham Young, controversial leader of the Mormon Church, in 1859 -- many interviews have touched on greatness. And luckily for us, The Guardian has been so kind as to compile a list of them, as well as some of the more interesting things that happened when the tape was no longer rolling.

Over the next couple of days, we'll be offering a up a few highlights from the Guardian series. First up:

Marilyn Monroe interviewed by Richard Meryman

The story was first published in LIFE magazine, on August 17, 1962, only two weeks after her death by apparent suicide (unless you believe the assassination theories). Perhaps accordingly, it was Monroe's profound loneliness that leapt off the page in these last conversations with LIFE assistant editor Richard Meryman.

Marilyn.jpgAt this point in the devolution of her career, Monroe had just been fired from Something's Got to Give; she was considered a liability on film sets, difficult to work with, and harbored an increasing dependence on prescription drugs. She had few friends, had been through several failed marriages and love affairs, and was now confronting that fact that for much of her life, she had been used. "It's nice to be included in people's fantasies but you also like to be accepted for your own sake," she said.

"I don't look at myself as a commodity, but I'm sure a lot of people have. Including, well, one corporation in particular, which shall be nameless. If I'm sounding picked on or something, I think I am. I'll think I have a few wonderful friends and all of a sudden, ooh, here it comes. They do a lot of things. They talk about you to the press, to their friends, tell stories, and you know, it's disappointing. These are the ones you aren't interested in seeing every day of your life. Of course, it does depend on the people, but sometimes I'm invited places to kind of brighten up a dinner table like a musician who'll play the piano after dinner, and I know you're not really invited for yourself. You're just an ornament."

For the studio executives that exploited her, Monroe was a commodity, an ornament in the studio crown -- while her films made a mint, Monroe herself was never paid even near what her costars were. When she died, there wasn't enough money in her bank account to pay for a funeral; her body remained at the morgue until her former husband Joe DiMaggio came forward to claim it.

At one point, Monroe reflected on her position as American's reigning sex symbol, saying, "I never quite understood it, this sex symbol. I always thought symbols were those things you clash together! That's the trouble, a sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate to be a thing. But if I'm going to be a symbol of something I'd rather have it sex than some other things they've got symbols of!"

As she speaks, Monroe's attitude seemed to toe the line between bubbly positivity and deep resignation. The interviews offered an intimate look at one of Hollywood's most lonely and most often misunderstood actresses.

Tomorrow: Marlon Brando, interviewed by Truman Capote

[Image by Arnold Newman]

February 23, 2009 - 8:01am
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