It’s a tough time to be a movie star. The most popular commercial films are far more dependent on computer-generated FX and stunt personnel than on those names above the title—if there are any. The ailing movie-theater industry, already wounded by the shift to streaming services, may have been dealt a mortal blow by the COVID-19 shutdowns. Then there’s that new class of stars—the ever-increasing percentage of the populace striking model poses for selfies on Instagram and those TikTok influencers doing stunts and cosplay—who are garnering the kind of celebrity once reserved for Hollywood’s leading names.
Yet somehow, the stars from the time before—when the screens were big, and silver—remain the most embedded, the most American of cultural obsessions. And for at least a century, a sizable portion of the fourth estate has existed as a conduit between these luminaries and their audiences, satisfying our prying curiosity about what they’re really like.
Ruthe Stein has been at this particular game for fully half that span, mostly at the San Francisco Chronicle—from which she officially retired in 2006, though she continued writing for the paper until 2019. On November 2, she will publish a book, Sitting Down with the Stars: Interviews with 100 Hollywood Legends. Representing just a small fraction of Stein’s professional encounters with the famous (if in some cases since forgotten), the collection isn’t a simple reprise of her Chronicle features. Rather, it’s an array of short pieces that weave the subjects’ original quotes into more personal recollections of the interviewer-interviewee dynamic, minus whatever promotion of a new film or other project had brought them together.
These impressionistic sketches include some details politely omitted from their prior incarnations: How Madonna is minded during an interview not by the usual “well-dressed young woman from the studio” but by “big burly guys who could be bouncers.” The combativeness of Kirk Douglas (because another Chronicle writer had panned his book) and the constant expletives from the mouths of Mel Gibson and Colin Farrell. She writes, “While I am hesitant to speak ill of the dead, there is really no other way to present Philip Seymour Hoffman,” whom she found “antagonistic” on several occasions.
But mostly Stein appears to get along very well with her subjects, including Jerry Lewis, Faye Dunaway, and others with reputations for being difficult. “I just went in with what I had, which I thought were good questions, and my curiosity,” she tells me. “I am curious about people. At parties, I’m always a good person to bring along, because I can make anybody start talking…. Either you have that ability or you don’t. I can sit down with somebody at a party and know their whole life story by the time we get up.” Even in eighth grade, the school newspaper predicted she “was going to be a gossip columnist,” she says. “So, I’ve always wanted to do exactly this.”
When Stein was growing up in Chicago, she says, her mother was a “huge movie fan” who would take her to see everything, child-appropriate or not. Stein’s first job after earning a journalism degree was working in that same city for Jet and Ebony, where, despite (or as a result of) being, she says, “the token white girl,” she found that she wasn’t intimidated speaking to stars like funk legend James Brown or actor James Earl Jones.
Hired to the Chronicle in 1970, she initially toiled in what were then considered the “women’s pages” and eventually wrote a long-running, widely syndicated column about singles life. She soon became the go-to staffer for a certain type of celebrity interview. At the time, the San Francisco International Film Festival hosted tributes to many golden-era Hollywood stars. Between that and other opportunities afforded then, Sitting Down includes Stein’s reminiscences about Gene Kelly, Shirley Temple, Lena Horne, Mickey Rooney, and Ginger Rogers, among others.
Digging up old articles for the book, she says, “it was sort of like a dream…. I would think, ‘Did I really do that? My god, I really was in the palace [talking to] Princess Grace. I really was sitting next to Cary Grant.’” Access to those last two was so prized that she had to fend off calls afterward from the National Enquirer, which was anxious for any private dirt she might have uncovered.
As she moved up the masthead, eventually becoming the Chronicle’s movie editor, Stein remained a tireless celebrity-profiling machine. She worked the National Association of Theatre Owners’ annual convention, ShoWest, for 27 years. A similar run attending the Toronto International Film Festival would see her “come back with 35 interviews” each time. Stein developed ways to get something fresh out of promotion-weary stars, whether it was being their first interviewer of the day or simply “trying to think of questions that maybe other people haven’t asked them. I try to have a rapport as much as you can…. To break through that wall a little bit.” As far as crossing lines established in advance by the interviewees or their publicists, she says: “I never paid any attention to that. I figured if the star wasn’t going to answer, they didn’t have to.”
That attitude did occasionally get her into hot water, as when she ignored a “Don’t ask about Woody” proviso with Mia Farrow, who “answered all the questions and then went to the publicist and complained.” (Laughing off the demand that they fire her, her editors instead “were like, ‘That’s great, Ruthe. It’s wonderful that these publicists are calling. It means that you’re doing your job,’” Stein says.) She shocked Jessica Lange by inquiring about the fidelity of her marriage to Sam Shepard—and Penelope Cruz by asking whether the newlywed was pregnant, as rumored. “It didn’t seem to me to be such a personal question,” she says.
Her favorite interviews, however, were not those involving the “who-are-you-sleeping-with questions,” but ones where she glimpsed the profundity of a subject’s challenge or concern, when they were “talking about tragedies in their lives.”
When Stein interviewed Antonio Banderas years after he was a “very awkward” Hollywood newbie, he’d recently had a heart attack and “was so much more vulnerable in the way that he was talking.” Similarly, cancer survivor Michael Douglas surprised her with “how open he was about how much it changed him.” She says, “I don’t usually care what people think of me,” and she allows that “in most instances, they’re not even going to read [the article she’s written]…. But with that interview, it was real important for me that [Douglas] liked it. Because I was trying to be so sensitive about the things that he had talked about…. We were talking about life and death here. Not a movie.”
She was also fond of interviewing celebrities at the start of their careers, she says, because “they are cute when they are young” but also because they’re often charmingly naïve about the celebrity they’re entering into. Jennifer Hudson worried aloud whether someone would tell her if she were Oscar-nominated for Dreamgirls.
Stein says she doesn’t miss journalism: “There is a time for everything, and there is a season, and you gotta kind of know when to leave.” The boxes of audiotapes she’s stockpiled over the decades will be donated one day soon to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She stays busy these days as the founder of San Francisco’s annual Mostly British Film Festival.
Looking back on her long career as an interviewer, she admits there are a few who got away—she wishes she’d sat down with Katharine Hepburn and Gene Hackman, for instance. Laughing, she notes that the eighth-grade prediction about her becoming a gossip columnist was right, more or less. “It was a terrific job,” she says. “I can’t imagine anything that would have been more fun.”•