Original Cinema

Remembering the erotic ’80s with Karina Longworth.

karina longworth
CAT GWYNN

Each season of You Must Remember This, the podcast hosted by writer and film historian Karina Longworth, offers a trove of impeccably researched takes on Hollywood mythology. Episodes have covered everything from the ongoing cultural fixation on dead blond actresses to racist Disney movies to the parallel careers of Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
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The current season, which started in early April, has the tantalizing title Erotic 80s and explores how sex permeated mainstream culture. Through deep dives into the impact of the “porno chic” craze of the 1970s and the rise of sex symbols like Bo Derek and Richard Gere, Longworth brings to life a steamier entertainment world than the one we currently find ourselves in.

Today’s mainstream cinema is largely sexless, even though, Longworth told me during a recent phone call, “it seems like there’s so much more cultural conversation than there was in the ’80s and ’90s about sexual identity and issues of abuse of consent. Why are we having these conversations but the movies aren’t reflecting them?”

“I wanted to try to go back to this period of my youth when it felt like sex was a part of popular culture in a significant way and try to figure out what was going on then to better figure out what’s going on now,” she says.

A native Californian, Longworth frequently draws on her connection to the Golden State when looking at its cultural exports. “I grew up in Studio City. Living in Los Angeles at that time, especially in the Valley, in close proximity to Hollywood, you have this sense of being part of something but also being outside of it. So that makes the mystique stronger,” she says. In the ’80s and ’90s, Longworth felt as though “the history of Hollywood was more present than it is now. I remember on the local nightly news there’d be updates as to what Elizabeth Taylor or Bob Hope did that day—these living legends among us.”

“One of my very earliest memories was my mom explaining to me who Rock Hudson was and what AIDS was,” she continues. “And that is actually something I’m going to talk about in an episode later this season. Obviously, the AIDS crisis was a major facet of sexuality in the ’80s, and the way Hollywood dealt with it—or didn’t deal with it—is interesting to me.”

Prior to creating the podcast, Longworth, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Knives Out director Rian Johnson, was an editor and a film critic at the LA Weekly and the Village Voice. She’s also written books on Meryl Streep, George Lucas, and Howard Hughes.

Longworth’s mix of scholarly rigor and deep cinephilia, honed throughout her career, is key to the appeal of You Must Remember This, but what makes it unique among other Hollywood podcasts is how personal it feels. “I don’t have any kind of apparatus for figuring out what’s going to be a hit at a specific time,” Longworth says. “I completely choose topics based on what I’m personally interested in, because it’s too hard to do it any other way. It’s so much work and so all-consuming that I couldn’t do something unless I was super passionate about it.”

In recent years, her intensive research process hit a roadblock: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library, one of Longworth’s primary sources of research, closed its doors in March 2020 in response to COVID-19. “It’s been a struggle for me to figure out how to research things and find out what topics I can do based on what materials are available. Last summer, I decided to do this season, and one of the reasons I knew I could do it was because I could buy vintage magazines.” (Margaret Herrick reopened on April 18.)

For this season (part one is still airing, with a second part, about the ’90s, planned for later this year), Longworth built up an extensive collection of materials from eBay, but not without some rather comic challenges: “I was in Belgrade, where my husband was shooting a movie, and I was buying these vintage Playboy magazines on eBay. They shut down my account because they thought it was suspicious activity, that someone in Serbia was buying a bunch of Playboy issues.”

Thankfully, Longworth was able to get her account back and says that pulling from magazines of that era “adds a level of media criticism to this season that’s maybe more prominent than in seasons past. I’m really taking a look at how Hollywood was selling things through the media and how the media was reflecting the way people saw Hollywood.”

Of course, watching films was also a big part of the process. “I’d say I hadn’t seen more of the films than I had seen [in previous seasons]. A lot of them were discoveries,” Longworth says, citing recent first-time viewings of Crimes of Passion, No Way Out, and Bad Influence. When it comes to rewatching films, Longworth tries to approach them with a clean slate. She sees Flashdance (and Adrian Lyne’s work in general) as misunderstood by critics of the time. “I think these are movies that are really worthy of being taken seriously and have been calcified as these jokes from the past,” she says.

A signature feature of You Must Remember This, whether the podcast is covering studio-era stars or the sexy films of the ’80s, is the way Longworth never treats her subjects like a joke. Even seemingly trashy films have much to gain from Longworth’s deeply considered reevaluations and her insistence that listeners “must remember” them.•

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