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Vis-a-Vis and Vice Versa : ...

<i> Gross hosts National Public Radio's "Fresh Air," heard on KPCC-FM (89.3) weekdays at 7 p.m. </i>

We read interviews to find out who someone really is. One approach attempts to reveal the person by making connections between his or her work (presumably the reason that anyone would be interested in this person in the first place) and his or her life. Another approach focuses on personality. Celebrity journalism assumes that it is not the work that interests us but the mystique of success--power, wealth and privilege, not to mention the feuds, friendships and sexual adventures with fellow celebrities.

A good example of the latter is “Hard to Get,” Nancy Collins’ collection of interviews. Her subjects include Jack Nicholson, Joan Rivers, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ted Koppel, Elizabeth Taylor, Roone Arledge, Robin Williams, Debra Winger, Bette Midler, Francis Ford Coppola and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Fame is what they have in common.

These pieces, originally published in Esquire, Rolling Stone, Interview, New York and Playboy, or based on her interviews conducted for the Today Show, represent top-of-the-line celebrity journalism. They are not breathless encounters limited to such fluffy questions as “What’s your definition of love?” or “Do you have a basic philosophy when it comes to life?”

The frustrating thing about Collins is that she manages to ask those questions anyway. In her introduction (and her preface to each interview), Collins shows herself to be hard-working and conscientious. She does her preparation. What’s missing is a burning interest in her subjects’ work. Consequently, she rarely shows us what it is that sets these celebrities apart from other people, unless it is the money and power to indulge themselves, and the notoriety that makes them the subject of public curiosity. When she does ask about a subject’s work, her questions are too broad. Even with fellow interviewer Ted Koppel, she asks only two questions about interviewing, both generic: “How does your interviewing technique differ from others’?” and “Have there been times when you felt you really blew an interview?”

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To Collins’ credit, she does penetrate her subjects’ personal lives. Baryshnikov reveals that his mother committed suicide. Nicholson explains how he learned that the woman he thought was his sister was really his mother. But Collins immediately redirects the Nicholson interview to the questions: “You genuinely like women don’t you?” . . . “What attracts you to a woman?” . . . “Do you think you’re sexy?"--which leads to silly answers about being “buzzed by the female mystique.” The problem is that Collins gives as much weight to celeb banalities as she does to genuine revelations.

“Hard to Get” reveals as much about Collins as it does about her celebrities. Barbara Walters once warned her she’s “too pretty to be on television.” Although Collins tells us that she worries about convincing people that she can be tough while remaining glamorous, she comes off sounding like a fashion-magazine fantasy of a journalist. “Never walk into an interview under six feet--that’s my motto,” writes Collins, who hates to cover a story where she can’t wear high heels. “What God didn’t give you, you buy.” When she interviewed Nicholson over two separate days, she spent $50 each day on a professional makeup artist.

What seems to motivate her is the glamour of her beat. She practices celebrity journalism as if the ultimate goal were to become a celebrity herself.

Some of the personality questions that Collins routinely asks are questions that Helen Benedict, an associate professor of journalism at Columbia University, would find trivial or sexist, but is sometimes pressured by her editors to ask. Benedict’s editors at New York Woman asked her to find out about Susan Sontag’s sex life, and if she dyes her hair. Benedict turned the hair question around to let Sontag talk about self-image, and she didn’t bother to ask who Sontag had gone to bed with.

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Nine of Benedict’s profiles, originally published in Esquire, New York, Antioch Review and elsewhere, are collected in “Portraits in Print.” The book includes profiles of Joseph Brodsky, Bernard Malamud, lsaac Bashevis Singer, Paule Marshall, Beverly Sills, Leonard Michaels, and a dual portrait of Jessica Mitford and her husband Robert Treuhaft.

Benedict gets her subjects thinking aloud. Soviet emigre poet Joseph Brodsky admits he doesn’t have enough time to master both life and work. “You have to fake one, so you fake life.” Asked about his grotesque imagery, Yiddish writer lsaac Bashevis Singer tells her that “life in itself is kind of grotesque. . . . If you go deep into human beings, it is grotesque. Let’s say when you are with people you behave like any other people. But when you come home, you take off your clothes, you daydream, you are a different kind of person. Things are not as smooth, you may have passions of which you are ashamed, you may have dreams which shock yourself.”

Anyone who agrees to be interviewed must decide where to draw the line between what is public and what is private. But the line can shift, depending on who is asking the questions. What puts someone on guard isn’t necessarily the fear of being “found out.” It sometimes is just the fear of being misunderstood. That is why a person is likely to be more forthcoming with a reporter who demonstrates a grasp of that person’s life and work.

You would feel confident entrusting your story to Benedict. She comprehends her subject’s work and uses it to illuminate his or her character.

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Occasionally, her subjects aren’t forthcoming. This was the case with Malamud, who was recovering from a heart attack and would agree only to a phone interview. Writer Paule Marshall granted a “gracious, but impersonal interview, perhaps the most impersonal I have ever had.” When the subject holds back, the profile bogs down. Neither Benedict’s writing style nor her personal observations are lively enough to sustain it.

Her writing is more personal and relaxed in the commentary that follows each profile. This is where we find out the circumstances behind each interview, and the dilemmas she sometimes faces in reporting on private lives. She tells why she asked Jessica Mitford’s husband Robert Treuhaft for permission to mention in print the death of their 11-year-old son, a tragedy that Mitford kept out of her own memoirs. Benedict also admits that she agreed to let Leonard Michaels “rewrite” his quotes, which she now considers to have been a mistake. “A writer’s inclination to be kind often clashes with his or her duty to be fair,” Benedict observes in her introduction. Her commentaries show an intelligent reporter wrestling with conflicting instincts.

Benedict’s subjects might not be celebrities in quite the same way that Collins’ are, but her choice of subjects--weighted toward the literary/intellectual establishment--is, in its own way, as narrow. There has been more written about the people that Benedict profiles than about the form of journalism she practices. Her commentaries are sometimes more provocative than the profiles themselves.


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