One of the hottest films right now is a documentary about—how to say this gently?—two old men. But it has taken the daughter of one of these men to give us an inside look at one of the great collaborations in literature.
The movie is called Turn Every Page, and it is about the five-decade-long relationship between the master historian Robert Caro and his editor, Robert Gottlieb. Lizzie Gottlieb, Robert’s daughter, has spent the last seven years on the film, first convincing the men to agree to be the subject of her film. “My father said no no no,” recalls Lizzie, “but finally, probably out of irritation, he agreed. He said Caro would likely not agree, but I could WRITE him a letter–on paper—to ask. Caro couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to watch a movie about a writer and editor (guess he hasn’t seen Front Page?) and said okay as long as I promised never to have them in the same room at work together.” (Stay tuned for a spoiler alert.)
Who would have thought the editorial relationship of two guys named Bob would be the second coming of Star Wars?
Lizzie makes it very clear that unlike many memoir-style docs, she was “not trying to explore my relationship with my father, with whom I have an incredibly close relationship. But even though they’d worked together for decades, I did not know Robert Caro. Until I gave an 80th birthday party for my dad in Park Slope. I still remember this handsome older man coming up to me and asking what I thought Barclays Center had done for Brooklyn. I soon realized I was talking to the man who wrote the masterpiece about Robert (a third Robert!) Moses, who had changed the architecture of New York. He remains curious about everything!”
Others thought she was crazy to take on such a project, except for a few women friends, who became key to the film.”Lizzie surrounds herself with other women on her projects,” says Joanne Nerenberg, the documentary’s co-producer and the first person she confided in with her idea. “I was immediately delighted and thought, ‘Yes!'” says Nerenberg. “This idea will work, this film will be meaningful. I was familiar with Caro’s revered status through the world of urban planning that my husband occupies—The Power Broker is a foundational text, a ‘bible’ to practitioners, teachers, and students in that field. I knew that a documentary about Bob Caro would have a built-in audience, but a story about Bob and Bob—that heightened and played on their Felix–Oscar odd couple pairing and chemistry—could be wildly entertaining.”
Bob and Bob and LBJ
Sony Picture Classics purchased Turn Every Page, and word of mouth began to build with film festivals and small theatres. Now, it is about to pick up close to 150 new venues.“Who would have thought the editorial relationship of two guys named Bob would be the second coming of Star Wars?” David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker (a post that Robert Gottlieb once held) told me. “And yet there was a line around the block at Film Forum the other night. I salute Lizzie for corralling those two cats and getting them to be themselves in front of her searching eye.”
“The film is charming and wise,” says Stacy Schiff, a best-selling historian herself. “My favorite scene, hands down, is when Lizzie is fitting the microphone for Bob Gottlieb and he says, ‘I was a good daddy.'” It is one of many times the daughter herself choked up. “I cried many times while shooting, and I still do as I watch with an audience. I really didn’t know if people would respond so emotionally, but they do.”
She’s hoping this film about true collaboration will inspire others to follow their creative dreams.
She has made a few other personal films about relatives and friends. “These take
so much time and care,” she says. “I just don’t think I’d want to spent so much time with people I don’t care about.” She’s hoping this film about true collaboration will inspire others to follow their creative dreams, to find good partners, and yes, to read more. That is a running theme in this film: about the need to stretch our minds through literature and for writers to take it very seriously. They don’t have to spend a decade and four volumes on people like LBJ (who’s fifth volume we all await from Caro). But I promise after seeing this movie, you’ll never look at a semicolon the same, not to mention use the word “loom.”
Caro fans, in particular, are doing what they can. This doc opens with–who else?—Ethan Hawke, who seems to be everywhere right now, reading from his favorite author. Jamie Lee Curtis recently hosted a screening in Hollywood and gushed about the author as well. She says, “I used to ask, who made New York what it is? And I was told I had to read about Robert Moses. As for the Lyndon Johnson books, I was born the day JFK was killed, and LBJ offered my mother, Janet Leigh, an ambassadorship.” (She turned it down.)
I asked Lizzie if anyone turned her down. One big Caro fan did. That would be Stacy Abrams, who responded saying, “I am too busy saving Democracy.”
“We let her off the hook,” the filmmaker says with a laugh.
Michele Willens’ collection of essays, From Mouseketeers to Menopause, is available on Amazon. She and Wendy Kout wrote a play called Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas.