Ghosts of Old Hollywood, as a Podcast


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Karina Longworth, who explores the secrets of Hollywood legends in her podcast, “You Must Remember This.”

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Emily Berl for The New York Times

LOS ANGELES — Not everyone driving down Sunset Boulevard senses the ghosts of Old Hollywood. But to Karina Longworth, a 36-year-old film historian who hosts the podcast “You Must Remember This,” the era of Bogart and Bacall is as present as TMZ.

Since starting the podcast in 2014, Ms. Longworth has earned a devoted following, including the actresses Chloë Sevigny and Tavi Gevinson. On each episode, she unpeels the “secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century,” such as the drama-filled life of Hedy Lamarr and Mia Farrow’s odyssey through the 1960s.

Her subjects have ranged from the obscure (a future-themed album that Frank Sinatra made in 1980) to the well-traveled (the Manson murders, which she unfurled, “Serial”-style, over 12 episodes). Retelling tales from the MGM lot as if gossiping with a friend over brunch, Ms. Longworth herself embodies an element of throwback glamour (she is partial to cat-eye glasses), breathily exhorting her listeners each week to “join us, won’t you?”

“I like the idea that it sounds like you’re coming into a cult,” Ms. Longworth said, at the house in the Los Feliz neighborhood that she rents here with her boyfriend of five years, the director Rian Johnson (“Looper”). “We’re going to basically have this goofy séance for 40 minutes, and in the middle you’ll listen to an ad for mail-order wine.”

Other podcasts, like “Myths and Legends” and “Stuff You Missed in History Class,” have repackaged the past in a fresh medium, giving old stories new life and a new audience. But Ms. Longworth has hit on a peculiar sweet spot, where hipsterdom meets Turner Classic Movies.

Her narration is gauzy yet skeptical, with dips into pop culture. In the season she just finished, “Six Degrees of Joan Crawford,” she compared the feud between Crawford and Bette Davis to the social-media war between Kanye West and Taylor Swift.

“I want to fill in the blanks between what I know and what I don’t know,” Ms. Longworth said. She recently returned from London, where she lived for more than a year while Mr. Johnson directed “Star Wars: Episode VIII.” (Yes, she knows who Rey’s parents are.)

She recalled sitting on the “Star Wars” set, doing research on the Hollywood blacklist as intergalactic battles swirled around her. “After a few takes, I’d get bored and go back to my book.”

Growing up in Studio City, Ms. Longworth was fascinated by the remnants of Old Hollywood. “A lot of the great stars were still alive, and they would be reported on in the local news at night: What was Elizabeth Taylor doing today?” she said. “One of my very first memories is my mom talking to me about Rock Hudson and how he had AIDS.”

As a teenager, Ms. Longworth wore retro mod outfits and went to double features at the New Beverly Cinema, a historic movie theater here. She idolized Lauren Bacall, because “she was never subservient.” She went to art school, then got a graduate degree in cinema studies at N.Y.U., working at a ravioli factory in SoHo to help pay tuition.

After stints at the movie websites Cinematical and SpoutBlog, she moved back west for her dream job, as film editor and critic at L.A. Weekly.

But after three years, she was burned out, and contemporary movies didn’t excite her. “I just had to make a change,” she said.

She quit her job and spent a year and a half teaching and taking commissioned book projects, before channeling her love of old movies into podcasting. Over a spring break, she taught herself how to use GarageBand, a sound recording app, and created her first episode, about the showbiz struggles of Kim Novak. Technically, it was a disaster: GarageBand kept crashing, and after the show aired the file became corrupted.

Her audience grew (her downloads are now in the low six figures), and her devotees now include includes actors, whom she occasionally casts in supporting roles.

“John Mulaney emailing me led to Dana Carvey playing Mickey Rooney on the podcast,” she said. “Adam Goldberg tweeted about it, and that week I was like, ‘Hey, you should play David O. Selznick!’”

After a hiatus to research a book on women and Howard Hughes, Ms. Longworth will resume the podcast early next year. The show now has a partnership with Panoply, Slate’s podcast network, and makes enough money through ads to pay a research and production assistant.

But she still records herself in a tiny bathroom off her home office, which she turned into a studio after the toilet stopped working.

She met Mr. Johnson in 2008, when she was asked to moderate a Q. and A. after a screening of his film “The Brothers Bloom” in New Jersey; it turned into an onstage flirtation, even though they were both seeing other people at the time. About two years later, they found themselves both single and on the same coast.

The relationship has given Ms. Longworth a kind of double vision of Hollywood, then and now. What hasn’t changed is the gap between myth and reality, whether it’s Marvel Studios hyping the latest superhero franchise or Jack Warner planting stories in Photoplay.

“One thing that I fundamentally understand,” Ms. Longworth said, “is that nobody who works in Hollywood right now has any incentive to tell any public person, including reporters, the truth.”

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