Interview: Susan Wloszczyna

I managed to grab some time with Susan Wloszczyna of rogerebert.com to pick her brain about the film industry, but also to touch on the recent election result, talk about her time at USA Today, and, of course, share some of our thoughts on the Oscars.

Robin Write: Howdy. How are you?

Susan Wloszczyna: Okay, election doldrums still linger. But I am looking forward to a Gilmore Girls binge.

RW: Well, of course.

SW: One question from me. Why did you ask me to do this?

RW: Well, I wanted to publish film discussions, but with the kind of people that talk and write about film daily. Like real film fans. Asked a few of my blogger friends, some more established film writers like yourself, and a couple of filmmakers I know.

SW: Okay, thanks. Ready to talk film.

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RW: Okay. In a world where movies don’t exist, what do you strive to do for a living?

SW: Hmm. I originally was an English major as an undergrad and thought I wanted to be a teacher. I think I still have that urge, but adjunct profs work like dogs and get paid little. But I enjoy mentoring others and have spoken at schools and colleges in the past. Nothing like young people eager to learn.

RW: What inspired you growing up from a young age?

SW: Films definitely. First film I saw on the big screen was Sleeping Beauty. And TV. I thought Captain Kangaroo was my friend for sure. But I regularly read newspapers – my hometown of Buffalo had two competing papers at one time. I distinctly remember reading a review of The Fox in the now-defunct Courier-Express and looking up the word “lesbian” afterwords. And I was always drawn to biographies, especially of great women.

RW: Any particular stand-outs or favorites?

SW: I revered Eleanor Roosevelt and Helen Keller when I was a kid in the ’60s. The first book report I ever wrote was about Keller’s autobiography. I also was mad about the movie The Miracle Worker. Patty Duke was one of my childhood idols, one I would later interview along with her son, Sean Astin.

RW: Nice.

SW: But not together. I spoke to her when she did a Patty Duke Show reunion movie for TV and to Sean for the final The Lord of the Rings film. That is one thing I loved about my job at USA TODAY. Being able to talk to people I grew up admiring.

RW: How long did you work for USA Today? How did you get it?

SW: For nearly 30 years – I took a buyout in 2013, after the paper began shrinking and click-bait stories became the norm. I was lucky. I was working at another Gannett paper – The Niagara Falls Gazette – as a feature editor who did reviews on the side when USA TODAY was born in 1983. They tried out a slew of people from the smaller papers and I began as a copy editor and later was a Life copy desk chief. In 1989, I became a film critic and entertainment writer.

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RW: And now the Roger Ebert site?!

SW: Yep, Roger Ebert. I knew Roger and his wife through the years – he was very generous about providing quotes for my stories. In 2011, I interviewed him in person at his Chicago home with Chaz – he used special computer technology to answer my questions since he had lost his voice to illness. And also email. It was one of my favorite stories I ever wrote for the paper. So when I learned the site was looking for critics to keep Roger’s website up and running just a month after I left the paper, I immediately asked to be a part of it. I also wrote for two and a half years for Thompson on Hollywood and Women and Hollywood when they were part of Indiewire. And for AARP and, most recently, for the MPAA site for The Credits.

RW: Kind of poignant that you got to speak to Roger at that late stage of his life. He was a legend.

SW: It was such an honor. And quite an influence on me. Very honored to carry on doing what I do in his name.

RW: I am sure you have many envious people out there. I for one.

SW: That is not something I think about. I am just very lucky to have found a second life doing what I love as a freelancer. The team at Ebert are top notch all around. There are about 12 main critics. I also do interviews and Oscar columns for the site.

RW: So when did your fascination with the Oscars begin?

SW: Very young. I was personally invested in the Oscars when Mary Poppins was nominated in 1964. That film was my Star Wars. After that, I watched nearly every year – at least up until my bedtime.

RW: Love Mary Poppins – one of my favorites.

SW: I did adore the Emma Thompson portions of Saving Mr. Banks as well.

RW: How has your relationship with Oscar changed over the years? 2013 was a great year for lead actresses by the way. Thought Thompson was unlucky.

SW: I now have a professional relationship with Oscar, Which means I often have acted as an Academy Award sociologist. What do the nominated films say about the state of Hollywood and the world right now. I am writing a piece like this right now – how biopics of a traditional type – more popular than ever in recent races – are taking a backseat to a different type of personal story this year. And, yes, 2013 was stellar for the ladies. And this year’s batch is also quite strong and competitive. Meryl might not even make the cut.

RW: What?! This year we could well have a Best Picture list of great films. Is that election result going to have an influence on voters and the movies they choose though?

SW: While La La Land might be the front-runner at least for now, there are other titles that could easily jump into the lead once they open in actual theaters. But, overall, it is a very good if not great year. I don’t know if the election will change what Hollywood types gravitate towards. What I do know is that The Birth of a Nation might have sunk in favor even if its director’s past didn’t become an issue. That kind of film goes against the mood right now. Moonlight, something that is intimate and small, is more in line with what people crave. At least that is what I think. Or Fences. Or Loving. One thing i know is that there will be fewer outcries over the lack of diversity. I am thinking maybe three of the acting winners could end up being African-American, including Denzel Washington, who could take his third trophy.

RW: Ruth Negga?

SW: I have her ranking third, after Emma Stone and Natalie Portman. As I said, this is a strong year and she is a newcomer. Also count on Annette Bening for 20th Century Women and Amy Adams for Arrival – both nominated many times and long overdue.

RW: Yeah, they are strong, popular women right now – and have been for some time. I could go on and on for days about the Oscars though. Okay, so how could this new era of America effect the film-making industry?

SW: If you look to the past, the upheaval going on in politics can take many forms. During the Cold War, there was a boom in cautionary tales about visitors from outer space – the best in my mind being The Day the Earth Stood Still. The burgeoning Civil Rights movement gave us message movies such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner along with blaxploitation flicks. The Vietnam War gave us propaganda like the Green Berets and more artful anti-war dramas such as Coing Home, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. the sexual revolution gave us Divorce American Style and Bob, Ted, Carol and Alice. Meanwhile, women’s lib was at the center of An Unmarried Woman and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. What I know for certain is that filmmakers will be influenced by shifting forces in our society. But I have learned my lesson not to quickly jump to conclusions about what form Trump era cinema will take. The Nixon administration inspired memorable paranoid thrillers such as The Conversation, Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. That made sense given the sneaky business and secret taping going on with Watergate. But the week after 9/11, I talked to numerous cultural experts, filmmakers, psychologists and such about what type of entertainment the public would crave after the terrorist strikes. To a one, they said the equal of comfort food. Gentle, healing movies that restored our faith in mankind and took a global viewpoint. And unlikely heroes like Harry Potter and Frodo, who rise to the occasion. Instead, the lingering fears and tensions from that horrible day led to a surge of extreme cinema with the rise of the Saw franchise and an increase in graphic violent sex such as in Irreversible. There already are several films with Trump surrogates in them – Denial and Middle School for two. But I do think times of unease leads to great art. So maybe something good may come out of all this.

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RW: What does the future hold for film journalism? What would you say to any young film-lovers wanting to follow their cinematic hearts?

SW: Ah, film journalism. I have no clue. Many critics are taking buyouts or being laid off from traditional media sources. And the scramble to write for good online outlets who pay decently has only gotten more intense since I left USA TODAY three-plus years ago. But let’s just say that the chance for growth in the field is slim. Here’s what drives me crazy sometimes with young journalists. They need to do their homework and know more about older cinema. You can’t properly review or write about films without a sense of history. Yeah, you can fake it but somehow your lack of expertise will show. There are so many great collections of reviews by Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert. And essential movie books like Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and almost anything by Mark Harris. They can get you started. And of course watching TCM when you can. My biggest peeve is when younger writers do anniversary stories on a movie from 10, 20, 30 or more years ago and have never seen said title on a big screen. Nor do they do research about the film to learn how it was perceived in its day as opposed to now. Sometimes seeing classics in a real movie theater will reveal details that you can never see even on a state of the wide widescreen TV. I have seen The Wizard of Oz countless times before finally seeing on a real screen when it was converted to 3-D for its 75th anniversary. That is when I finally saw what a great performance Toto gives in the movie. I am not kidding. And I never got what the fuss was about with Citizen Kane until I went to an anniversary screening at the AFI, with Robert Wise in attendance – the great director who was the editor on the film. Without seeing how the camera heightened the narrative and added to the storytelling, you really haven’t seen Citizen Kane. OK, end of lecture.

RW: You make some really valid points. Especially the generation perception. I know film lovers much younger than me that rave about films that were before even my time. There’s a suspicion somewhere deep down, but often their expression and passion speaks for itself. I’d love, love, love to see more older movies on the big screen. Tough to find where I am these days. My urge to just go move to London grows by the minute. One day I’ll build my own cinema and show the classics daily. You can dream.

SW: There are all these Fathom events in theaters held around the U.S. that bring back older classics that are celebrating anniversaries on a pretty regular basis.

RW: Well, thank you Susan for talking to me. Appreciate it.

SW: My pleasure. Always happy to talk films with someone who loves them.

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Susan can he found on Twitter @wozerina, and rogerebert.com.

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