Hearing that the latest season of You Must Remember This is stellar should surprise nobody who listens to Karina Longworth’s exceptional podcast. For the past three years, Longworth has delighted and intrigued listeners with her engrossing take on Hollywood’s first century: Part cultural history, part gossip analysis, part holistic biography of some of the industry’s most iconic figures. Across several addictive seasons, she’s touched on everything from Hollywood’s relationship to Charles Manson, the rise and fall MGM Studios and its most powerful players, the Blacklist of the McCarthy years, and six degrees of Joan Crawford.
Most recently, she released what may be her magnum opus: A thirteen part saga called, rather bluntly, Dead Blondes, but this was no mere true crime binge: This was Longworth at her best, interrogating the oft-heralded myth of the tragic young white blonde girl in the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and revealing the terrible people who made the system so toxic for them. Even legends like Marilyn Monroe, whose face is now a registered property to recreate for mugs and posters, was given a retrospective, forcing listeners to understand her from a clearer point of view.
After that, you’d think Longworth would take it easy this Summer, but we’re already three episodes into her latest season (with the fourth released this week). Like the Crawford season, this latest study focuses on a handful of people, in this instance two of Hollywood’s most wilfully misunderstood actresses — Jane Fonda and Jean Seberg.
Even for the most ardent film fans, there didn’t seem to be much connective tissue between the Oscar winning daughter of a Hollywood legend turned anti-war pariah and the American epitome of Parisian chic who died at the age of 40. Both represented a particular brand of sex appeal in the era of American film when the studio system was losing its power, and both had strong political leanings that saw them viciously attacked by the public, but they didn’t seem to be a natural pairing. That’s what makes Longworth’s meticulously researched and ambitious scope so thrilling to listen to.
Switching between Fonda and Seberg, Longworth compares and contrasts their respective lives without reducing either of them to mere pawns in their own stories. Fonda’s childhood — the daughter of a Hollywood legend and a tragic mother who suffered from mental illness — acts as a lens for Seberg’s own upbringing as a born troublemaker in the Midwest and vice versa. With Jane, every moment is framed by the surrounding focus of the Hollywood studio system and Henry Fonda’s place in it. She may have been raised away from LA itself, but all of the industry’s pressures followed her from an early age, particularly regarding body image.
Whereas Fonda was billed as the continuing of a legacy, moving into acting after modelling, Seberg was positioned as the ultimate Star Is Born dream-come-true, having been plucked from obscurity by legendary director Otto Preminger to play the lead in his adaptation of Saint Joan: Both women were sold to the American public as the perfect feminine fantasy, but neither would truly experience that. Fonda’s sections in the podcast are especially revealing as there is so much audio and video footage of the actress herself candidly discussing her life, her strained relationship with her father and the eating disorder that would plague her for many years. In contrast, we hear nothing of Seberg, who never seemed able to wield any control over her own life, as Preminger played the part of the dictatorial director moulding his protege to his needs.
Merely repeating these women’s stories does little to convey the exceptional quality and appeal of You Must Remember This. This is a piece of historical and cultural storytelling that manages to parse immense amounts of detail into something that even Hollywood novices can appreciate. The podcast never devolves into dry dictation, and Longworth has the cadence of your most interesting friend who knows tons about celebrities and wants you to know absolutely everything. She has fun with these stories but is also deeply invested in giving so many women like Seberg, Monroe, Dorothy Stratten and Sharon Tate a voice, something they’ve frequently been denied by history and celebrity. The industry to this day revels in reducing its brightest and most beautiful stars to voiceless vessels for consumption, blank canvases for contemporary concerns to be projected upon, and few people interrogate that system better than Longworth.
This season also poses a challenge for Longworth as it’s the first time she’s dedicated this amount of airtime to someone who’s still alive and working in the industry. Fonda, after being ostracised for her Vietnam opposition to her two Oscar wins, a workout industry boom and marriage to Ted Turner, is now an Emmy nominee for her Netflix show, Grace and Frankie. That infamous mugshot can now be purchased on merchandise from her website. Even as Fonda embraces her status as a grand dame of Hollywood, there are still angry men with YouTube channels shouting about stuff she said in the 1960s. Her image may have softened over the decades but she’s still enough of a target for right-wing conservative dudes to whisk themselves into a tizzy over.
As for Seberg, she remains an icon in death, but primarily for her image and not her work or activism. Like Monroe, she is best remembered for a pixie haircut and the Pinterest inspiration of her look in Breathless. Her status in cultural history is enshrined in beauty and tragedy, but You Must Remember This could help to shatter the mould and give her a voice once again. There’s still much to come from this season — Seberg and Fonda’s political activism, Fonda’s Oscar wins and aerobics reinvention, On Golden Pond — but it certainly promises to be as thrilling as ever.
You Must Remember This is available wherever you get your podcasts. If you’re looking for some good episodes to start with, I would recommend the ones on Isabella Rossellini, Mia Farrow, Barba Streisand’s A Star Is Born, and the entire Manson season.