Wednesday 13 December 2017

Starry, starry night

From Beyoncé to Chuck Berry and Jack Nicholson, Joe O'Shea on Ciaran Carty's interviews with musicians, actors and directors

Joe O'Shea

It is not really that long ago. But the stories, characters and personal reflections in Ciaran Carty's Intimacy With Strangers: A Life of Brief Encounters really do come from a different age.

Carty's look back over a wide-ranging and lively career in journalism recalls a time when movies – and the A-Listers who starred in them – seemed to have more heft and what we now call celebrity culture had much more, well, culture.

Carty, a film critic since the early 1960s and former arts editor for the Sunday Tribune, can claim to have met them all, from Woody Allen and Jack Nicholson to Michael Caine, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman and Leonardo DiCaprio.

However, there have also been the great directors, literary giants such as Chinua Achebe, John Updike and Doris Lessing and figures from pop culture, like Chuck Berry and Beyoncé.

One of the strengths of Intimacy With Strangers and Carty's approach is that Chuck gets as much of a run-out as Chinua; both are seen as hugely interesting men with stories to tell that go beyond the written word or the opening riff of 'Johnny B Goode'.

The interviewer gives as much weight to Achebe talking about the stresses on tribal society in colonial Nigeria as to Chuck Berry recounting how he had to learn about the rapacious nature of the music business the hard way.

The book is much more than a Greatest Hits from a much-travelled journo who has been there, interviewed that and got the press-junket T-shirt.

Carty starts out with brief scenes from his own story, from his childhood in Wexford town and early career in journalism, and then weaves in stories about fame, Hollywood, success, failure, social and cultural change in Ireland and the always fluid relationship between the stars and the film-going public.

The narrative ranges widely, with single chapters taking in Danny Boyle, Charlton Heston, Chuck Berry and John McGahern.

Anecdotes and themes feed into each other. Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman talk about absent fathers and complicated family histories and Carty recounts the relatively tough early life of Leonardo DiCaprio (so named because his mother first realised she was pregnant while gazing at a painting by da Vinci).

What is really striking, at least for those with experience of interviewing celebrities, is how the game has changed utterly in recent years.

Carty's book is right up to date, with interviews with Mickey Rourke in post-The Wrestler form and Danny Boyle reflecting on the stunning, unexpected success of Slumdog Millionaire.

But his conversations with the likes of Jack Nicholson and Nicholas Cage hark back to a different era when journalists were given more than just 15 minutes on a conveyor belt, with the bored-beyond-belief stars sitting in front of a poster for their latest block- buster, swatting away questions about their latest squeeze.

There is plenty of interest for Irish readers, with long conversations – often over a period of years – with the likes of Hugh Leonard and the writer William Trevor, who speaks of his Cork childhood. Hugh Leonard was more of a long-term friend than a subject. The tales of Dublin in the 1940s and 1950s, the variety theatres and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, are as much a social and cultural history of the city as the personal stories of a much-loved Irish writer.

Intimacy With Strangers is rich and rewarding; there is definitely a filmic quality to the narrative (to be expected from a writer who has devoted much of his life to the big screen) but it also has plenty of unexpected moments from an eclectic career spent talking with the greats.

Joe O'Shea is a journalist and broadcaster.

Irish Independent

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