The underside of history

Gay Talese on The Voyeur's Motel, Voyeur, and what the voyeur saw

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Gay Talese at home in his office: "Can you imagine if Anthony Hopkins was a voyeur? What a part it could be."
Gay Talese at home in his office: "Can you imagine if Anthony Hopkins was a voyeur? What a part it could be." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In the final installment of my conversation with the author of The Voyeur's Motel and the subject of Myles Kane and Josh Koury's documentary, Voyeur, Gay Talese envisions Anthony Hopkins playing the voyeur and notes that both Dustin Hoffman (Alan J Pakula's All the President's Men) and Jack Nicholson (Mike Nichols' Heartburn) played Carl Bernstein, so "anybody could play me", if the abandoned Steven Spielberg and Sam Mendes feature film had been cast. He remembers Nicole Kidman who starred opposite Hopkins in Robert Benton's adaptation of Philip Roth's The Human Stain as "what a cleaning lady!".

We start out with a discussion of his latest book which takes us to Voyeur, the film, that had its world premiere in the Spotlight on Documentary section of the 55th New York Film Festival.

Gay Talese at the Players Club: "The four days I was up there snooping myself, I saw pretty much enough to confirm the fact that what he saw was what he saw."
Gay Talese at the Players Club: "The four days I was up there snooping myself, I saw pretty much enough to confirm the fact that what he saw was what he saw." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Anne-Katrin Titze: When I read your book, The Voyeur's Motel, I kept thinking about this man, Gerald Foos, and why he isn't bored to death doing this.

Gay Talese: It is boring.

AKT: I could not understand the allure. Maybe I'm not voyeur enough.

GT: What I liked about that … They said I used a lot of his writing. Yes, I had to. It's not that I didn't see what he saw. The four days I was up there snooping myself, I saw pretty much enough to confirm the fact that what he saw was what he saw. What he saw, what I thought was relevant and sad, for example, the Vietnam War. When he sees these crippled soldiers trying to have sex, this is really the war. People who get a Congressional Medal of Honour and get invited to the White House, and they have anthems sung by some vet - bullshit!

The real war is what it does to the figure and psyche of a person who's a soldier who's been injured, crippled. And these people in that motel showed that war. The voyeur said somebody was a pilot who talks about dropping at Viet Cong out of a helicopter. What's in there is about the loneliness of two lesbian teachers and they go to Colorado to get away from somewhere in California. The hypocrisy of people. This fake suitcase with a thousand dollar bill - the voyeur is playing with the public a little bit. He's exposing a kind of tawdry reality. I thought it was rich in its contribution to the underside of history.

AKT: I see that's the point.

GT: Sure, he is not the most reliable guy but the basic story itself - the secret life of people. It's tedious. Ordinary life is tedious. Marriage is boring. You know, sometimes an affaire is the only interesting thing about a marriage. If you had just the ordinary life, you need film, you need novels, you need poetry, you need dance to get away from ordinary life. 99% of the people lead ordinary lives. They never get attention paid because they don't do anything that draws attention to them, because they're so fucking boring. And this is what this guy caught.

Gay Talese in Myles Kane and Josh Koury's Voyeur
Gay Talese in Myles Kane and Josh Koury's Voyeur

AKT: And then there is his personal commentary, for example on pets. [Dogs are dangerous to Foos because unlike the human guests they sense his presence, bark up to the vent, and threaten to give away the voyeur's lair.]

GT: I have two dogs. Oh, there's plenty of stuff. People pissing in the sink. All these things. There's humour in that.

AKT: That chapter was difficult to get through.

GT: And then he follows people home! That woman who had an affaire with a doctor. She was a nurse, in fact. And the voyeur follows her in his car and he goes to her home, he goes to the hedges. And he sees her beautiful house and her children. There's a swing and bicycle on the lawn. And the husband drives in with the car and he's got a little briefcase and a suit, probably a lawyer or some kind of accountant or something.

The ordinary life of bliss - and he knows two hours earlier that woman had some doctor's cock in her mouth. It's wonderful stuff. You never know about people. Nobody would believe that woman and that husband and the two children in the ideal suburban house outside of Denver - that she had anything like that hot afternoon she had in the motel. Wonderful reality to that.

AKT: When you talked about the collection he had, didn't you mention in the book that Foos also had a gun that belonged to Hermann Göring?

GT: Guns? Yes, he had guns. He collected all kinds of things. Coins. I love the story about the aunt, the sexy Aunt Katherine. She was German. She collected these miniature dolls. And collected thimbles. Thimbles! You know, people used to collect hair? In the 1920s they used to make braids out of hair.

Gay Talese under a halo on the voyeur: "He's exposing a kind of tawdry reality. I thought it was rich in its contribution to the underside of history."
Gay Talese under a halo on the voyeur: "He's exposing a kind of tawdry reality. I thought it was rich in its contribution to the underside of history." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I know. And locks of hair for your locket. Not Hillary Clinton's, though, to bring it closer to the present.

GT: That guy's sense of humour. Boy, he's in trouble.

AKT: For the voyeur, is it the collecting part? Is his voyeurism a part of collecting?

GT: He is certainly collecting the lives, the privacy …

AKT: Making them thimbles?

GT: Yes. Exactly. That's true. But he's a scientist. In a way, why isn't he Kinsey? Why isn't he Masters and Johnson? They collect information. Yes, they do it a whole other way. This guy is watching people not knowing about it. What he says is more true, more verifiable, because people don't have in their head that they're being watched.

AKT: I wonder what the story would have been as a fictional movie. Would it have been beautified, added the nobility you said is missing?

GT: You know, they could have had a great actor. Who's the actor that played Hannibal Lecter?

AKT: Anthony Hopkins.

GT: An actor like that! Can you imagine if Anthony Hopkins was a voyeur? What a part it could be.

AKT: When you mention Hopkins, I was immediately thinking of him in the Philip Roth book film, The Human Stain. Have you seen that?

GT: I read it twice.

AKT: Have you seen Anthony Hopkins as ...

GT: The professor? I think so.

AKT: And I believe Nicole Kidman plays the cleaning lady.

GT: That's right. What a cleaning lady!

Gay Talese on The Voyeur's Motel: "I love the story about the aunt, the sexy Aunt Katherine."
Gay Talese on The Voyeur's Motel: "I love the story about the aunt, the sexy Aunt Katherine." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Who would you have liked to play you?

GT: Anybody could play me. Carl Bernstein was played by Dustin Hoffman in one movie, by Jack Nicholson in another movie. Who would have played me? Anybody. That's not a hard part. I have nobody to blame but me on why the movie deal fell apart. My agents said you should have told us. I didn't think it was that important. A Spielberg movie is going to be threatened by some fucking documentary? I didn't think it was even important. Well, it was.

AKT: That's the world we live in.

GT: That's the world I learned about.

Read what Gay Talese had to say on how Josh Koury and Myles Kane's film came together.

Read what Gay Talese had to say on Voyeur and the difference between reading and viewing.

The Voyeur opens in the US on December 1.

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