Why give up this last patch of privacy? Because Howard Stern is absolutely shameless. "I didn't want a Hollywood version of my career," he says. "I didn't want my director to love me. Betty [Thomas] will be the first to admit that she did not love me when she started the movie, yet she came to appreciate me as we went on. And that's what I want the movie to accomplish. I want people to begin to understand what I'm about, that I'm not just a guy who tells pussy and dick jokes all fuckin' morning, that there is some intelligence behind it.
"The movie is really a love letter to my wife," he says, looking down. "A guy who can't get laid meets a wonderful woman at a young age, a woman willing to travel the country with him, to go along with this wacky career. Then, as I get more and more confident, I begin to say these very private things about her on the air."
He looks at the phone. "Remember when I got that call before?" he asks. "Well, that was my wife. She was angry, said I was abusing her on air. I take a no-holds-barred attitude even toward my family. The radio show comes first. Who would put up with that? And what kind of relationship do you have after you've said all this shit on the air?"
Mary McCormack, who currently stars in the ABC drama Murder One, plays Alison Stern. Working on the film, she came to understand this: Being Howard's wife is probably harder than playing Howard's wife. "She's raising three kids, and their father is Howard Stern," says McCormack. "And always, she is in on the joke and in on the joke until he goes too far, and then she is out. I am terrified what Alison Stern will think of this movie. I hope she doesn't vomit."
"The whole thing is weird," Alison tells me. "I'm still trying to get beyond the oddness and realize it's probably good for people to get a sense of what Howard and I have in private."
When I ask how Alison felt about Stern doing a love scene with another woman, essentially her stand-in, she stammers. "Well, he assured me that it was, like, nothing really, you know — uh — well, you know that it really wasn't a love scene, unless I misinterpreted." She pauses, then says, "Did you get the feeling it was a love scene?"
"Well, I don't think it was like a Fatal Attraction kind of scene or anything like that," I say.
"It is weird that it's somebody playing me," she says. "But I feel it's a really good representation of my relationship with him."
When I later speak with Stern (it was our second interview), I tell him about this exchange. "When I asked your wife about the love scene, she said she was assured there was no love scene. Is there a love scene?"
"Just kissing, making out," says Stern. "That kind of stuff."
"I felt like I was covering for you," I say. "Like you were my college roommate and your girlfriend from home called."
"Do me a favor," says Stern, laughing. "Don't mention that again."
Stern started work on the movie last May. For most of the summer, he hosted his show each morning from 6 until 10:30, then raced off to his second job. "All these whining actors who say how rough it is on the set, let them do a radio show for four or five hours, go into makeup for three or four hours, then finally finish acting at 8 or 9 o'clock," he says. His eyes light up when he says this, and he gets a pleased look on his face, the look of a man who has always done it the hard way, insulted every boss, tried every nerve and still come out ahead. "I love that everyone in Hollywood has to kiss major-league fuckin' ass and practically blow someone to get a part," he says. "I don't. It's my movie based on my book. I rejected script after script. I'm in on the planning and execution of it. And that's a cool way to do it. If I ever make another one, I'll do it the exact same way."
Private Parts was filmed in Westchester, Washington, Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and New Jersey. The crew was tracking after Stern's past, re-creating every important stop along the way. Scenes were shot in replicas of the rickety studios where he first worked, when his voice was just a squeaky thing. He knew then how he wanted it to sound, but it didn't come out that way. What you do in your mind and what you do in the world are two different things. "I went back and listened to tapes of myself at 20, and my voice was locked in this very high register," he says, frowning. "I got so nervous on the air. And physically, I carried myself differently. I was just this meek fucking guy who hadn't found himself, a tiger waiting to get out."
Stern finally broke through when he was 25. He did it by going against everything his past had taught him, by turning all the manners and lessons of his middle-class upbringing inside out. "I knew I could be a stronger performer if I was more honest with the audience," he says. "In this scene, my wife and I are driving to Washington, where I have taken a job. I turn to her and say, 'I've been holding back.'
"'What do you mean?' she says. 'You're pretty wild.'
"I say, 'No, no, no. Whenever I feel like I shouldn't say something, that is precisely what I've got to say. If I am thinking, "Oh, shit, I shouldn't say on air that I have a small penis or that I masturbate," then I'd better go ahead and say it.'"
When Stern broke through, it was a kind of revelation, a noise that came on a wind from suburbia, a voice for the next 30 years, a voice born of prosperity and boredom, a voice in your head when you're stuck in traffic on a Monday morning. The line between thinking and saying had been obliterated. If you listened long enough, all that perversity melted into a pattern, an ideology, where every fifth word is a blow for common sense, something that changes what you are willing to talk about. Penis? Pussy? Just words. "I see him as the voice of the unconscious," Len Blum told me. "He says things literally without thinking. In speaking without thinking, he's going to say a lot of distasteful things, things that hurt people, cruel things. But at the same time, he says an amazing amount of brilliantly funny things. So I forgive him."
Converting this story to film may put Stern in a precarious position. Maybe I have seen too many X-Files episodes, but I think Howard Stern is in metaphysical danger. He is the dangling man whom the existentialists spoke of. He swings above an abyss. By turning his life into film, his past may become inaccessible, an exhibit behind glass that belongs less to him than to the gawkers who fill the hall. Even last fall, long before the movie was released, Stern was talking not of memories but of scenes. Speaking of his life, he said things like "great sequence" or "important scene." For Stern, there is no suffering (getting fired, losing a baby), only bits. "Even living my life, I think, 'This is a good scene for a movie,'" he says. "I never thought in those terms, but now I guess I do."
Stern plays himself in the movie. "I didn't have to audition," he says. "I told them I could act, and they believed it." He is himself at 20, 30, 40. He wore wigs, fake facial hair, wide lapels, thick ties; he had his face pulled, prodded, pushed. For the most part, though, he was trying to recover the awkwardness of his youth. "Some of the shit that actors say is starting to make sense," he says. "When you're playing yourself at 20, you damn well better become that guy. Even though it was me, it's almost a different person. So you ask, 'How does a 20-year-old approach a woman?' I remember shaking. I felt inferior, in awe of this woman sitting there.
"By the way," he adds, smiling, "actors are full of shit. They're lying. You definitely get aroused doing a love scene. I was aroused during mine. I said to Mary afterward, 'I got to tell you the truth: I'm really aroused.' And she goes, 'Oh, I didn't feel anything.' 'Cause I have no penis, practically."
When Stern first met Betty Thomas, he asked her if he should take acting lessons. She instead gave him a how-to video put out by Michael Caine. "Yeah, I watched the tape and had my doubts," says Stern. "He said things like: 'I don't want you to blink. If you blink, you look weak. As a man, you want to look strong. If you are a woman, and you want to look weak, I would blink.' I thought a lot of what he said was horseshit, but halfway through the movie I thought, 'The son of a bitch is right.'"
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