‘Turn Every Page’ review: A literary alliance of titans

“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to change someone else’s draft,” lamented HG Wells about the complex and not always cordial artistic collaboration that is the writer-editor relationship.

Perhaps Wells might not have been so defensive had he experienced the intensely symbiotic association that has lasted for the past half century between the greatest political writer of his time and a legend in the book editing profession.

Such is the compelling takeaway from “Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb,” a lively, revealing documentary that chronicles the successful but necessarily private alliance between two literary titans as they methodically work toward the completion of Caro’s long-awaited fifth and the final volume of his definitive Lyndon Johnson biographies.

After facing considerable resistance from both individuals, director Lizzie Gottlieb (Robert Gottlieb’s daughter) was finally allowed to shed light on their closely guarded process, albeit with Caro’s insistence that the two never be interviewed together in the same room.

A former newspaper reporter who still punches out pages on his trusty Smith Corona Electra 210 typewriter, Caro, now 87, has earned a reputation for his painstakingly exhaustive approach to research that has earned him the adjective “Caro-esque,” as represented by the first four “Years of Lyndon Johnson” volumes.

A lifelong voracious reader who claims that editing is “an intelligent and sympathetic response to the text and what the author is trying to achieve,” Gottlieb, now 91, has edited between 600 and 700 books, written by the likes of Joseph Heller, John le Carré, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison and recently Bill Gates.

“He could see any lump of clay and imagine a sculpture,” praises former President Clinton, whose 2005 memoir, “My Life,” benefited from Gottlieb’s well-sharpened HB No.2 pencil.

The project that first brought Caro and Gottlieb together in 1973 was the manuscript for “The Power Broker,” an impressive assessment of the influential New York city planner Robert Moses that required a 350,000-word pruning to be contained in one volume without literally bursting the spine at the seams.

That book, which would go on to win Caro the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes, has endured, and is enjoying something of a resurgence during the COVID lockdown, clocking in at 1,344 pages.

While the filmmaker wisely keeps the spotlight on her two intriguing subjects, she also eagerly gleans insights from contemporaries and self-described fans, including Barack Obama; Caro’s longtime agent, Lynn Nesbit; Conan O’Brien; and Ethan Hawke.

Most enlightening are the observations provided by their wives, whose nurturing marriages of half a century plus with their busy husbands have seen Ina Caro agree to move the family to rural Hill County, Texas for three years for all that LBJ research, and the actor. Maria Tucci reluctantly puts up with her husband Gottlieb’s complete collection of odd plastic bags displayed above their bed.

Ultimately, it’s about “making your own enthusiasm public”, says Gottlieb about the shared goal between editor and writer.

Not that the two Bobs haven’t had combative sparring over the years — Gottlieb claims a semicolon is “worth fighting a civil war” over — but the pair ultimately seem to manage to land on the same page more often than not.

Too bad HG Wells isn’t there to take notes.

‘Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb’

Considered: PG, for some language, brief war scenes and smoking

Operating hours: 1 hour, 54 minutes

Player: Starts December 30, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles

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