It’s often our parents whom we forget to be curious about, accepting them as the people we’ve known all our lives and forgetting to ask questions. Journalist Anderson Cooper has been interviewing strangers for decades but in Nothing Left Unsaid he turns to the subject of his own legendary mother, Gloria Vanderbilt. In the HBO documentary directed by Oscar nominated Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?), Cooper and Vanderbilt sit barefoot across from one another as Anderson asks his 92-year-old mother about her life — her childhood as a wealthy girl in the midst of her mother’s custody battle, her numerous husbands, her relationships with men like Frank Sinatra, her acting and modeling careers, her launch of designer jeans, and, ultimately, her relationship with her son and remaining family members. Garbus describes the film as Anderson’s love letter to his mom, where the two open up about shared loves and tragedies.
We spoke with Garbus about the Vanderbilt legacy, Anderson and Gloria’s openness, and the importance of remaining curious about those close to us.
Before making Nothing Left Unsaid, what did you make of Gloria Vanderbilt and to what extent did you know about her life?
Actually, I didn’t know much about her at all. I knew about the jeans and the Vanderbilt name, the big houses that are part of New York City history. But in terms of her life and loves and losses and her art and her humanity, I didn’t know anything about her. And actually, before I started the project, I didn’t know she was the mother of Anderson Cooper, either. [Laughs.]
Going into it were there certain aspects to her you wanted to learn more about or her relationship to her son?
For me, it was a remarkable life. It was a life that had spanned eras and so many different moments of American history and the history of New York City. Looking at her story from a female point of view and thinking about the way her marriages were sort of circumscribed by the times, I think it’s an interesting way of looking at the evolution of who women were allowed to be in our culture over time. Obviously Gloria came from a very rarefied, unique family but at the same time there were things that were typical about her as well as atypical, which is in terms of who she was expected to be when she grew up, what kind of person, who she could marry, who she shouldn’t marry. I think it’s a life that’s very telling about our history. What I also really appreciated about them was the desire to have those conversations and talk to your loved ones before it’s too late. And I think that can be really frightening and you can get stuck in resentment or fear or anxiety about having these conversations with your loved one and family members. I found it inspiring that they were so engaged in that.
And what was the notable difference you observed when Anderson would interview her, versus watching interviews she had done in the past?
Gloria’s a very open person and I think that she has shared, over time, bravely about some of the hardest moments of her life. But I think the part of the story is not just that Anderson’s a good interviewer and he was able to bring out good things but just in the dynamic of talking to her and him learning things about her that he never knew before and the warmth and familiarity of that relationship that I think was key to the film.
And it’s interesting to watch him be surprised. Like in the moment he said to her, “Oh, you almost married a man who murdered his previous wife?” And seeing him taken aback by that, but also sort of laughing about it.
Yeah, that’s right. He sometimes, when you actually look at, “Oh, you were 20 and married someone at 63?” or “At 17 you married someone who had just been thought to have killed their former wife?” Some of those conversations, we can see him hearing about them and learning about them for the first time on screen. But I think there’s probably so much that so many of us don’t know about our parents. Or you might have heard about a marriage they had before but never really have done the numbers. So I think it’s probably a trait amongst many families. There’s so much we don’t really know or talk about in our parents’ past. Maybe it will encourage people to have those conversations before it’s too late.
What surprised you most about her life and their mother/son relationship?
I think, in many ways, how familiar it all felt. The first time I met Gloria I was with Anderson and he rang the door to the apartment and she came to the door and she was very warm and greeted us but immediately put Anderson to work to try to fix a light fixture that wasn’t working in the dining room. He had to climb under the table and that’s exactly what happens when I go to see my mother. It’s that nurturing thing, the reversal. You start to care for that parent. And it was interesting to see that happen and these two very extraordinary people to be doing these very ordinary things with each other.
How much is left unsaid in Nothing Left Unsaid? How was it editing it down to what you were able to show in the film?
That’s the challenge in any film you make about a person’s life. I made a film about Nina Simone and Bobby Fischer [Bobby Fischer Against The World], the questions of what you include and don’t include are tough. It’s an instinct of what gets to the heart of who this person is and what stories you feel like really channel something that’s meaningful and special about them. Some people say, “How can you only have a minute on the jeans?” To me, at the end of the day, the jeans are something that everybody kind of knows about. The other thing is it’s an example of her tremendous success of business and once you accept that fact I don’t know what else it teaches you about Gloria. So you do make those choices based on your heart and feeling and what really communicates something special and important.
Both Gloria and Anderson have faced tragedies in their life and I’m wondering, when doing the interviews, did they discuss her life chronologically or did they work from light to dark, in terms of subject matter?
The central interview, which Anderson does sitting across from his mother, I gave him 20 pages of notes. We did follow chronologically, there was a lot to get through. But, of course, all the other scenes that either I shot with Gloria or they’re going somewhere or when she’s in her studio painting, that was all much more free flowing and organic. And if they brought up a regret or story we just took it from there.
When they’re talking about the death of Carter, it’s a heartbreaking moment. How was it for them to talk about these difficult moments in their life? Was there anything they didn’t seem as open about?
I felt like, with me, they were very open and there was nothing that was off limits except when I asked Gloria if I could film her watching Judge Judy, which she did every day and she refused to allow the cameras in on her moment of Judge Judy enjoyment. But to me I felt they were incredibly open in sharing the hardest stuff in their lives.
It’s interesting when Anderson makes that comment that both he and Gloria, when something tragic happens in their lives it propels them forward in a way. I’m wondering what you make of that and how alike they are in that way.
I think that’s what Anderson meant there, that they could stand up in the center of a storm and love was something that was not foreign to them and that they could talk about and continue to move forward. I think, obviously, Anderson sought it out in his career when he ran to war zones where what everybody else was going through was potentially more horrific than what he had experienced with his brother’s death and seeking that out. It propelled him to seek out those situations.
And for Gloria, she had that similar way about her.
I think it has to do with being a survivor. A loss, like what she went through with Carter, could kill someone and stop them in their track. But she does have a way of moving on and moving forward and she uses art to process her emotions and I guess he sees himself doing that as well in a different way.
When it comes to their family, is there anyone they feel as close to as they do with each other?
Well, Gloria has so many close girlfriends. She has an incredible support network and people who love her. And, of course, Anderson has very close friends and family. I think they are unique, they are each other’s only family. She’s the only one that’s known him since he was born and they’ve become a very small family, the two of them now. But they both have people who are very close to them.