“Turn Every Page” documents the race by Robert Caro and editor Robert Gottlieb to finish the fifth volume of what was once planned to be a three-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson.
As Gottlieb wryly says, his greatest hope is to “hang up his pencil on the last word of the last page of the Lyndon Johnson biography … but it’s all in the lap of the gods.”
Gottlieb, who has been working with Caro for 50 years, is 91 years old. Caro is 87. And both are doing their best to finish the massive project. But Gottlieb is doing much more than that. During the last few decades, he has been the editor and chief of Simon & Schuster, Knopf and the New Yorker. He has also edited such writers as Toni Morrison, Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, and Salman Rushdie.
Even with such an illustrious editing career, it seems clear in “Turn Every Page” that the completion of the last volume of the Johnson biography might be Gottlieb’s crowning achievement.
He started working with Caro before the publication of Caro’s first — and highly acclaimed — biography, “The Power Broker,” which detailed the life and achievements of New York City planner Robert Moses.
The 1974 book would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in biography, and Gottlieb helped Caro cut down the book by about 500 pages. (It’s still a doorstop). The documentary wryly points out that the biography was featured on many a bookshelf of many an expert during television interviews in private libraries of the last few years.
Although Caro says his life’s work has been the documentation of political power and its uses, “Turn Every Page” is not about power, per se. Instead, it’s about the intellectual hospitality shared by two men who have a common goal of completing a massive Johnson project.
The documentary is directed by Lizzie Gottlieb, the daughter of the editor. So she has special access to both Carol and her father. Throughout much of the documentary, the writer and editor discuss their working relationship, the ins and outs of their collaboration and most of all, the passion for the project.
Most of the footage is either of Caro or Gottlieb, and not until the end do the two finally consent to sit down and work together in front of the camera. Both Caro and Gottlieb insist that their relationship needs to remain private, but they acknowledge that they argue — that they have even battled over whether to use a semicolon or a period.
That might seem like a minor point in the thousands of pages in the Johnson volumes, but it’s not at all minor to either man. And that’s part of why “Turn Every Page” is fascinating.
If you’re wondering, the title of the documentary comes from Caro’s early days of being an investigative journalist. When Caro told his editor that he wasn’t sure how to be an investigative journalist, his editor told him, “turn every page.”
And so Caro has for the past five decades.
“Turn Every Page” screened at the Austin Film Festival in October, and it opens Jan. 27, at the Austin Film Society theater on Middle Fiskville Road.