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Eight of Hollywood’s greatest on Desert Island Discs

From screen stars to famous filmmakers, Desert Island Discs has featured many Hollywood greats over the years.

With top director Paul Greengrass opening the new series, we unearth some surprising, insightful and entertaining admissions from some of the silver screen’s biggest names.

1. Alfred Hitchcock (1959) – "Psycho", cameos and practical jokes

The BBC has just an eight-minute extract of Alfred Hitchcock’s Desert Island Discs in its archive. In it, Hitchcock describes his early love of theatre, and reveals he had to direct his first movie in German, despite knowing only “enough to order a good meal”. Famed for brief cameos in each of his films, Hitchcock said it was getting harder to get in and out without being noticed. He told Roy Plomley about his next project, “a rather gentle horror”, called Psycho – which would later become one of his most famous films. Hitchcock also explained that although he had a reputation for practical jokes, he had had to stop doing them because they were unsustainably expensive.

2. Whoopi Goldberg (2009) – Being secretly shy

Comedian and actress Whoopi Goldberg made her name on film in The Color Purple, after writing to author Alice Walker asking to be in the movie if they ever made it. She told Kirsty Young about unwittingly auditioning for Steven Spielberg and how Patrick Swayze made producers consider her for the film Ghost – for which she ended up winning an Oscar. A born entertainer, Whoopi said she started performing “moments after I left the womb”. Yet she also surprised Kirsty by revealing that her gregarious onscreen persona masks an inner shyness.

Whoopi Goldberg: "I know it’s shocking"

Goldberg on not knowing what to say in a crowd.

3. George Clooney (2003) – Gratitude and embarrassment

George Clooney spoke to Sue Lawley about performing daily in his dad’s TV show as a child, his big break in ER, and working on films including Out of Sight, Ocean’s Eleven, Three Kings and O Brother, Where Art Thou? As a self-confessed workaholic and one of the world’s most famous men, Sue suggested he might enjoy a little peace on the island. George wasn’t so sure. He spoke about the ephemeral nature of fame, the embarrassment it causes him and how the best thing about it is having the power to ensure good scripts get made.

George Clooney: "I’m grateful for most of it"

Clooney on enjoying success but finding aspects of fame difficult.

4. Lauren Bacall (1979) – Retaining her natural look

After brief careers in ballet and modelling, movie star Lauren Bacall was spotted by a film producer and whisked off to Hollywood at the age of 17. There, she quickly became one of the biggest names in cinema after starring in To Have and Have Not alongside screen icon Humphrey Bogart, whom she went on to marry. But Bacall’s famous face could have looked quite different: she described an early screen test in which the make-up artist recommended changes to her hairline, teeth and eyebrows. But, to her great relief, he was overruled by the director.

Lauren Bacall: ‘I was panic-stricken!’

Lauren Bacall reacting to suggestions she should change her looks.

5. Steve McQueen (2014) – How beauty magnifies the horror

Artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen spoke about how art was his "salvation" after being written off at school. He still remembers making his first ever film, of the journey home from Goldsmith’s College in London, on a Super 8 camera. Steve spoke to Kirsty Young not long after the release of his multi-award-winning film 12 Years a Slave. When Kirsty commented on its combination of horror and beauty, Steve explained that to make violent scenes visually ugly would be the easier option. But he wanted to tell the truth, which meant not putting “a filter on life”.

Steve McQueen: "It’s about not blinking"

McQueen on how his films make people face up to difficult realities.

6. Nicole Kidman (1998) – Balancing work and family

At the time of her recording, Nicole Kidman had just starred in a stage play so popular that tickets sold for £1000 a pair. She was a major name in Hollywood, despite having built her reputation as an actress doing low budget films. But she told Sue Lawley it hadn’t always been easy. Nicole had a burgeoning career in Australia before meeting Tom Cruise, marrying him and moving to America (they divorced in 2001). She described the difficulty of launching her Hollywood career in the shadow of such a famous partner, and the challenge of balancing acting and having a family.

Nicole Kidman: "I always think of giving up!"

Kidman on the emotional demands of acting.

7. Paul Greengrass (2017) – Films shaped by childhood

Best known for directing directing three of the Bourne films, Paul Greengrass began his career making hard-hitting documentaries before moving into TV drama, and then film. He told Kirsty Young about the “enormous responsibility” of portraying real life tragic events, and the power of cinema to immerse an audience in a story. Paul said his memories of connecting with the world through movies as a child still drove his desire to make films today. But the results never quite matched up to what he hoped a film would be – and this was what pushed him forward.

8. Tallulah Bankhead (1964)

Tallulah Bankhead was famed as much for her off-screen exploits as her acting. Interviewed by Roy Plomley later in her career, she described hating Hollywood because of its "semi-tropical weather". Her film successes included Devil and the Deep and Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, but she was happier on stage in London, where people would queue to see her. Bankhead repeatedly claimed to be exceptionally lazy, but she described a daily routine during filming that involved 5.30am starts.

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