"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 11 September 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Hollywood Babbles On



Invented by the barely literate

ex-vaudevillian Walter Winchell,

the gossip column has always

seemed closer to TV - and now

the web - than print: from its

very inception, it was

sensational, trivial, and bereft

of coherence. Indeed, one of

Winchell's most famous and

oft-imitated devices, the

three-dot segue from one

unrelated topic to the next, was

nothing less than the

typographic antecedent to

channel-surfing and hypertext.


Given that pedigree, you'd think

the form would flourish here.



And yet, do a search on "gossip

column" at your directory of

choice and the genre seems

remarkably underrepresented. Are

the flaccid jibes and humdrum

revelations of such dubious

"insiders" as John Austin really

the best the web has to offer in

the way of celebrity dirt?

Calling himself the "eyes and

ears of Hollywood (since 1968),"

Austin offers up tidbits like

Demi Moore's scalp itch troubles

in a prose style so aimless it

could infuse even the most

shocking star exploits with a

vivid sense of the commonplace.

If he is indeed the sensory

repository he claims to be, then

it's time Tinseltown got a pair

of glasses and a hearing aid.



The recent debut of E! Online

raises the standards of online

gossip slightly - but really,

given the network's knack for

creating compellingly puerile

programming on a shoestring

budget, I was expecting

something a bit less

professional. Yes, they start

off nicely by singling out one

area of the site as the Gossip

province - a move that's roughly

akin to www.sordid.com creating

a special "Naked Woman" area -

but overall, the site suffers

from a dull, c|net-like decorum.


[Babbling Baby]

Take the column called "The Diary

of Madonna's Baby." While anyone

with even a passing acquaintance

to the genre knows that gossip

should be written by grown-ups

acting like infants, E! somehow

gets the formula reversed. The

specter of cuteness this

engenders ultimately sabotages

any moves the column makes

toward actual malice; it's all

gums and drool when it should be

teeth and spit.



A similarly soft touch hampers

E!'s star gossip, Ted


"Brando has a habit of blocking
the entire yogurt counter while
he studies - and I do mean     
studies - his selection(s)."   


Ted, if you're going to make fun

of a big, fat freak, a

finger-poke to the ribs doesn't

cut it. You have to bring out

the harpoons.


While Casablanca can dish sassy

out-uendo with the best of them,

you get the feeling that that's

all he aspires to. Where's the

roiling ambition, the lethal

insolence, the vast reservoirs

of spite and envy for his

intellectual and physical

betters? The Golden Age gossips -

Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper,

and Louella Parsons - were

show-biz washouts before their

pens turned poison; their

columns fizzed with the ferment

of their failures.



And that's why the real

malcontent to watch on E! - even

though he doesn't actually

appear in the Gossip section -

is Ben Stein, erstwhile novelist

and screenwriter, who deadpans a

weekly desultory paean to

Industry dick-swinging called

Monday Night at Morton's.

Sitting at his B-list table,

summoning the impotent

omniscience that is the special

consolation of smart losers

everywhere, Stein documents the

tics and rituals of the Morton's

demimonde: the fatuous game show

heirs, the self-inflated

hotshots, and of course, the

gorgeous whores, who swoop from

table to table like angels, the

divine conflation of Hollywood's

two most precious values, money

and sex.


Alas, after just a few weeks, I'm

starting to doubt Stein's

ambition as well. Yes, his lust

for power is palpable, always

percolating beneath a thick

lacquer of professionally

applied indifference, but

eventually you get the feeling

he's resigned to his current

fate as a clever, powerless

seminame. With each new

installment of his column, he

seems a little more exhausted, a

little less likely to assume

Winchell's long-vacant throne. A

younger Stein may have gladly

used the ass of his "famous call

girl" friend as a plate upon

which to devour the heart of

some unlucky producer, but at

this stage in his life he seems

willing to settle for whatever

fare the Morton's chefs put on

the menu.



This lack of ambition permeates

the gossip genre in general;

it's an industry of Bruce

Klugers and Belinda Luscombes

now. One imagines they might be

just as happy writing material

for game shows: instead of a

killer instinct, they have a

filler instinct. Whereas

Winchell, in his Nazi-hunting,

floozy-humping heyday, was so

obsessed with accumulating power

that he actually achieved

inner-circle status in the FDR

administration, today's typical

gossip columnist would be

hard-pressed to even name a

member of Clinton's Cabinet.

Except for Joe Klein, of course.


[Post Page]

Of course, it's gossip's overall

success that's led to the gossip

columnist's decline. What were

once the proprietary tools of

the professional keyhole peeker -

reckless speculation,

sensationalism, an emphasis on

personalities rather than issues -

are now standard equipment for

every journalist. Today when a

scandal sheet like the Star

uncovers a story, the mainstream

media is so quick to usurp it

they often get credit for the



And after over 70 years of sleazy

star-gazing, the rush of rumor

has simply lost much of its

kick. Scan the current scandal

sheets, and it's almost

impossible to find an item that

shocks us in the way that

Winchell was able to shock his

less media-saturated audience.

Michael Jackson's face is just

one good sneeze away from total

collapse? Big deal. Sharon Stone

toilet-fucked some guy at JFK

Airport? So what else is new?

It's common knowledge now that

celebrities are greedy,

adulterous, ill-mannered

megalomaniacs; that's why we

love them so much.


[More Gossip]

The biggest factor in the gossip

column's decline, however, is

neither gossip's pervasiveness

nor our own moral ennui - it's

the sorry state mass media has

fallen into. Prior to newspaper

syndication and radio

broadcasting, gossip was an

inefficient, one-to-one medium,

the pastime of idlers and

crones. But mass media changed

all that; it made distribution

super-efficient and at the same

time lent gossip a new level of

credibility. Indeed, Winchell's

influence eventually reached

such ludicrous proportions that

in one notable instance, a woman

whose doctor had assured her she

wasn't pregnant returned for a

second opinion because Winchell

had reported that she was.


[Hot But]

The unprecedented power that

Winchell's 50 million readers

and listeners blessed him with

amplified his viciousness, his

vanity and volatile ambition -

and consequently, his

entertainment value. Every day,

he delivered a fizzy cocktail of

aw-shucks sentiment and ruthless

rancor. This last ingredient is

the one retro mixologists tend

to forget in their efforts to

stir up the smoke-and-velvet

past - but it's what gave

Winchell his habit-forming snap.

When Mr. and Mrs. America rushed

to their radios to hear

Winchell's frenetic,

237-word-a-minute broadcasts, it

wasn't to hear him make nice

about the latest Broadway

sensation; it was to see which

sycophantic Sidney Falco or

seditious Young Commie he would

bitch-slap next.



In today's world of perpetual

media mitosis, the audience that

Winchell had all to himself is

now divided amongst thousands of

columnists and commentators. To

relationship marketers yearning

for sitting-duck consumers and

netizens yammering on about the

power of personal publishing,

this is progress. To the

pop-culture Luddite, it's a step

that goes too far backwards, a

regretful regression to a world

of idlers and crones.

courtesy of St. Huck