Sunday, February 7, 2010

TV biopics. part 2: Winchell

Besides The Reagans, I watched another made for TV fictionalized biography, Paul Mazursky's Winchell, starring Stanley Tucci as the powerful New York gossip columnist Walter Winchell with Paul Giamatti as Herman Klurfeld, one of Winchell's many ghostwriters.

It's bad form to use a corporate tagline when trying to write a piece of serious criticism, but there's a lot of truth in the sentence "It's not TV, it's HBO." The better production values and better decision making really shine through in the best HBO productions. Their budgets are scrawny compared to major motion pictures, but they know how to spend their money wisely. Tucci was a known quantity when Winchell was cast, but it was a big step up in the size of role for Giamatti, who had done a lot of small work in quality films before this. Unlike the rest of the cast in The Reagans who really couldn't keep up with Judy Davis, good solid character actors play the people with whom Winchell butts heads, like Xander Berkeley as his editor who hates Winchell's prose and Kevin Tighe as William Randolph Hearst, who hates Winchell's politics but loves the circulation level the gossip columnist commands. In The Reagans, the cast list ends with "and John Stamos". In Winchell, the last spot is given to Christopher Plummer, who plays F.D.R. That's a name worthy of the last spot in a serious production.

The source material is Herman Klurfeld's book about Winchell, so it's no surprise that Klurfeld considers himself the second most important character in the show. It also means the characterization of Winchell is a little kinder and more balanced than we would have gotten if one of Winchell's many enemies had written the story. He is certainly no saint. Winchell is powerful, vindictive, vain, stubborn, vicious about other people's weaknesses while having plenty of his own, but we see a certain sense of decency motivating him. Early on, Winchell rails against Jews who have changed their names, the Berkowitzes who became Bellamys, and states how proud he is of his name. In truth, he is the grandson of a Russian Jewish immigrant, and changed the spelling of Winschel to Winchell, a name that had been in the New World since it came over from England in the early 1600s.

Everything is personal for Walter Winchell. A kid from the New York slums, he loved the patrician Roosevelt and hated the common Harry Truman, whom he found vulgar. In the movie, F.D.R. courts the columnist and asks him to take a good look at Hitler. Winchell begins writing columns against Hitler, which is an embarrassment for his publisher Hearst, whose editorial position and business interests are pro-Hitler.

Winchell's power and influence came both from his newspaper columns and his radio program, but after Roosevelt died he starting picking fights that in the long run would bring him down. He gave Josephine Baker a great review for her show at the Apollo, but did not come to her defense when the Stork Club sat her down but didn't serve her, even though he was present. He decided his fan base loved Joe McCarthy, so became a major red-baiter, and was always ready to smear anyone who said a word against him as being pro-communist. Not unlike Rush Limbaugh, Winchell was a fantastic success on radio, but a relative failure on TV. Out of vanity, he predicted that TV was a fad. While he didn't have the face or the comportment for TV, he may be best remembered today as the announcer on The Untouchables, which was a natural fit, given his connection with the earlier era and his closeness with J. Edgar Hoover.

For me, Winchell speaks very loudly to our situation in the present day, though the man himself died in 1972 and the movie is ten years old now itself. Now that I'm writing the silly little blog about the tabloids, it's easy to see his work as being an ancestor of the modern gossip world, maybe a grandfather where the generation in between would be the 1950's magazine Confidential. But more than that, the fight with Josephine Baker could have been diffused if he had so desired, but Winchell believed you could never defend, only attack. Maybe Walter Winschel learned this trying to be a tough kid in a Jewish neighborhood in New York City before the Great War, but it now looks to be the battle cry of everybody on the Internet, regardless of ethnicity or place of origin.

We are now all in the mud, and few of us have time to look to the stars.

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