07.18.09

The Vipers of Tinseltown

Blogger Nikki Finke may be the film industry’s fearsome foil, but Lee Siegel says she’s only the latest in a line of women journalists who have terrorized Hollywood’s A-list for a century.

Movie executives who live in fear of Nikki Finke, the Hollywood blogger who rains terror upon Hollywood rainmakers, might want to draw a breath and adopt a philosophical perspective. Finke is just one in a long line of women who have kept the powerhouses of the film industry in line.

Finke has been described as a “ digital-age Walter Winchell” by The New York Times, but she brings to mind not so much Winchell—who threw his steel net far wider than Hollywood into politics, crime, sports, and journalism itself—than those earlier queens of Wilshire Boulevard and Hollywood Hills: Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons and Rona Barrett.

Sending Hedda Hopper a skunk on Valentine’s Day, Joan Fontaine included a brief note: “I stink and so do you.”

It was Parsons who became so feared in Hollywood that she would descend upon the studios’ lots at Christmas and leave with her station wagon full of gifts, as though she were an ancient satrap receiving tribute from a colony. When Joan Fontaine wanted to insult Hedda Hopper, she prudently dulled the sting by making herself a target as well. Sending Hopper a skunk on Valentine’s Day, Fontaine included a brief note: “I stink and so do you.”

And Rat Pack chieftain Frank Sinatra might have referred to Rona Barrett as “Rona-Rat” (it was meant unflatteringly)—but he never sued her, and never humiliated her in public, as he sometimes did to both male and female journalists who had displeased him.

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On a 1973 episode of Jack Paar Tonite, Rona Barrett and Sir Clement Freud, a British writer and grandson of Sigmund, got into a verbal sparring match over the business of gossip.

All three came from humble circumstances. Parsons was born in the small town of Freeport, Illinois, lived unhappily as a housewife in Iowa until her divorce, and then worked hard to make it as a single mother and screenwriter in Chicago before getting her first gossip column in 1914, when she was in her mid-30s. Hopper, from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, was one of nine children and the daughter of a butcher. She also married badly and struggled for many years as a character actor on Broadway and in Hollywood before landing her column in 1937, at the age of 52. Born in Queens, Rona Barrett was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy when she was 9.

At first glance, Finke, a debutante from Manhattan, is a rarity in this wicked pantheon of secret-sharers. Her three predecessors were social and economic outsiders, who used gossip and schadenfreude as dubious levers of equality.

Yet there is more to marginality than material origins. When Finke’s detractors describe her many stints as a journalist at various magazines and newspapers, and her brief marriage, they may want to imply some type of instability or inner turmoil, but the effect is to make her as much as an outsider as Parsons, Hopper, and Barrett. An outsider’s temperament is every bit as sterling a credential for a gossip columnist as an outsider’s origins.

The irony behind the power of Parsons et al. was that these provincial, small-town—or in the case of Barrett, outer borough—vipers ruled sophisticated, cosmopolitan worlds. Never mind that they had come up through these very same circles.

Perhaps one reason Parsons and Hopper at least fought so long and hard before succeeding was that they never felt comfortable in the fast-and-loose world of entertainment to begin with. They clung defensively to their provinciality. But as gossip columnists blowing the cover on Hollywood glamour, their narrow morality became a strength. In the inflation-deflation machine known as American celebrity, they provided the deflations to over-the-top luxury and privilege that kept those inflated lives viable and popular. The American public loves to help power up off the floor.

Parsons, who preceded Hopper, was Florence Nightingale compared to her eventual rival. (She was also the first online Hollywood columnist. She employed two secretaries, and each one busily worked two phones.) When Parsons discovered that the married Ingrid Bergman had become pregnant by another man—Italian director Roberto Rosselini—she kept the information to herself as long as she could. It was only when professional and commercial pressures asserted themselves that she gleefully rushed Bergman’s secret into print, thus halting Bergman’s Hollywood career for several years.

Much of Parsons’ power depended on her good relations with studio executives, who kept the media under their heel. For a time, in the ‘30s, the Hollywood studios assured good press by withdrawing advertising in the wake of negative coverage. This is why both Parsons and Hopper concerned themselves with the personal lives of the Rita Hayworths and the Ingrid Bergmans rather than with the business dealings of the Zanucks and the Mayers. But in order to outdo Parsons, Hopper went further than the former ever did.

Hopper’s revelations about Charlie Chaplin’s romantic life and his Communist Party sympathies stoked the rising public outrage against him that eventually made Chaplin leave America for Europe. She attempted, in vain, to expose the gay relationship between Cary Grant and Randolph Scott. The English actor Michael Wilding sued her for libel and won after she fomented rumors that he and Stewart Granger had been lovers.

 

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Hedda Hopper made a cameo appearance as herself in a 1955 episode of I Love Lucy.

Hopper’s viciousness—some say sadism—had the effect of driving Parsons to crueler extremes, too. But by the time both gossip-mongers left the field to Rona Barrett in the ‘60s, the deflation business had changed.

For one thing, Barrett did her work on TV, a medium less freewheeling than the tabloids of an earlier era. (Newspapers and magazines don’t have an FCC to worry about.) For another, the outsized personalities of Parsons and Hopper had resulted in comical caricature, and caricature spells doom for a type, in this case the mean-spirited gossip-monger. Finally, the dissolution of the Hollywood star system also took with it the stars’ ideal, flawless images that the studios had cultivated. With inflated proportions reduced, the ensuing deflation did not need to be as corrosive.

Enter Nikki Finke, who writes about the studio executives and other Hollywood wheelers and dealers and never about celebrities. Unlike her precursors, Finke is a specialist whose densely written, narrowly focused blog lacks any kind of popular appeal—it is read, relished, and brooded over by the machers and their minions. She has nothing like the mass influence of Parsons, Hopper, and Barrett. What she has is power over a small group of people who influence the masses.

Finke doesn’t bother herself with people’s private lives. The spectacle of money coupling with power is sufficient. Watching money at work is the new pornography; greed or the merest hint of dishonesty in business is the new infidelity. (Adultery nowadays causes outrage in Washington, not Hollywood. The large sensationalism of pregnant Ingrid Bergman has given way to the micro-sensationalism of pregnant Rielle Hunter.)

The politics of personal destruction that Parsons and Hopper trafficked in doesn’t seem to interest Finke. Instead, she insults, and that, in this anxious, image-fretting, nuclearly competitive age seems to suffice. In fact, Finke seems just as anxious and fragilely egoed as her targets. Whereas Parsons and Hopper got sued, Finke is the one who sues anyone who she believes has insulted or cheated her. But her victims, in court and out, should take the long, historic view. This too shall pass.

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.