Media Circus: Queen of the dish rags

Movieline is the buttered popcorn of film magazines -- good to the last yummy, vaguely nauseating morsel.

Published December 5, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

It's easy to dismiss Movieline as the popcorn of film magazines: You have to be in a certain frame of mind to enjoy it, and you may feel fairly disgusted with yourself afterwards, yet the time you spend in its company is always surprisingly satisfying. Toward the end, you're happily searching the bottom of the bucket for every stray, oily butter-flavored kernel -- why "Missy Hot Thang" needed all her lines written on cue cards, for instance, a typical blind item in the current Hollywood Kids column.

But after spending some time in Movielineland, I've come to rather admire the magazine for the way it rudely deconstructs the pretenses of entertainment journalism. Joe Queenan, who a couple of years ago collected many of his Movieline pieces into the aptly named book, "If You're Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble," describes the problem with the typical "sucking off" celebrity profile:

"Life isn't like that," he tells me, using as a generic example "the story that ends with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger driving off to spend time with the kids, when they're probably really on their way to shoot pool or something." Journalists, Queenan adds, tend to be quite attached to these neat, omniscient conventions.

Not at Movieline.

The core value of any Movieline profile is its transparency: The interviewer takes the reader by the hand through the process (sometimes clearly frustrating, always falsely intimate) of making movie stars reveal themselves -- which not infrequently resembles poking a small animal with a sharp stick.

Here's Martha Frankel, for instance, trying to get young dreamboat-of-the-moment Matt Damon to talk about his love life in the December/January issue. (Frankel had noticed, during a snooping foray while Damon was on the phone, a framed photo of the actor and his "Good Will Hunting" co-star Minnie Driver in the hotel room:)

"So, is it true that you fell in love with Claire Danes on the set of 'The Rainmaker?'" I ask ...

"Sure, who wouldn't? She's fabulous."

"So, both girlfriends have been actresses ... I'm leery of actors being together."

Damon gives me a blank look.

"Claire Danes was your girlfriend, right?" I ask. Damon leans over and smacks my arm and says, "No, she's only 18." As if that's ever stopped anyone before.

Another thing I like about Movieline is that every issue seems to contain at least one reference to celebrity genitalia. It took me a while to find this in the current issue, distracted as I was by the weird child-rearing philosophy of "X-Files" star Gillian Anderson, the mother of a 3-year-old, who confided to interviewer Stephen Rebello: "I think it's good that my daughter can look at a man who's got blood running out of his eyeballs and be compassionate, not terrified."

But -- at last! -- here it is. The ubiquitous Rebello (he has three interviews in this issue, which is pretty typical) manages to work in a disparaging, intended-to-provoke remark about Harvey Keitel's nudity in a profile of Sam Neill, who of course co-starred with Keitel in "The Piano." Neill's cool refusal to play along -- "Hmm ... Did you see Harvey's willy in 'The Piano?' I didn't. I guess I must have blinked" -- contrasts nicely with fish-in-a-barrel Anderson.

Rebello, a slender, soft-spoken man who used to be a shrink, has a real knack for getting people to talk about themselves. Often, like Anderson, they end up sounding like idiots; sometimes, like Neill, they know how to avoid it. But they will open up. If they try not to, the smarm hits the fan: "I just wanted to warn you," the reticent Neill informs Rebello, "I'm not very much fun." "For our readers, then," Rebello responds, "I'll be fun and you just go ahead and be Sam. Deal?"

Film critic David Thomson, who also writes for Esquire and the Independent in London, is probably Movieline's highest-brow contributor. The magazine recently hosted a reception for Thomson and his new book, "Beneath Mulholland" (Knopf), which includes many pieces originally published in Movieline. "It is a strange combination of the tone and some of the ploys of the tabloid press, fused with a very marked insider knowledge," Thomson says. "The thing I like about it is that it comes out of Los Angeles and, historically, surprisingly few film magazines have" -- like the old fan magazine Photoplay, of which Movieline is something of a camp version.

Much of the magazine's bitchy, kitsch-loving sensibility is due to co-editor-in-chief Ed Margulies, who's actually been out on disability for more than a year but still contributes to the "Bad Movies We Love" feature he created. Now solely in charge editorially is co-editor in chief Virginia Campbell, who came from the Rand Corporation think tank.

Movieline began life in 1985 as an unprepossessing newsprint giveaway, with a controlled circulation of around 100,000, distributed free in movie theaters and picked up for its listings. The magazine was the brainchild of Soviet Russian imigri Anne Volokh, a journalist who moved to Los Angeles in 1975 with her computer scientist husband and two sons, then ages 7 and 2. Movieline became a paid glossy in 1989, and roared right through the recession of the early '90s to the circulation of 265,000 it enjoys today.

"I love to look at our (audited) statement, because every quarter it goes up," purrs Volokh, who is the magazine's president and executive publisher. Both in demeanor and accent she brings to mind a brunet Zsa Zsa Gabor. Smoking nonstop in her upstairs parlor-cum-screening room at home in Beverly Hills, about 10 minutes north of Movieline headquarters, she pauses to take a call from "Sasha darling," a favorite jewelry saleswoman. "She is Bulgarian," Volokh notes equably, "which goes to show it doesn't matter where you come from."

Movieline has plenty of enemies in Hollywood. But often as not, they come around. Two movie studios pulled their advertising because of offensive articles. "The first one came back, the second didn't," Volokh shrugs. A few years ago, Queenan wrote a devastatingly funny critique of Oliver Stone in the magazine; the director remained stung enough by it to complain, "You hate me" to Volokh when he ran into her at a party earlier this year.

"No, no, no," Volokh corrected him smoothly, "we do not hate you; we have opinions." She invited Stone to give his side of the story in a Q&A interview for Movieline. "We do not need to agree with you, Oliver, but as long as it is a strong opinion, we will print it." The two-part interview appeared in the October and November issues, and Stone came off as ... well, as Oliver Stone, calling Pauline Kael "an elitist bag lady," and explaining that a crew member who attacked him on one film "was fucking my lead actress and ... was jealous of me."

Volokh was pleased. "Blandness and monotony are rather intensely disliked here," she says, puffing on her cigarette, "both in this house and in the office."

There are those who find the flamboyance of both the magazine and its creator forced and annoying. "The only assignment I ever turned down was one from Movieline called 'Who's a Good Fuck In Hollywood?'" says a freelance writer I know. In fact, Movieline's fast, unusual rise has spawned rumors that it's backed by the Russian mafia -- rumors that cause Volokh to burst out laughing. "Oh, no, I haven't heard that!" she says delightedly. "But of course, we got here before the Russian mafia existed. I have heard, 'Oh, the Volokhs, they became so successful so fast, it must have been drug money.'"

Actually, it was software money. The Volokhs' eldest son, Eugene, now 29, was a child prodigy who founded a software firm with his father, Vladimir, at the age of 12. He graduated from UCLA at 15 and is now a law professor there. He often contributes weighty opinion pieces to the Los Angeles Times. People who see Eugene's name in the Times often assume he's the father of his younger brother, Sasha, who's 23 and a policy analyst for a libertarian think tank.

Young Sasha also usually operates the VCR at his mother's regular "coffee and clips" evenings, in which she invites film directors and others to dine on rich desserts and bring their favorite three-to-five-minute excerpts from films. But at the one I attended Sasha was off in South America. Anne had his number handy in case she ran into trouble with the machine; however, all went smoothly.

Among the dozen or so guests were artist David Hockney, directors Ron Shelton and Cameron Crowe, actresses Nina Foch and Lolita Davidovich and, from the Movieline staff, editor in chief Campbell and writer Rebello. Clips ranged from the beginning of Fellini's generally panned "And the Ship Sails On" (courtesy of Hockney: The reviewers, he said, just didn't get it) to a drunken scene, from "Jerry Maguire" director Crowe, out of Billy Wilder's "Love in the Afternoon."

Volokh chose a short ladies'-room conversation between Gene Tierney and Judith Anderson from "Laura." There was a brief murmur of appreciation about the stylized dialogue from the guests after the clip ended.

"People just don't talk that way anymore," remarked Campbell.

"They do at Movieline," said Rebello.

By Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

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