Walter Winchell’s film career can be split into two categories, those in which he appeared as himself before the camera, and those in which his voice can be heard off camera. His contribution to the biopic genre satisfied both of these forms. In The Helen Morgan Story he hosts a fictional gala for the title character while in Beau James, he provides the film’s narration in his trademark staccato delivery. It evoked a time when he was at the height of his powers, filmed at a time his influence was in decline. However the most rewarding biopic to bear his name is the one in which he doesn’t appear at all.
After a hop, skip and a jump through his early years, Winchell arrives in 1929 with the newspaper columnist paying one his many stringers for the latest “dirt he can dish and gossip he can gab”. Though his editor doesn’t care for the content or style of his writing, it proves so popular with Mr and Mrs America that he is rewarded with his own radio show. What may come as a surprise to viewers is that a lot of his hard-hitting copy was ghost-written by Herman Klurfeld, on whose book this biopic is based.
There are many other revelations throughout the course of this film, such as Winchell’s habit of filling his bladder before a broadcast to intensify his performance (followed by a mad dash to the Gents afterwards). One of the most unexpected scenes features FDR enlisting Winchell’s help to protect democracy. “The face of fear is coming”, the President states. “I don’t yet know its eyes and I don’t yet know its name”, whereupon Winchell fearlessly attacks Nazi's and isolationists in print and over the air. However, when the threat surfaces again in the guise of Joseph McCarthy, Winchell finds himself on the wrong side of history.
Stanley Tucci gives an energetic performance as Winchell, portraying him with both cunning and charm. Trading favours while holding court at New York’s famed Stork Club, the extent of Winchell’s power is effectively displayed when he demands the Mayor of New York reschedule a city wide blackout so that it doesn’t clash with his radio broadcast. Years later, standing on a sidewalk, he is confronted by two of his nemeses as he watches Joseph McCarthy being exposed on national television. The question that seals the Senator's fate could equally apply to Winchell. “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Supporting Tucci’s award winning performance are the engaging Glenne Headly and Paul Giamatti, who impresses in one of his earliest noteworthy roles. Veteran Paul Mazursky directs with unexpected clarity.
as Walter Winchell
as Josephine Baker
as William Randolph Hearst
as Ed Sullivan
Biopic correctly depicts Winchell’s funeral being attended by only one person. However that person was his daughter, not his current girlfriend.
Dallas Wayne is a fictional character.
Biopic covers Winchell’s extensive radio career and short-lived television career, but makes no mention of his many film appearances.