In 1980, Photoplay faded to black. The last of the great movie magazines, Photoplay dated back to the days of the silents, back to the days before movies were called movies. It’s only been twenty years, but Photoplay and its ilk — The New Movie, Motion Picture — seem more like something an archaeologist would dig up than cultural ephemera contemporary with E.T. and 48 Hours. The heyday of the movie magazine is over; it died with the studio system that Roger Corman, American International Pictures, and Easy Rider began bleeding to death in 1969. But the peak, from roughly the ‘30s to the ‘60s, was a long time — long enough for actors from Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford to Tom Courtenay and stone freakazoid Tuesday Weld (thoroughly dissected by the Bellona Times‘ Ray Davis) and then some. The studios were a factory designed to churn out stars and would-be stars by the handful. They wanted stars who resonated with the American public, who shone, worked hard, didn’t get arrested, knew they were expendable. They molded not just actors’ careers but also their public images, down to the right, all-American name and possibly even the right, all-American spouse.
The creampuff journalism was a weapon in the studios’ arsenal; today’s profiles in Entertainment Weekly and People might be every bit as artificial, but they need to mediate themselves differently. We’re a more sophisticated audience. We recognize that the truth is complicated, that with the possible exception of Hedy Lamarr, the Samson and Delilah starlet who patented spread spectrum communications for radio-controlled torpedos during World War II and never received a dime, stars probably aren’t as bright and generous as the people they portray. Comedians might not be funny. Marriages might be a sham (don’t tell Tom and Nicole!). Sometimes people in Hollywood aren’t very happy; sometimes anyone who knew the facts would want to deny them happiness.
It’s no surprise that the movie magazines peaked along with gossip columnists; B-movie actress and noted hat-wearer Hedda Hopper and her archnemesis, "evil bitch" Louella Parsons (who probably didn’t blackmail William Randolph Hearst to get her column) were the two most powerful women in Hollywood. Their gossip columns, along with that of New Yorker Walter Winchell, could make or break a career. Hopper and Parsons hated each other and pretty much agreed on only two things: they liked being too important to ignore and they didn’t like Communists. (The Sweet Smell of Success‘s vicious portrayal of Winchell makes its case that he liked being powerful and feared; on the second point, Winchell certainly concurred.) Maybe you have to have a culture of innocence for the nastiness they were capable of putting down on paper to have as much impact; I know that poison creeps out into the gossip rags today (much of it in the worlds of letters and politics rather than in Hollywood) and I have no idea who the most powerful woman in Hollywood is, but it’s sure not Liz Smith, even if she does get invited to rub shoulders with the famous.