ON THURSDAY, Army Archerd will retire “Just for Variety,” the celebrity column he’s written for Daily Variety since 1953. In this era of blog and television-driven insta-gossip, your typical “American Idol” worshiper has probably never heard of the 83-year-old Archerd (he’s a comic strip, right?). The notion of a gossip columnist who actually checks his sources sounds not only quaint but a contradiction in terms.
Less a gossip columnist than a collector and cataloger of moments in the lives of the famous (in fact, he eschewed the word “gossip”), Archerd’s column was more like the class notes in an alumni magazine. Like much of the press corps in Hollywood’s golden age, he got most of his scoops by genuinely befriending celebrities. Archerd managed to maintain these friendships because, unlike most of today’s celebrity journalists, he was not overly concerned with his subjects’ sex lives, drug addictions or whether they believed in aliens.
Today’s gossip reporter -- like the high school outsider who both loathes and worships the popular kids whose cafeteria table he longs to join -- wages a constant struggle between envy and contempt. Not wanting to appear obsequious, he sniffs around not for interesting tidbits but simply for bad behavior.
But the rise of the ankle-biting celebrity journalist isn’t the only thing that’s altered the playing field since Archerd’s heyday. Thanks to Drudge-inspired Internet journals such as Gawker and Defamer, not to mention the countless bloggers who post analyses of conversations they overheard at garage sales, even the non-famous have become subjects of gossip. This is particularly true among reporters themselves.
In the same way that beauty school students practice bikini waxing on each other, journalists are both the authors and subjects of so many self-referential blogs that you’d think an idle conversation about shrimp dip at a party was a matter of national security.
Now that the gossip club is anything but exclusive, you’d think celebrities would try to preserve their elite status by dropping out of it. The problem is, they can’t.
Famous Hollywood types have always relied on society columns to keep them on the public’s radar. For years, you knew you’d made it when your name appeared between Archerd’s famous three dots. But now, achieving and maintaining fame often means submitting yourself to journalistic inquiries that are disingenuously fawning at best and downright abusive at worst.
Last week, I saw Charlie Sheen being interviewed about his marital problems on the WB’s “Extra.” “I think the word ‘hope’ speaks volumes,” said an earnest Jerry Penacoli, a celebrity journalist who was clearly taking cues from TV psychotherapists. (Sheen, who must have come straight from a Learning Annex course on relationships, delivered a hot bit of celebrity dish with a line about “staying teachable.”)
It’s unlikely this exchange would have occurred between Archerd and, say, Charlie’s dad, Martin Sheen. But, then again, you didn’t appear in Archerd’s column unless you’d earned it. It wasn’t enough to be “teachable.” You had to actually do something.