The surest sign of a gossip columnist’s success is that everyone wants to talk about him. By that standard, J. J. Hunsecker, the iconic villain in the newspaper noir Sweet Smell of Success, is the king of New York. Played by Burt Lancaster, he’s the first character we see in Alexander Mackendrick’s film, introduced via a poster calling him “the eyes of Broadway.” Before we see him around the twenty-minute mark, he’s called some other names: “the golden ladder to the places I wanna get,” “a man who makes you jump through burning hoops like a trained poodle,” and “some kind of a monster” -- the last, courtesy of his sister Susie (Susan Harrison). The one time anyone has something nice to say about him -- “You’ll find him a real friend!” -- press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is lying through his teeth.
If Sweet Smell of Success is a compelling portrait of the savagery of yellow journalism, a sensational showcase for stars Curtis and Lancaster, an unnerving snapshot of New York City at its most restless and anxious and a compendium of endlessly quotable put-downs, it’s also, quite simply, a hit job. Upon the film’s release in 1957, everyone and his tabloid-reading mother knew the character of Hunsecker was a barely veiled caricature of professional gossipmonger Walter Winchell.
That’s not to say Winchell didn’t deserve the smearing. When he began his career as a newspaper and radio commentator, Winchell was a crusader against the evildoers of the day. From the Jazz Age through the Depression and during World War II, he spoke out against Hitler, the Ku Klux Klan and fascist organizations in the United States. Meanwhile, he virtually invented the language of gossip -- the rat-a-tat rhythms and the cheesy puns, the eyebrow-waggling insinuations and the shocking revelations. Even H.L. Mencken credited him with enriching the English language.
Along with the rest of America, Winchell turned sharply rightward after the War. Having made friends with J. Edgar Hoover, another powerful and vindictive asshole who strived to know everything, Winchell began championing anti-Communist persecution and conservative values. He ultimate aligned himself with Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, the gossip mavens who tut-tutted their way to power and influence in Hollywood. For their favorites, the tabloid queen bees served as People; for their prey, Perez Hilton. Their most famous victim was Ingrid Bergman, whose career in Hollywood died a quick death when photos emerged of her extramarital dalliances with director Roberto Rossellini. Hopper and Parsons used Bergman’s affair to outdo one another in pearl-clutching outrage.
Winchell couldn’t out-biddy the biddies. In a thirty-year run at the forefront of the media, he pulled a Glenn Beck by getting histrionic about the wrong thing and lost his sponsors. Social traditionalism was one thing, but his continued association with Joseph McCarthy -- even after the HUAC senator was forced out of office -- and, later, his comparison of Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson to a transsexual woman (“It would mean a woman in the White House”) cost him his career. Notoriety followed him, not just for his ugly smears but also his personal attacks -- “a head for an eye,” he promised. Eventually, he made so many enemies he had only a single attendant at his funeral: Walda Winchell, the daughter he tried to have committed against her will.
Sweet Smell of Success caught Winchell at the beginning of his end. He had just lost his radio show after a quarter of a century on the airwaves. A short stint on TV, hosting a half-hour variety show, proved to be the “worst experience of [his] life.” He was so out of sorts that he pulled a gun on three teenage fans. There would never be a better time to strike.
The film liberally stole biographical elements from Winchell’s life -- the power of his poisoned pen, his open condescension toward press agents, and his difficult relationship with his volatile daughter -- to create Hunsecker, the symbol of a corrupt, broken city. “He's got the morals of a guinea pig and the scruples of a gangster,” says a minor character of Hunsecker, but he could just as well be describing Sidney, or almost anyone else in the film. Sidney and Hunsecker are united by a slightly convoluted scheme: in return for publicity for his clients, Sidney is to get Hunsecker’s sister Susie to dump her fiancée Steve (Martin Milner). Hunsecker disapproves of the beau’s profession as a jazz musician, because he’s a social inferior. When Sidney fails in his first attempt to break up the couple, Hunsecker takes matters into his own hands by slandering Steve in his column as a “marijuana-smoking Red” -- shades of Winchell’s McCarthyism.
The contrast between Hunsecker’s public authority and private chaos was also lifted from Winchell’s life, a great portion of which was devoted to destroying Billy Cahn, a seedy lowlife (unlike his onscreen counterpart) who courted the gossip columnist’s daughter Walda. Winchell was, in fact, so determined to separate Walda from Billy that he had her institutionalized in a psychiatric facility, while using his connections to persecute Cahn so systematically the suitor eventually left America entirely and settled in Israel. It’s no coincidence that Hunsecker is at least two decades older than his Susie -- she’s meant to look like his child.
But if Sweet Smell of Success is an indictment of Winchell as a man, it’s also an oblique tribute to him as a writer. Initially written by Ernest Lehman and rewritten in a neurotic but creative frenzy by playwright Clifford Odets, sometimes just an hour before shooting, the script takes its cue from Winchell’s flair for original and imaginative insults. When Hunsecker first approaches Sidney, the older man is dismissive: “You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.” In a later scene, when Sidney tries to wheedle himself back into the gossip columnist’s good graces, he’s told, “Sidney, this syrup you're giving out with, you pour over waffles, not J.J. Hunsecker.” To Steve, Hunsecker threatens, “Son, I don't relish shooting a mosquito with an elephant gun, so why don't you just shuffle along?” Mackendrick also visually alludes to the might of Hunsecker’s pen by often showing Lancaster sitting with Curtis hovering over him. He is, after all, most dangerous in a seated position.
Sweet Smell of Success was a cruel takedown of Walter Winchell, a snoop and a gossip everyone loved to hate. Today, though, the film reads like a love-hate letter, written by two writers, Lehman and Odets, to one of their own, a man who may have cheapened what writing could be but created a whole new kind of language -- one we still use today.
This was originally published in the December issue of Birth.Movies.Death., "Extra! Extra! The Alamo Drafthouse Delivers the News" in honor Anchorman 2. See Anchorman 2 at the Alamo Drafthouse this month!