It’s a whole subgenre of celebrity photography—the snap of the movie star reading Variety. It never looks as candid as it’s meant to; the cover and headline are always plainly visible, and the intent look on the subject’s face tells us less about personal powers of concentration than about the significance of the publication in hand. Like so much in Hollywood, these shots blur the line between recreation and marketing, between human interest and business news. And really, in a company town, where the personal is the professional, what’s the difference?
The shots may be fundamentally phoney, but the significance of Variety—celebrated in a huge and rather beautiful coffeetable book with text by Tim Gray, entitled Variety: An Illustrated History of the World from the Most Important Magazine in Hollywood—well, that’s indisputably authentic.
With the slow death of print and the atomization of entertainment journalism as it diffuses across the Web, it’s hard to credit how truly indispensable Variety was in its heyday. It was a one-stop shop, encompassing (to put it in Internet terms) the functions of Ain’t It Cool, Box Office Mojo, TMZ, Done Deal, Craigslist, Gawker, Rotten Tomatoes, and a fistful of others. For readers in the industry, it’s required reading. For those of us on the outside, it’s a fascinating glimpse into a privileged world, magical and disillusioning all at once as it lays bare the process of how the sausage is made. It is one of the few publications of which it can be said that the ads were often as informative—and as entertaining!—as the content.
It’s interesting to learn, from Tim Gray’s account, that Variety was founded at least in part as a bastion of critical freedom. In 1905, founder Sime Silverman legendarily gave up his gig at the New York Morning Telegraph to make an ethical stand. Believing that unbiased criticism benefited both the public and the artists—that is, the playwrights and performers whose work was under scrutiny—he borrowed from his father-in-law to start his own paper, conceived in principles of fairness and impartiality. Silverman publicly and consistently declared the principles on which his new paper would be built, and decried the influence of money and sponsorship on content; he always disdained the then- (and still-) common practice of rewarding big advertisers with positive reviews. (The great composer Jean Sibelius once quipped that “no statue has ever been erected to a critic,” but if you did, a statue to Sime Silverman would be a good place to start.)
Variety began its linguistic innovations pretty much from the start, employing a condensed grammatical style—influenced by the word constraints of the telegram—and a playful vocabulary of abbreviations, euphemisms, and odd poetical phrases. “Hollywood” could be chopped down to H’w’d, or even H’d. Lense (sic) became a verb, and no Variety writer would ever use the phrase “staying power” when they could substitute legs. Some of the coinages spread—the word deejay first saw print in its pages, as did oater and horse opera for Westerns—but others ... well, they had no legs. Ozoner, zitcom, visio, chantoosie, hotsy, tenpercentery ... these and many others remain strictly in the Variety lexicon.
Gray’s text is hugely entertaining, a 30,000-foot view of more than a century of popular entertainment, from the vaudeville and “legitimate” theater of Variety’s early years through the introduction of film , TV, home video, and later the “infopike”—another word that never caught on, even though the Web certainly did. Gray has some fun with his 20/20 hindsight, looking at the aesthetic misjudgments (he has an entertaining meltdown over the praise lavished on D.W. Griffith’s race-baiting epic Birth of a Nation) and embarrassing predictions, and with the ways that Hollywood has responded – or failed to respond—to the vital issues of the day. The mood, though, is mostly fond and forgiving. This business of entertainment is often crass and sometimes downright stupid, but there’s a pure and innocent impulse at the core of it: Hey, let’s put on a show. As a paper, as a magazine, and as this treasure-trove of a book, Variety has been celebrating that can-do attitude since 1905. It may be just another arm of the Hollywood promotions machine, but in a town where the professional is also the personal, it points the way for being wildly successful while following your passion. There’s no business like show business.
Jack Feerick is Critic-at-Large for Popdose. His brilliant Hollywood career was the longest two days of his life.