Since you can count on Paul Mazursky to love actors, it’s no surprise that HBO’s biopic Winchell, premiering November 21, is most compelling as a zesty showcase for two of the most resourceful around— Big Night‘s Stanley Tucci, who brings marvelous shadings of cagey but innocent self-love to the title role, and Private Parts‘s Paul Giamatti as Walter Winchell’s woebegone ghostwriter Herman Klurfeld, on whose biography of his former boss the movie is based. Not that Scott Abbott’s script lacks angles on the onetime terror of the Stork Club, chiefly an appreciative attention to the man’s gift of gab: “When there’s someting new to bark,” Winchell defends the neologism-studded, euphemism-crazy style his column and broadcasts added to 20th-century Americanese, “English will always find a way to bark it.” But what seems at first an interestingly nuanced take on his career turns out to be an attempt to sell us on the subject, boosting Winchell the celebrity-goading populist and early anti-Nazi so that we’ll find his decline poignant— which I imagine very few of his contemporaries did.
Even so, the first half is often smart and lively, pithily charting Winchell’s rise from gadfly Hearst gossipmonger to radio stardom. (According to the movie, he guaranteed his famously machine-gun-paced delivery by drinking so much water beforehand that he came to the microphone desperate to pee.) Soon he’s attacking Hitler, over Hearst’s resistance but egged on by FDR (a cameo by Christopher Plummer, who does a grand job of playing the wrong president; he’s a dead ringer for Woodrow Wilson). But after that finest hour, which Mazursky and Abbott rightly admire but make too much of, the movie falls apart, vaguing out on Winchell’s red-baiting years while milking too much bathos from Giamatti’s role as the Jed Leland to Tucci’s tin-pot Citizen Kane. He’s so loyal and heartbroken he seems more like Winchell’s dog— with nothing new to bark.