His specialty was tattling on the rich and famous, who were terrified of him. His audience was the common people, “Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea” as he referred to them. His style was barbed and slick, relying on innuendo to avoid lawsuits, and peppered with “slanguage” — words and phrases he coined or lifted and some of which like “blessed event” and “G-man,” have endured and others like “infanticipate,” “trouser crease eraser,” and “scallions” should have.
Despite this success, Winchell wanted to be taken seriously as a news reporter and political player. He was inspired by Franklin Roosevelt, gained access to him, and promoted the New Deal and Roosevelt’s other policies. A proud Jew, he denounced the Nazis as early as 1933, calling them “swastinkers,” and urged the United States to enter the war in Europe. He was also a supporter of racial justice.
But when Roosevelt died, so did a piece of Winchell. Scrambling for another powerful political contact, he made an ideological U-turn and supported Joseph McCarthy during his Communist witch hunt. When McCarthy and his red-baiting campaign crashed, Winchell tried his luck at the new medium of TV, but his show was a dud and his slide into obscurity began.
Conventional but polished, Loeterman’s mix of archival material and interviews is sparked by Stanley Tucci as the voice of Winchell spouting his greatest hits with snideness and savoir-faire.
“Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip” can be seen on pbs.org/americanmasters and the PBS Video app.
Go to www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/walter-winchell-documentary.
In the desert
In advance of streaming Frederick Wiseman’s latest film, “City Hall,” starting Nov. 6, the Coolidge Corner Theatre has begun a series called Wednesdays with Wiseman. It pairs one of the director’s documentaries with a discussion between Wiseman and a distinguished guest. The next installment features the rarely screened “Sinai Field Mission” (1978). Wiseman’s interlocutor will be another Cambridge documentary luminary, Errol Morris.
The mission of the film’s title was established in 1976 by the United States to monitor the activities of the Egyptian and Israeli military during their disengagement after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. That was the theory, but in practice — as Wiseman shows with wry, fly-on-the wall acuity — the staff endures frustration, isolation, tedium, and bureaucratic absurdities in fulfilling with dedication a sometimes amorphous task. The opening scene, of one of them driving an SUV through the desert, passing the charred wrecks of military vehicles and an occasional camel, and stopping to dig a hole in the sand to conceal a sensor, embodies the Sisyphean nature of the assignment.
“Sinai Field Mission” opens Oct. 28 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room.
Go to coolidge.org/films/sinai-field-mission.
Far from finished
After several millennia of men being in charge, the results have been catastrophic. Time for women to take over, and that’s exactly what they’re doing in Sara Wolitzky’s “Not Done: Women Remaking