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Spotlight: Sharon Waxman

The New York Times' Hollywood reporter on her new book, her career history, and navigating her new audience

By Jill Singer - March 9, 2005

waxman1.jpgRebels on the Backlot, Sharon Waxman's exhaustive, behind-the-scenes account of six independent film directors who bucked the studio system and rose to prominence in the 1990s, isn't as dishy as you might expect considering that, in the weeks prior to the book's release, Waxman herself became something of a Page Six plaything, her public feud with David O. Russell, one of the book's subjects, filling column inches usually reserved for Lohans, Zuckermans, and Trumps.

The book does offer some titillating nuggets: George Clooney and David O. Russell's famously rocky relationship on the set of Three Kings disintegrates in spectacular fashion over 20 pages, aided by reprints of Clooney's testy handwritten notes to the director. And in a particularly amusing interaction with John Malkovich, Spike Jonze is revealed to be what Waxman dubs "aliterate," blissfully unaware of almost all culture that preceded his generation. (For those keeping track, Waxman quashes once again the long-running rumor that Jonze is heir to the Spiegel fortune).

But Rebels never quite rises to the level of schadenfreude we've come to expect from our Hollywood tell-alls. The majority of items that pass for gossip are oft-told tales of the aspiring artist's slash-and-burn approach to relationships, instances of the grand ignorance of the studio system (at one point, then head of Paramount production John Goldwyn remarks "Election is the best movie we've made in our studio in the past 10 years. And it's a movie we have no interest in repeating"), or the stuff of supreme film-geek trivia (it's revealed that the title Reservoir Dogs evolved from Quentin Tarantino's garbled pronunciation of Au Revoir les Enfants.)

Rebels doesn't sling nearly as much mud as predecessors like Julia Phillips' You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again or Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures. Perhaps that's because Waxman is still firmly entrenched in the world on which she's reporting. As a Hollywood beat reporter for The New York Times, her job relies on continued access to Hollywood's power elite.

But maybe Waxman didn't set out to write that kind of tale. She has publicly expressed contempt for the Hollywood tell-all, most notably in her review last year of Biskind's account, where she referred to books about Hollywood as "unrepentantly lame, a few racy anecdotes strung together about strategically mentioned movie stars, along with an explanation of how-I-ended-up-here-from-my-humble-beginnings."

"It's not a gossip book," Waxman confirms over pots of tea at a hotel bar overlooking Central Park. In fact, Waxman, with her master's degree in Middle East studies from Oxford and fluency in four languages, says inspiration for the book came from a completely different kind of source: "The models I had in mind were really the great foreign correspondents' books that I had read and loved over my whole career, whether it's David Halberstam's fantastic books about the '60s and Vietnam or Tom Friedman's book about the Middle East. Those were the books that I loved as a young journalist coming up, so I tried my best to do that kind of a book in the entertainment world."

It's not hard to imagine Waxman writing one of those more serious-minded books had her career followed a different path. Unlike most people who find their way to Hollywood, Waxman landed there by chance, after spending the early years of her career abroad, covering the Palestinian intifada as a stringer for the wires and freelancing from Paris. She tried to turn her foreign relations expertise into a fulltime correspondent position or even a staff job back in the States, but her timing was off. It was the Clinton administration, and newspaper coverage was focused on domestic issues. "I got rejected for every single job I applied for," she says. "I really started to have a moment where I thought, you know, maybe I can't do this journalism thing."

Waxman talks about her stymied foreign correspondent career like a thwarted dream, but when she was offered a spot covering Hollywood for the Style section of The Washington Post, she found the experience to be somewhat analogous. As a native Midwesterner, Hollywood was like a foreign country to her, except that "they spoke English and had drugstores." At the Post, which Waxman acknowledges is not particularly well read in Los Angeles, she was able to use this handicap to her advantage, writing for an audience that, in some segments, was as unacquainted with the inside workings of Hollywood as she was.

Writing for the Times, she says, is a completely different game. "You're writing for two audiences when you're writing for The New York Times, which you're not so much when you're writing for the Post. You're writing for Hollywood insiders and you're writing for the broad national and international audience. So it has to be smart—you have to keep that balance."

Waxman seems to have been occasionally thrown by the attention that has come with the high-profile Times beat. In an era of self-appointed media watchdogs where the Gray Lady is a popular target, she finds that "every single word you say, everything gets scrutinized in a much more rigorous and picayune, even, way, than before." In some ways, she appreciates the feedback—at least "you know people care about what you're writing. When you're a foreign correspondent, your life doesn't matter. It's like, 'is anybody actually reading this?'"

But some of the attention has been unwelcome. "I think part of why I became a reporter [is] because I feel comfortable as an outsider," she says. And for someone who embraces her outsider status, Waxman just can't seem to stay out of the spotlight. Beyond the David O. Russell imbroglio (questions about which Waxman dismisses sharply) Waxman's feet have been held to the fire for sins of various sorts (her headline revelation of Million Dollar Baby's surprise ending annoyed legions of Times readers and bloggers accused Waxman of relying too heavily on Jack Shafer's pet "anonymice" for a Michael Jackson piece).

"Thank God I don't read the blogs," she says, but adds dryly: "I can guarantee you that if there are questions and criticisms of my stories or my reporting, they are fully discussed at every level of the new and improved New York Times."

Waxman seems thick-skinned enough to deal with the criticisms, and for now at least, she's been offered a shield to help deflect some of the attention that comes her way: The Times, in its effort to diversify and expand its culture coverage, recently charged reporter David Halbfinger with sharing the beat with Waxman until, as with predecessor Bernie Weinraub, she's cycled out at some point in the distant future. It's inevitable, she says: "I'll stay on the beat as long as they want me to stay on the beat, but I certainly do intend to cover other beats or other subjects down the road."

Jill Singer is the deputy editor of mediabistro.

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