In case you hadn’t noticed, we have no shortage of opinion writers and commentators these days. But the decline of print newspapers has cost us, among many other things, a unique subspecies: the New York tabloid columnist.
Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists, a documentary that premieres Monday at 8 p.m. ET on HBO, celebrates two of the last in that breed: Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, who over almost 50 years wrote for all the tabloids (and even a broadsheet or two) in New York.
Deadline Artists romanticizes things a bit, which is forgivable because in the broader sense, this documentary really is celebrating a voice too often missing even in the cacophony that today’s multi-platform media has become.
A documentary like this also tends to define all their work by their best work, which isn’t exactly true. You write hundreds of thousands of words over multiple decades, some will be better than others and some you probably want back. Happily, their best deserves the applause.
And one further caution: Breslin and Hamill were brilliant at building their brands. They weren’t just columnists, they were personalities. Breslin, who tells the camera here that his greatest creation was “me,” did beer and cereal commercials and ran for city controller of New York. Hamill dated women like Jacqueline Onassis and Shirley MacLaine. He rode around with Frank Sinatra and advised Robert Kennedy to run for president.
But unlike some of today’s celebrity, theirs wasn’t a hollow shell. They succeeded because they were very good at their core occupation, which was words.
In that endeavor they had very different styles whose commonality lay in passion, intelligence, perception and a distinct kind of eloquence.
Breslin wrote tough, the way he talked. Take it or leave it. Hamill, conversely, came across as a guy who wanted to sit down with you over lunch and explain why he had this passion for New York. He wanted to explain why, after the Dodgers left Brooklyn, his father felt so betrayed he never went to another baseball game.
In an odd way, Deadline Artists almost underplays the writing part of this story when it focuses on Breslin’s interplay with the Son of Sam killer or Hamill showing up for a family gathering with Linda Ronstadt.
More instructive is the passage on how, after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Breslin wrote about the $3-an-hour worker who dug the President’s grave.
In that vein, we could have used a segment on, say, Hamill’s reaction after teenage flutist Renee Katz was pushed onto a New York subway track and had her hand severed. She would survive and rebuild her life, but it was clear from the beginning that she would not play the flute again.
Hamill’s column exploded with fury and ended with the wish that the perpetrator be punished by serving life in a silent room, never hearing music again.
That instinct for humanizing a story, and their skill in conveying it, explains Breslin, Hamill and the best of New York tabloid journalism to those outside its immediate circle.
At the same time, Deadline Artists at times does glamorize their work — a suggestion that both Hamill, who is still alive, and Breslin, who died in 2017, reject. They were writers and reporters, they say, talking to people, gathering information, then synthesizing it all into a story with the clock ticking.
Deadline Artists also inevitably doubles as a eulogy of sorts for print newspapers, which were once a unifying media platform and today are often just one more voice in an information world most of us are still trying to sort out.
That doesn’t make newspapers irrelevant. It just reorders their status and makes it likely the next Breslin or Hamill won’t come from the same place as the last two.
Deadline Artists implicitly acknowledges that 20th century New York tabloids offered a peculiar and in some ways singular niche. Like the city itself, the tabloids had an attitude that endeared them to the locals and often made them a subject of puzzlement and wariness in the rest of America.
Deadline Artists salutes two men who did it imperfectly but well — a phrase that could, come to think of it, describe the whole racket in which they toiled.