In this week’s issue of New York there’s a very entertaining Benjamin Wallace profile of the writer Nikki Finke, creator of the film industry blog Deadline Hollywood and a serious character in her own right. Part ace journalist, part shady J.J. Hunsecker, part Norma Desmond with a website, Finke turned Deadline into a must-read with more traffic than legacy trade papers Variety and the Hollywood Reporter on the strength of her scoops and sources, but also her personality quirks. A fascinating, unbalanced David who has become a fascinating, unbalanced Goliath, she breaks stories and she breaks the rules—she mercilessly, often inappropriately, castigates people she doesn’t like; she crows about her accomplishments; she relishes getting into feuds; she disappears for days at a time for medical reasons. She’s a mercurial woman who has not been photographed for decades, but who is willing to impart all sorts of personal information over the phone exactly up until she doesn’t want to anymore, at which point she may threaten to sue.
She is exactly the sort of gonzo personality who sounds like the perfect subject for a TV show—or at least HBO once thought so.
In 2011, HBO filmed a scripted half-hour pilot based on the life of Nikki Finke called Tilda. Directed and written by Bill Condon (Kinsey, Dreamgirls), it starred Diane Keaton as Tilda Watski, founder of a Hollywood website called the Daily Circus. In the pilot, Tilda is an agoraphobic, highly emotional stoner who drinks too much, writes at all hours of the night, has a rat infestation in her apartment, and has Hollywood by the balls. The plot involves her getting one executive fired (“You’re a lying pussy who hogs the spotlight. But I would fire you because you’re a sycophantic asswipe,” she tells him as he begs her not to post the piece that will cost him his job), only to get played by his boss (Jason Patric), who manipulates the Los Angeles Times into running a personal exposé on her. (The title of that piece: “Who’s Afraid of Tilda Watski?”) Over the course of the episode Tilda goes from crowing, to sobbing, to triumph, while also sleeping with a hunky I.T. guy (Wes Bentley) and inviting a young assistant and source (Ellen Page) over for conversation and weed, excoriating her for being so goddamned boring.
This description makes the show sound better—campier, anyway—than it is. The show doesn’t really work. (The pilot was not picked up, and has never been aired.) For one thing, no one thinks the plight of Hollywood executives is interesting, except for Hollywood executives. But the bigger problem is Diane Keaton, who is miscast. Keaton, as always, has got flaky and unpredictable down, but she is not nearly intimidating enough. And the intimidation factor is the key to the Nikki Finke myth: What makes Nikki Finke such a great character isn’t just that she’s a lone, unhinged, middle-aged woman with emotional regulation problems—it’s that she is that, everyone knows she is that, and she still scares the crap out of more polished, reasonable, and ostensibly powerful people, thanks to her intel and her willingness to go nuclear.
Tilda runs right smack into the great TV likability debates. Keaton’s Tilda is more immediately likable than Nikki Finke—or Nikki Finke’s persona—and she is also a whole lot less interesting. Tilda may live amongst literal rats, but she has people coming in and out all the time, she’s got an active sex life, and sources who refer to her as “a mensch.” She may be a little unhinged, but she’s overcome a tragic backstory: the Los Angeles Times reporter brings up stints in Hazelton, unpaid back taxes, a period when she lived in her car, and an estranged relationship with her daughter, all of which makes Tilda cry before she goes on the attack. Meanwhile, in real life, Finke threatened to publish where some ICM agents’ children went to school because … Bret Easton Ellis tweeted that he lived in the same building as her.
Tilda is Finke with the razor edge sanded off, but Finke’s reckless willingness to draw blood, even if it’s her own, is what makes her, and not just her scoops, so fascinating. Maybe the next Nikki Finke project will get the balance right. She’s writing a memoir. She says it’s already been optioned.