‘Scandalous’ review: A blistering story that takes aim at celebrity culture

The story of The National Enquirer comes to life in Scandalous, a vibrant true Hollywood story that pulls numerous twists and turns

You might not remember it now, but twenty years ago The National Enquirer had a fair amount of clout. The gossip rag commonly found near most grocery store checkouts regularly broke stories regarding O.J. Simpson and the Clinton sex scandal, alongside their wonky tales of paranormal activity. And in just a few short years the magazine would come under fire for placing propaganda in its pages that influenced our American election. Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer lays bare the history of the magazine everyone hates to admit they’ve read, interviews the reporters who made their careers at its office and explains how it all came to a screeching halt.

Director Mark Landsman captures the heady days of the National Enquirer from its infancy as The New York Evening Enquirer. In 1952, Generoso Pope, Jr., the Italian-American son of a newspaper magnate who had ties to the Mob, purchased the New York Enquirer and made one significant change: he transitioned the paper’s state audience into a national one.

As one of its earliest reporters explains, Pope wanted to capitalize on what audiences wanted to see, but couldn’t admit they were interested in (a motto that’s followed the paper to this day). But where he started was taboo even by current standards. Pope would pay off coroners and morticians, as well as police, to publish crime scene photos.

But in this bold quest for readers’ attention, it contrasted with the National Enquirer’s biggest invention regarding where it was sold. Pope came up with the idea of selling the magazine where the people were in the late ’50s and early ’60s: the American supermarket. So gone was the gory photos and in its place were tales of ghosts and human oddities, turning Generoso Pope, Jr. into modern America’s P.T. Barnum. Landsman employs stock footage from the time period to reiterate that the Enquirer, for better or worse, is as American as apple pie and, in fact, Pope knew that, conjuring up a fictional perfect consumer called Missy Smith. Missy Smith was the modern American, at the time, who the magazine wanted to attract.

And because of that it compelled the magazine to make its most famous transformation yet, celebrity gossip. Taking up where gossip rags like Confidential left off, this section is where Scandalous is at its most compelling. The reporters, all of whom come off as retired rock stars of an era we’ll never see again, discuss their history of interacting with celebrity sell-outs (yes, the people who often run to the tabloids are those closest to the celebs themselves) and, in many instances, partying with them. Enquirer reporters have been present at every major event from Elvis’ death to Donald Trump’s marriage to Marla Maples. And yet Landsman never lets the staff escape from the horrible things they’ve done, whether that’s convincing Elvis’ cousin to snap a photo of The King in his casket to paying for the “life rights” of one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mistresses in order to prevent her from talking.

It is this latter element of “catch and kill,” buying someone’s silence to kill a story, is where Scandalous takes a turn from the tasteless but curious to outright horrific.

Several reporters, predominately male, discuss openly that silencing women wasn’t their finest hour, yet Landsman makes a point of saying that things like this happened throughout the magazine’s history.

The staff’s first Black reporter is interviewed to show how little diversity there was in the writing; accusations against Bill Cosby were regularly reported to the National Enquirer, though never followed up on. For all the belief from its staff that the magazine has only devolved in recent years Landsman shows this isn’t true. As reporter Carl Bernstein discusses in an interview for the doc, when the bar is lowered people start to dispute everything, including what’s right in front of them.

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Scandalous is a must-see documentary if you’re a fan of journalism, scandal sheets, or good entertainment. Presented in the vein of the equally impressive and infuriating documentary about Gawker, Nobody SpeakScandalous will remind you there’s more going on in the press than what ends up on the page.

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