Hollywood Confidential: How L.A. Weekly’s Nikki Finke Gives the Industry What it Deserves

She’s equal parts scourge and high-wire act

Having been torched by the business she made her name covering—and torching—for so long, Finke came back from the Post humiliation almost reborn. Since coming to the Weekly in June 2002, she’s been stirring up the animals in the reptile house once again. Finke has called for the CEO of CBS, Les Moonves, to resign after a series of blunders, reported on an idiotic planned sequel to The Graduate, criticized the FCC, and been all over The New York Times’ raids on the staff of the L.A. Times, billing it as a “war.”

In the smoke-and-mirrors enclave that is Hollywood, where friends and enemies are constantly trading roles—where people are cozy with those they want to kill, not to mention cruel to those they rely on—Finke’s set-on-stun phone manner makes sense, taking friend and foe alike on the same bumpy ride. In fact, it embodies the place. She is astutely using the Web and the Weekly to circumvent the traditional media (Finke and traditional media, you might say, are going through a trial separation). In a town rich with innuendo, the Weekly gives Finke the freedom to run with blind quotes and unattributed anecdotes. By going her own way, Finke has found fresh methods to describe Hollywood power, and from that she’s found new ways to influence Hollywood power, which in the studio terrarium practically makes her a Hollywood power. If Mel Gibson can be pariah and king, schmuck and mensch, all at once, maybe the journalist who best defines the landscape is the one who is both an insider and hopelessly on the periphery.

Working for the Weekly seems to have liberated something in Finke. She can give voice to her liberal politics and make a lot of indulgent jokes. Shouldn’t that be what an alternative weekly is for? Here’s a place where snarling at the boss—”Don’t make me come down there!” she shouted at her first Weekly editor—is seen as a personality quirk. “Working with Nikki is … is …,” her current Weekly editor, Joe Donnelly, says, “it’s loud.”

She puts the Weekly in the game, as far as Hollywood goes, in the same way that longtime Industry reporter Kim Masters does for National Public Radio. Like Masters, Finke has a reputation for bringing buzz to a publication. Sometimes, though, all she does is leave an audible ringing in the ears.

“I have had to beat editors over the head, not literally, to say, ‘This is a story, and I am going to do this story whether you like it or not,’” says Finke. “I’m going to look like an idiot for saying this, but I haven’t been wrong yet.”

Modest she ain’t, but vain, not either—more like blind to how she looks to the rest of the world. She challenges the idea that her work has any impact. “I’m constantly telling my editors that nobody reads the L.A. Weekly,” she says. “The only time I see people reading it is when I go to the car wash and people are standing around. I call it the official paper of the valet parkers. And they’re reading the massage ads.” She’s wrong about her impact and wrong about the Weekly to boot. Week in and out, she’s been writing a great Hollywood column, one that actually feels like a product of the city.

Oh God! I know, I know! That’s how a Nikki Finke call starts. Only, she’s talking even before she picks up her phone. Steeped in the Long Island where she was raised, her voice is not a finely calibrated tool, and the phone makes it positively blunt. Just try to get a word in: First there’s a wisecrack about a studio head, then a burst of gossip followed by a complaint, and finally a declaration that nobody in the press is getting the story right. Ow, ow! Hold on, I’ve been having trouble with my knee. God, I need to have an operation on it. Ow, ow! It’s driving me insane. Anyway, what was I saying? She is gulping down a sandwich and telling a story about a screenwriter, all the while needling you as she takes other calls. She’s holding a reservation for an out-of-town hotel—she was supposed to be there yesterday, but the phone just keeps on ringing.

“I’m a little scared when she calls,” says The New York Times‘ David Carr, who is a fan. “She’s not the most predictable person in the world. You almost get the sensation of needing to wipe off your face when you put the phone down. Such a strong presence comes through the phone, you think that there should be spittle there.”

This feature originally appeared in the September 2004 issue of Los Angeles magazine.