The Times Replaces Lead Film Critic Janet Maslin

The New York Times has finally named its replacement for lead film critic Janet Maslin. Envelope, please. And the job goes to … three different people!

Namely, Elvis Mitchell of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ; A.O. Scott, formerly an editor at the New York Review of Books and Lingua Franca ; and Stephen Holden, who will be promoted from the job of The Times ‘ No. 2 film critic.

“All three will work on an equal level,” said Times culture editor John Darnton. “There’s no lead critic, at least for the moment. And we’ll see how that system works.”

Mr. Scott is the surprise choice. Part of his qualification is clearly his age–he’s 33, which Mr. Darnton mentioned in the same breath as his being currently employed as the Sunday book critic for Newsday . Mr. Scott seems as surprised as anyone with his new job.

“They approached me like three or four weeks ago and asked me if I’d be interested in being considered,” he said. “I certainly wouldn’t have thought of it–to go out and apply for The New York Times ‘ film critic’s job.”

He said that The Times seemed to have noticed his writing in Slate about popular culture, since most of the rest of his work has been book reviewing. But he still had to try out. He said he went and saw Flawless and The Limey and wrote practice reviews for Mr. Darnton. Then it was on to managing editor Bill Keller and executive editor Joseph Lelyveld, who, Times sources said, has taken an unusually personal interest in the process.

Mr. Scott, who went to Harvard College and then dropped out of the graduate English program at Johns Hopkins University, sounded somewhat amused by the idea of his new job. “On the one hand, you’re sure of being read,” he said. “On the other hand, you’re sure of being a lightning rod and a focus for resentment and second-guessing. What I’m looking forward to, but I think is still a challenge, is sort of learning to apply the critical skills that I have to a medium that I’ve always been fascinated by but have not really written about.”

His favorite critic? Pauline Kael.

Unlike Mr. Scott, Elvis Mitchell has been a film critic for quite a while in a great number of places, having plied his trade at Spin , New Times in Los Angeles and the Detroit Free Press . At the Free Press he had a reputation for writing scathingly. “I would say he tends towards negative criticism rather than constructive,” said John Smyntek, his editor at the time.

Mr. Mitchell, who is African-American, does well on TV and radio. He has been a regular on National Public Radio, and a few years back he did some biting cultural commentary for the PBS magazine show Edge . (His segment on the secret formula behind all Oliver Stone’s movies was funny and right on target.) He made a less scintillating appearance on Terry McDonell’s short-lived late-night TV show of nattering journalists, called Late Call , in 1994, but nobody came off well on that one.

Mr. Mitchell has also worked on the other side of the fence, as a development executive for Paramount Pictures when Brandon Tartikoff ran it. He and the late Tartikoff were friends.

Mr. Mitchell didn’t return calls for comment at his home in Los Angeles.

As for Ms. Maslin? We hear that Roger Ebert is seriously interested in testing her out as the replacement for the late Gene Siskel.

The modus operandi of Talk editor Tina Brown was on display in a letter she faxed on Nov. 18 to Carol Johnson, the mother of Jay Moloney, the former Michael Ovitz protégé with a drug problem who hanged himself last month. The fax reached the grieving mother on the day of Moloney’s funeral, and it was a story pitch. Ms. Brown wrote:

“Dear Mrs. Johnson,

“I wanted to offer my sincere condolences for the death of your son. It is such an enormous tragedy. I knew Jay through my years at Vanity Fair and found that he was always so joyful, funny and delightful to deal with in the course of the work I did in Hollywood.

“I wondered if you would care to write a piece for our magazine that would remember your son and the struggles that he endured in his attempts to beat his addiction. I think it would be enormously helpful for other parents with children like your son who went down this path despite so many interventions from people who loved him. I would imagine that you also have things to say about the people who led him astray and continued to wreck his chances of recovery. I would think, as well, that the press must have played a malignant role in all this–that, too, might be interesting to comment on. No doubt, you are in a state of great distress at this time, but if you would like to talk about it, I would be very pleased to discuss it with you.”

And that’s the end of it. Mrs. Johnson was, according to associates, not pleased with this letter. Soon enough, it was being faxed around Los Angeles and New York as an example of Ms. Brown’s audacity.

It should be noted that Ms. Brown has had success with this sort of editorial courage in the past. When she was at Vanity Fair , she convinced Dominick Dunne to write about the trial of his daughter’s murderer. Mr. Dunne not only welcomed the idea, but said it gave him new life as a writer (as he recounted in a recent Charlie Rose interview).

Does Ms. Brown regret sending the letter to Mrs. Johnson? To the contrary, said a Talk spokesman. Via a spokesman, Ms. Brown said on Dec. 6: “Mrs. Johnson and I had a very nice conversation yesterday. She was touched by my request, and she said she’d consider it over Christmas.”

Creative Artists Agency, which is handling the affairs of Mr. Moloney’s estate, did not return calls seeking comment.

The invitation to the Wenner Media holiday party on Dec. 14 at the Roxy includes the mysterious line, “Featuring a live performance by Rack of Lambs.” Nobody knew who they were. As it turns out, it’s the house band. Boss Jann Wenner is going to be singing. The staff better enjoy it! Also in the band: Austin Scaggs (son of Boz Scaggs), contributing editor John Colapinto and “a bunch of ringers.”

Readers of the Dec. 5 issue of The New York Times Magazine woke up Monday morning scratching their heads. They were still trying to figure out what, exactly, had gone into that mysterious time capsule that The Times shot into space or buried under the ground on Sept. 9, 1999, or something like that.

Entertainment Weekly staff writer Andrew Essex was sent packing on Dec. 3. His sin? Freelancing without permission. He tried to quit over this same issue a couple of months back, after he couldn’t get permission to write a cover story on Michelle Pfeiffer for Harper’s Bazaar . The final straw was a Talk of the Town item on John McCain’s record-publicist daughter, Sid McCain, for the Dec. 6 issue of The New Yorker .

“They seem to think that a piece on a politician’s daughter is something that they might be interested in,” he said. “So they called me an asshole for violating policy.” As for why he didn’t ask for permission, he said, “It comes down to kind of asking Dad to take the car out.”

Some E.W. staff members felt he was arrogant in flaunting the policy and couldn’t understand why he went around and did it behind the editors’ backs. Others thought the rules about freelancing had “gotten stricter” recently. The sympathetic ones added that they understood why an Entertainment Weekly writer might want to stretch out a little, after writing short, perky things on the entertainment industry week in and week out.

A magazine spokesman said: ” Entertainment Weekly has a general policy that restricts staff members from writing on entertainment for other publications,” without permission. She wouldn’t comment on personnel issues.

After a search of more than three months, the sleek, freaky downtown style magazine Paper still needs a managing editor. Christine Muhlke, who had the job for over five years, quit in mid-November and had her last day Dec. 1. There’s no replacement, yet, though she said that the founder, David Hershkovits, is going to decide soon. Mr. Hershovits didn’t return a call.

Ms. Muhlke grew up in Chicago and Wisconsin and went to college at Mount Holyoke College, but now counts herself as “the world’s expert on butt play,” thanks to the job, which includes line-editing a bunch of adorable druggies and deejays who write. “It’s a grueling, brutal job,” she said. And the pay’s not so high. But you do get to hang out with Ann Magnuson, Joey Arias and John Waters. Ms. Muhlke also got to go on Hard Copy to talk about Julia Roberts’ armpit hair.

She’s going to become a freelance writer now–a line of work that’s feasible, since her husband, Peter Seidler, is chief creative officer of Razorfish Inc., one of those e-companies with a booming stock.