One week ago, Alexandra Polier was just another anonymous 27-year-old New York transplant with a master’s degree in journalism, some Associated Press clips and a network of ambitious friends. But on Feb. 17, when the Daily News and God knows how many other newspapers, television newscasts and Web sites plastered her black-and-white picture, with its knowing, confident gaze, on their covers, b-roll and home pages, Ms. Polier became something else: an instant digital celebrity whom, despite her reluctance to participate in the media circus, she had unwittingly helped create.
Forget the speculation about whether Ms. Polier actually had an affair with the Presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry, which both have denied. Forget that her parents first said unflattering things about the Senator to the British papers and then a few days later, pledged to vote for him for President. Forget that the Malvern, Penn., native looks a bit like Monica Lewinsky.
The point is that somewhere on the assembly line of media sausage production-whether it be in the land of Drudge, Fleet Street or ABC News-the switch got flipped that identified Ms. Polier as a bona fide news story, one that would make the world forget about Janet Jackson’s 40-year-old breast.
What happened next is what happens-and what will happen-to every child of the digital revolution who has ever filled out a user profile, I.M.’d her friends with idle gossip or programmed her browser to accept cookies: An army of reporters and gossip columnist went to their keyboards, called up their favorite search engines and began to construct a digital doppelgänger of Alexandra Polier from her Friendster profile, her Associated Press and Columbia News Service bylines, and every little crumb and clue she had left behind in the bottomless storage vaults of the Internet. What cracks were left were filled in by the thick, spittle-moistened glue of dozens of bloggers who knew someone who knew someone, or didn’t know anyone but had a great theory. DudeMan News, Frappy Doo Forums, SpinReport.com, nutsanddolts.com Rantburg.com and, speaking of sausage, Sirlinksalot.net, were right in there with Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, The Wall Street Journal , Andrew Sullivan, The New York Times and ABC, offering what little information they had about Ms. Polier and creating a buzz that recalled a certain green-hued porn film starring Paris Hilton.
On Feb. 17, if you plugged “Alex Polier” into Google’s search engine, it produced 1,020 hits. On Nexis, it pulled up 111 articles. The name “Alexandra Polier” spawned 434 Google hits and 93 Nexis articles.
Clues to Ms. Polier could also be found on the Columbia News Service ‘s Web site. In the spring of 2002, for instance, Ms. Polier wrote “The Return of the Food Confessional,” an article about New York Times food columnist Amanda Hesser and her beau, Mr. Latte. “We first learned of ‘Mr. Latte’ last fall when Amanda Hesser publicly admitted that the affair had begun. She kept his identity a secret as she tried to reconcile his cheeseburger desires with her filet mignon lifestyle. We cringed as she described their first dinner party, her exacting tastes almost driving them apart.” Ms. Polier also wrote articles on Bowlmor Lanes and the Westminster Dog Show.
The problem is that, as with so much information that’s found in a environment encrusted with irony and cynicism and much colder than the medium cool of television, the data about Ms. Polier can be interpreted in many different ways.
Take her Friendster profile. In the “About Me” section, Ms. Polier described herself as “just another hot piece of ass with a philosophy degree and a love for old movies.” (Later, she lists such celluloid classics as Die Hard , Clueless and Jerry Maguire among her favorite films.) She listed her occupation as “journalist/socialite” and indicated that “I’m afraid of death, hospitals and insects,” “I can’t spell” and that she wants “to travel the world reporting on injustices while taking the time to enjoy and umbrella drink when appropriate.”
Under “Status,” Ms. Polier filled in “Open Marriage,” and in a section where friends of the Friendster subject can provide testimonials, someone named “Yaron”-presumably her fiancé Yaron Schwartzman, whose family home Ms. Polier is reportedly staying at in Kenya for the moment, wrote: “I know alex in the old testament way, and I can tell you is more fun then when the jews left Egypt and moses banged down his staff, and … well, let me put it this way, she isn’t kidding about the open marriage thing. She always happens to have lots of cute slightly unbalanced girlfriends which should make most of the men on this site very happy.”
There has been some speculation that the profile is fake, but the Friendster site indicates that it was created in May 2003, which would suggest that, if it is a hoax, it’s a well-planned one. Most likely, Ms. Polier’s Friendster profile is composed of the same kind of flip, narcissistic boasts found in the yearbooks of wide-eyed college graduates who, speaking of Clueles s, have no idea that dumb, unguarded comments made in the last wicked rush of responsibility-free youth have a way of boomeranging later in life-especially in a culture where practically everything is digitally stored and easily retrieved.
And with Ms. Polier obviously unwilling to elaborate on the Internet trail of personal information that she has left behind her, the information is open to all sorts of misinterpretation in a media that loves to be both puritanical and prurient at the same time.
But perhaps the generation most vulnerable to the pitfalls of the digital age will also be the most cognizant of its ramifications. An article in the Columbia Spectator headlined “Journalism Students Rule Out Rumors” recounted a group of Columbia J-school students-including a blogger named Saheli Datta (’04)-attempts to determine whether the Alexandra Polier who graduated from the master’s program in 2003 was indeed the woman who had been linked to Sen. Kerry. After tracking down her clips and being stonewalled by a dean who denied them access to a photo of Ms. Polier, the students reached this conclusion: “the flimsy, inconsistent reports weren’t worth the reputation of a classmate.” According to the Spectator , Ms. Datta even attempted to “rehabilitiate [ sic ] the Google searches of the name ‘Alex Poiler’ by posting links to the AP stories written under that byline.”
“It’s sad,” Ms. Datta told the Spectator . “She was such a strong Google search; she had a great set of articles. I hope it’s not going to be a big story.”
About a Playwright
“It’s very weird doing an interview about a play,” Paul Weitz said as he picked at his pear salad at the West Bank Cafe. “Usually with a film I have an angle that I’m trying to define for people. There’s something to sell. But a play is harder to talk about somehow.”
Mr. Weitz, 37, was referring to Roulette, the play he wrote which opens Off Broadway at the John Houseman Theater on Feb. 18, and tells the story of a family man who tries to imbue his life with meaning by playing Russian roulette every morning. Act I ends with a literal bang, and Act II finds the brain-damaged dad convinced-to his family’s horror-that his suburban home is a casino.
Playwrights are notorious for dreading the question “But what is it about?”, but after thinking about it briefly, Mr. Weitz related his lead character’s duality to his own bifurcated life as both screenwriter and playwright.
“I think it’s about the idea that there are only two modes of being: incredibly shy and introverted or ridiculously extroverted,” Mr. Weitz told The Transom. “And I think anyone who writes theater has a perverse inclination towards solitude and at the same time fancies themselves fascinating enough that people will want to watch what they have to say. I identify with it at that angle, but …. ”
Mr. Weitz never finished his sentence, but we’ll take a crack at it: There’s a more extroverted part of him that loves the slick, sharp-elbowed world of writing and directing major studio movies. With his sibling, Chris Weitz, Paul directed American Pie , a film that has since spawned two sequels (on which the Weitz brothers are listed as executive producers).
And though theater may be Mr. Weitz’s true love, nothing pays the bills quite like Hollywood.
“My original intention was to be a playwright, but then I realized I couldn’t bum off my father for the rest of my life-I was going to have to make a living if I was going to have any self respect,” said Mr. Weitz.
Dad was John Weitz, the former Office of Strategic Services agent, fashion designer, author and raconteur who died in 2002 at the age of 79. Mom is the actress Susan Kohner, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life .
Much like a game of roulette, Mr. Weitz has circled back to where he started: Roulette is playing on the same block where he once worked at a long-since-closed book shop selling theatrical books while he was working on writing plays after college. “My dad was an incredibly gracious guy and had a certain amount of dough, but it was incredibly embarrassing bumming off him,” he said. So he went west and started writing screenplays with his brother. Their first big project was working on the script for Antz , and they’ve been working in L.A. steadily since, earning a 2003 Oscar nomination for best screenplay adaptation for About a Boy .
Still, New York’s siren song kept pulling. Although he just had his first child in Los Angeles and is preparing to direct a film that he and his brother wrote, Synergy , with Scarlett Johansson, he’s been spending a lot of time in Gotham tweaking his play.
“There’s no replacing the thrill of getting a reaction from an audience and the fear the audience isn’t going to like it …. That’s a weird thing about being a [film] director-sitting behind a camera quietly and not being able to give any feedback while the actors are doing their stuff. So I can totally see why people would go back to theater after having success in film.”
The play was done as a reading at Vassar last year, and Susann Brinkley, the Ensemble Studio Theatre’s executive director, made moving it to Manhattan her pet project. Mr. Weitz was initially afraid the play would be staged for the wrong reasons. “I was at first kind of reluctant because I knew it’d be easy to get it produced because I’d had success in film,” he said. “In terms of fantasies, it’d be neat to do a bunch of plays and be able to look up on my bookshelf and see copies of them. But I could see all sorts of scenarios where I’d be horribly embarrassed.” Mr. Weitz said he even “used to have a lot of nightmares about going to a play of mine and realizing that it was a horrible play and that it was also not the play that I’d written.
“With film there’s an illusion of control,” continued Mr. Weitz. “You can’t control how the audience will react, but the whole thing is just less embarrassing because if someone in the audience doesn’t like it, they can just leave and the performers aren’t right there to see.”
Judging from Roulette , Mr. Weitz doesn’t keep his theatrical and cinematic tendencies neatly compartmentalized. With short chunks of action, the play feels like a movie script, while the staid, suburban-household set, workaday costumes and stereotypical stock characters (dumb jock son, rebellious alcoholic daughter) make Roulette feel like a show on the WB. It may also have something to do with the familiar cast, which includes Saturday Night Live star Ana Gasteyer, child Oscar winner and X-Men co-star Anna Paquin, Proof Tony nominee Larry Bryggman and The Cooler co-star Shawn Hatosy. Grant Shaud (Miles from Murphy Brown ) was in the cast at one point, but dropped out in previews due to illness.
While theater seems like the purer form of his ahhh- t, Mr. Weitz finds it easier to define the purpose of his film work like the American Pie trilogy, the teen-pleasers full of toilet humor and sex. “On the surface of it, one can’t imagine anything more frivolous than American Pie , but we did sort of have an agenda, which was to make it less misogynistic than films in that genre tended to be-to have the female characters have more of a say. There’s an acknowledgment of female sexuality,” he said.
So, we begged, did he write Roulette with a similarly focused agenda? Will the audience take something away from the main character after Roulette closes and can’t be rented on video?
“He’s someone who is faced with all this stuff that people want from him and all the things he’s faced with and decides to detach. The only thing that makes him feel anything, or makes him excited, is the concept that he can to some degree control whether or not he’s going to continue living,” he said, pausing. “God, I dunno. It all sounds so pretentious.”
-Anna Jane Grossman
Clumsy models, don’t look to Gisele Bündchen for sympathy. At the party to celebrate the publication of Backstage Sexy, an artsy spank book featuring Victoria’s Secret’s fearsome foursome Tyra Banks, Gisele Bündchen, Adriana Lima and Oluchi Onweagba, Ms. Bündchen broke away from a half-hour huddle with Miramax co-chairman and Leonardo DiCaprio employer Harvey Weinstein, to tell us what she would have done if she would have been the poor unfortunate mannequin who took a spill on the runway at Oscar de la Renta’s fall show.
“Stand up, have a smile on your face, and keep walking,” Ms. Bündchen said.
Not that the Brazilian bombshell has ever committed such a fashion faux pas “Never! I’ve slipped before but have never fallen, thank God!” she told The Transom. “That would be bad.”
What could be worse? While former Saturday Night Live cast members Dan Aykroyd and Adam Sandler, and Jackass’ Johnny Knoxville made themselves at home in the Casbah-like downstairs cubbies of Spice Market, Jean George Vongerichten’s new meatpacking-district restaurant, New England Patriot Tom Brady chatted up models Mini Anden and Bridget Hall. (His girlfriend, model-slash-actress Bridget Moynahan, was nowhere to be seen.) And when a member of his posse informed him of our request for an interview, Mr. Brady leaned over, looked The Transom up and down, and shook his head. Let the self-loathing begin.
Diehard fans of The Soprano s will remember that, before James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano was mob boss, there was a boss with an equally fey surname. Lou Falsetto. Just kidding!
The original mob boss was the character Jackie Aprile-father to the later-introduced Jackie Junior. Aprile, who died of cancer in the third episode of the first season, was considered a formidable boss-a good guy-and has been mentioned in more recent episodes as something of an Abraham in the HBO crime-family Bible. Unlike what might’ve happened in HBO’s other grim series, Six Feet Under -where dying is pretty much just the beginning of a three-season contract-Aprile, played by the bear-like Michael Rispoli, hasn’t been on the show since. But we’ve found him! He’s working as a masseur on Vandam Street. Rather, he’s acting as a masseur in a play.
Whether rubbing someone out or, er, rubbing someone down, Mr. Rispoli seems to be good at playing helpful types. “On The Sopranos , I was sick, people came to me, asked me things, and then I died,” he said. And now he’s playing a guy who gives back rubs? “Yes. This is my first time playing a masseur.”
Mr. Rispoli, 43, a graduate of the distinguished Circle in the Square Theatre School (other alumni include Kevin Bacon, Benicio del Toro and Philip Seymour Hoffman) has the titular roll in Magic Hands Freddy , a play by Arje Shaw which opens at the Soho Playhouse on Feb. 19. It’s a play about a working-class Joe (Mr. Rispoli) trying to cope with his academic brother meddling in his life. The sophisticated sib is played by 42-year-old Ralph ( The Karate Kid ) Macchio-who still looks like he’s 18-and while Mr. Macchio’s name recognition might trump his costar’s, we’re pretty sure Rispoli could take him in a fight.
“I’m a blue-collar cop or cook,” Mr. Rispoli said. He was referring to the parts in which he usually gets cast. His roles almost always play into what many people think of as every Italian stereotype-brutish, brash, corrupt, working-class, etc. “I’m fine with that. Hey, I’m working. There’s a big difference between being a working actor and being an actor trying to work,” he said. “I support my wife and family [who live upstate], and thank God.
“No, I’m not going to be hired to play the Connecticut prep school teacher. But what’s the stereotypical Italian?” he said. “A guy who wears gold chains and silk shirts?” Uh … yes? No? It should be noted that Mr. Rispoli was, in fact, wearing a gold chain under his T-shirt as he talked at a diner across the street from the theater. Changing the subject, he put two Sweet ‘N Low in his iced tea and said he grew up upstate, the seventh of eight kids. We asked if he felt like he had been raised in a stereotypical Italian family.
“Stereotypical? What’s your family?” he asked. “Is your family a stereotypical Jewish family?” Uh … yes? No?
“Well, there’s drama in every family,” he said, noting that the Italian Anti-Defamation League has had molto problems with The Sopranos but probably will like Magic Hands Freddy . Then he offered to buy us our coffee, and we felt like maybe we hadn’t lodged our foot as deeply in our mouth as we’d thought.
“Italians?” he said, smiling. “We can laugh at ourselves.”