Schnabel Dished in Venice … Whit Stillman, Gossip Synergist

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As artists go, Julian Schnabel is a big man in New York. Big enough, even, to run around the city in sarongs without anyone saying anything. But in Venice, a city whose celebrity artists hail from different centuries, not decades, Mr. Schnabel maybe isn’t so big. Revelers at the American Foundation for AIDS Research Cinema Against AIDS benefit that took place on Aug. 31 on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore were impressed by Mr. Schnabel’s largesse when, during an auction presided over by actress Sharon Stone, he seemingly spontaneously offered to create a portrait for the highest bidder using broken plates, the medium that helped make him a 1980’s art star.

But when Mr. Schnabel–who was in town to premiere his latest directorial effort, Before Night Falls , at the Venice Film Festival, instructed Ms. Stone to start the bidding at a sphincter-tightening $150,000, the silence was deafening. “No one raised their hand,” said one witness, who was in the audience with actor Richard Gere, directors Milos Forman and Robert Altman, and AmFAR founding co-chair Dr. Mathilde Krim. Although, according to one art-world source, $150,000 is in the ballpark of what Mr. Schnabel charges when people commission similar plate portraits by him, the figure was apparently, by far, the most expensive item put on the block at the auction, prompting the aforementioned witness to marvel at Mr. Schnabel’s chutzpah. Although, to be fair, The Transom heard that the crowd of hotshots had been tight with their wallets that night.

Well, before Mr. Schnabel could stew in the quiet too long, the source said that Ms. Stone told the crowd that she would take the portrait. Mr. Schnabel was sitting at her table, after all, and besides, didn’t Joe Eszterhas write in American Rhapsody that Ms. Stone told him she had “crawled the hill of broken glass” to get to where she wanted to go? How appropriate, then, to own a portrait made out of the same material.

And according to Ms. Stone’s PMK publicist, Cindi Berger, who said she was sitting next to Mr. Schnabel at the event, the actress really wanted that portrait. “I don’t think there was an opportunity for anyone else to bid,” said Ms. Berger. “She seized the moment.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Schnabel’s spokesman, Robert Garlock, also of PMK, said that Mr. Schnabel could not be reached for comment by press time, but Mr. Garlock did note that, “Well, $150,000 went to a good cause.”

–Frank DiGiacomo

Whit Stillman, Gossip Synergist

Whit Stillman, who went gleefully to Harvard (class of ’73), who made his career putting the travails of the Manhattan über -class on film ( Metropolitan ), who is possibly America’s last genuine preppie, and who speaks English so delicately he sounds like a foreigner– that Whit Stillman–has just finished up a guest stint at The New York Post ‘s tough-talking, scandal-loving, model-worshipping gossip column, Page Six.

So, how’d you get the gig, Mr. Stillman? “[‘Page Six’ writer] Jared [Paul Stern] is a friend of mine,” Mr. Stillman said from Paris, where he spends most of his time. “When [‘Page Six’ editor] Richard [Johnson] was on vacation, Jared filled in for him, and I filled in for Jared. Since I have this new book out [ The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards ] I thought it would be a good idea to raise my profile in New York.”

Being that the front lines of the publicity and celebrity wars can be found in the city’s gossip columns, Mr. Stillman may have been the guinea pig in a brave new experiment. In the old days, publicists used to call gossip columnists and offer scintillating “free” items that had nothing to do with their clients. But the usually unspoken quid pro quo was that, after the publicist had contributed a number of said free items, the columnist would then plug the flack’s client in an item.

But instead of hiring a publicist to publicize his book, Mr. Stillman appears to have gotten his Page Six ink via good old sweat equity–by rolling up his sleeves and digging in the dirt. On Aug. 12, for instance, an item about CBS network president Les Moonves getting preferential treatment at the nightclub Lotus (he’s an investor) carried Mr. Stillman’s name. The following day, Mr. Stillman wrote another item about celebrity bacchanalia in Ibiza.

Then, on Aug. 14, pay dirt! An item titled “Disco Inferno” led off: “Rapier-witted director Whit Stillman gets in a few digs at his prime detractor in his new book, The Last Days of Disco: With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards . The item goes on to report the swipes that Mr. Stillman’s novel takes at his detractor, film critic and New Yorker writer David Denby, who, according to Page Six, asserted that “Stillman’s characters are ‘petty and unlikable.'” The item went on to report that in the novel, Mr. Stillman’s narrator, Jimmy Steinway, says that “[those] who are always finding characters petty and unlikable tend to be that way themselves.”

When The Transom asked Page Six’s Mr. Johnson if he saw any conflict of interest in Mr. Stillman working for the column and getting his book plugged, Mr. Johnson replied: “I don’t know, maybe you’d better talk to Jared Paul Stern.”

Then Mr. Johnson added: “I don’t see any problem with it. There are so many conflicts in this world. The fact that Whit Stillman has a book and the fact that he writes for Page Six isn’t a conflict. I hope that other celebrities with a journalistic bent will take note of this opportunity for promotion.”

Per Mr. Johnson’s suggestion, The Transom asked Mr. Stern if he saw any potential conflict of interest. “No,” he replied, “we’ve only done one mention of the book, and that was a Page Six-worthy item. I think ‘conflict of interest’ is extreme, it sounds like a Brill’s Content sort of question.”

From his home in Paris, Mr. Stillman said that he has written seven items for Page Six, some of which were uncredited and at least one of which has yet to run. He’s covered everything from high jinks at a Paper magazine party to “top cop Bernard Kerik” and his plans for a “crackdown on the city’s drug scene.” He also wrote an uncredited puff item on the success of two Presbyterian churches on Fifth Avenue, probably a first in the history of the page. “I try to say something uplifting,” said Mr. Stillman, who nonetheless added, “I’ve always been an admirer of the Post . You get a real feel for the voice of the city.”

Mr. Stillman’s stint at Page Six, which, he said, has concluded, was not his first brush with journalism. “I worked on the Harvard Crimson . So it hasn’t changed me,” he said. “Though now that I’ve worked for the Post , I guess I understand why journalists hate bland praise.”

He also seemed to have caught the Post ‘s take-no-prisoners spirit of scooping the competition. Before he signed off, Mr. Stillman had a question for The Transom: “When is this item coming out?” he asked. When The Transom told him, he replied, “I have something that day too! We’ll be competing!”

– Ian Blecher

Schnabel Dished in Venice … Whit Stillman, Gossip Synergist