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Film All hail Hedda Hopper, the ‘Duchess of Dish’ who ruled Hollywood gossip

Helen Mirren plays Hedda Hopper in Trumbo, out this week.

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/AP

The Kardashians are the apocalypse's smoke signal. Donald Trump is #theworstever. Nobody in the history of the world has ever had best girlfriends the way Taylor Swift has had best girlfriends! Is it merely the hubris of living today that makes a culture think everything that happens is the worst thing to ever happen – or, at times, the best? Possibly. But there's something else: Even regular drugstore-variety hubris is amplified now by the non-stop levers of social media, which have as their default position a kind of amnesia. In the hyper-present of Twitter and Instagram, it does often seem, there is little context, no yesterdays. Only meme, myself and I.

Enter: Hedda Hopper. Into this iffy zeitgeist now comes the broad known variously as the "Duchess of Dish" and the "Gargoyle of Gossip," and who was, if nothing else, the "most feared person in Hollywood" during her heyday. Remembered for her serpent tongue and her histrionic hats – "I can wear a hat or take it off, either way it's a conversation starter," she once hooted – she's being raised by both Helen Mirren and Tilda Swinton in two new movies. The latter, coming out in February, has Swinton playing the dowager in the latest absurdist production from the Coen brothers, Hail, Caesar! Freshly out of the gate, however? Trumbo, a movie in theatres now about McCarthyism and the so-called Hollywood Blacklist, in which Mirren trots her Hopper like a Cold War-era Cruella de Vil.

For those who think TMZ basically created "gossip," or that celebrity mania began only with Princess Diana's demise in a tunnel, Hopper's reintroduction to the culture couldn't come fast enough. For nearly three decades, from the 1940s on – drawing up to some 35 million readers daily – Hopper wrote a movie gossip column and was as famous as many of the names she covered. Notorious for her copious shovelling of secrets and scandals, as well as for her feud with Louella Parsons, another movie columnist of note at the time, she was even, you might argue, the first "troller" – in the parlance of the Internet. Someone who would have had Gawker for breakfast! "She's such a powerful, interesting influence – at a time when women weren't allowed a lot of power," is how Mirren herself has characterized the woman. "Between her and Louella Parsons, the two of them worked their way into becoming extremely powerful movers and shakers. They could make or break a movie. Or a career. There is no one around like her today. She was like Twitter, Facebook, Maureen Dowd, the film critics, reaching out across the country. She had a huge power over the box office, much more than anyone nowadays."

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A washed-up actress who recreated herself – in that recreating way that is an established American trope – the gossipist was so very famous that she factored into an entire I Love Lucy episode, during a season of the TV show when Lucy and the gang was plopped down in Hollywood. The episode, titled The Hedda Hopper Story, had Lucy pretending she's drowning in a hotel pool so Ricky can "save" her and, thus, get into Hopper's column.

Hopper excelled at one thing, according to Jennifer Frost, author of Hedda Hopper's Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism, and that is "a style and practice of journalism that blurred public and private, politics and entertainment, and set the context for our current era. By combining and wielding gossip about the worlds of both entertainment and politics, Hopper inserted celebrity into her coverage of politics and politics into her coverage of celebrities."

And in this current epoch of Trump, Hopper would have fit right in. Indeed, she was its harbinger. "Hopper," Frost goes on, "would have been very comfortable with our historical moment where politicians and celebrities are interchangeable, and personal attacks and character assassinations are a regular part of political discourse."

A piece of work? You bet she was. Let's just be grateful that Hopper never had access to a camera phone. And, yet, as many have extrapolated, Hopper was only giving the people what they wanted (human beings in all eras, of all stripes, having a thirst for luridness, even though the precise distribution systems for that luridness have widened). "She was," as Mirren puts it, "right in the centre of the mass of the vast majority of American thinking. She wasn't an anomaly or a cult, she wasn't the Tea Party or a side issue, she was right where people were, coming out of the Second World War, and she understood her public very well."

In Trumbo, Hopper appears fleetingly, if thrillingly, in a handful of scenes. "We need you in a whole movie about Hedda," I told Mirren when I ran into her during the Toronto International Film Festival, where the Jay Roach-directed movie premiered.

"That would be wonderful," said Mirren, giving me an I'm-game glint.

It's a story, were it to be told whole, that would have a tremendous ending. Hopper had the stage-ready timing to not stick around to be a relic. "After attending a premiere – and filing a column," as a writer with the New York Post recently noted, "she came down with double pneumonia," dying a few days later.

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She had always been someone who loved shindigs, but always knew better than to be the last to leave.

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