While certainly no guidebook, A.J. Benza’s chronicle of his rise from working-class obscurity to nightlife celebrity might certainly offer hope to those who, wallowing in a similar anonymity, yearn to glide past velvet ropes, hobnob with movie stars and bed supermodels — and get paid to boast about it.
It is not too vast a generalization to say that until Benza’s arrival, gossip journalism was largely the domain of sharp-tongued older women and flamboyant gay men. This perhaps helps to explain Benza’s meteoric rise to national prominence, because he is unequivocally neither. During his brief appearances on E! Entertainment’s “The Gossip Show,” while still a reporter at New York’s Daily News, Benza oozed heterosexual machismo from every pore. His manner was poised, Mulberry Street-smart, aggressively virile. Amid the other gossip columnists featured on the program, he stood out like a lone dark rose in a field of eye-popping zinnias.
This was by design. As the E! producer is said to have bluntly told Benza when he hired him: “The last thing we need is another effeminate man dishing dirt. Just be A.J.”
Benza’s current host stint on “Scandals and Mysteries” on E! has only served to add testosterone to his image. Dressed all in black, strolling out of the urban gloom to regale us with lurid tales of celebrity self-destruction, Benza embodies a delicious blend of butch noir and underworldly wisdom.
With the publication of his memoir, “Fame! Ain’t it a Bitch,” Benza seeks to extend his reach beyond the tabloids into the world of hard-boiled literary confession. The result is surprising. Anyone charmed by Benza will be shocked to discover that the man revealed in these pages is far less smooth and polished than his on-air persona might imply. A sort of Long Island Everyman, he is more Joey Buttafuoco than Pete Hamill.
He tells of his rise from Mob-backed con man to national TV personality with brazen, often vulgar candor. Every immoral act is detailed, including his stealing of prescription drugs from medicine chests at parties, his nefarious dealings as an adviser to illegal gamblers and his fabricating of crime reports while working at Newsday.
More surprising, however, is that Benza tells his tales without any trace of artistry, literary pretense or sophistication. After a $12,000 gambling score is delivered to his home, he tells us, “I remember I threw the benjamins on the bed and my wife and I fucked on them.”
Even his occasional acts of altruism are revealed to be fraught with ambivalence.
After nobly convincing a supermodel friend not to marry a suspect suitor, Benza confesses, “I’m not going to lie to you. I would much rather have pushed Tasha down on her satin sheets, tied her to the wrought-iron bedpost and made love to her … I would have even accepted jerking off on her … sheets.”
These are no mere lapses in taste; these are the very pith and tenor of the work. In fact, throughout the work he treats the reader to this consistent refrain: “But more on that fuckin’ story later.”
Benza’s profanity, grammatical lapses and tough-guy posturing seem almost an act of defiance, as though he believes that to elevate his language in any way would be a fatal concession, a betrayal of his truth. Implicit in all of this is a working-class scorn for anyone who would prefer his tales in more felicitous or civilized form. This sort of frankness-at-all-costs certainly will offend many, but for those who like their coffee black, their Scotch straight and their daily dose of Howard Stern, it will provide many a bracing thrill.
Benza’s most enlightening tales take place in the newsroom, where the reader gets a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the mayhem of a daily tabloid.
We follow him in pursuit of breaking stories, learning just how far an ambitious reporter must go to get a scoop. Benza’s most titillating tales, however, take place in restaurants, dance clubs and beds. Because Benza makes no secret of wanting a career as a film actor, he refrains from naming too many names — he knows this would be career suicide.
He does, however, offer up a few, and fans of Mickey Rourke will learn plenty about the star’s latenight excesses. The reader also will learn more than enough about Benza’s prodigious sex life. He lets us in on virtually every conquest, rarely concealing his pride and excitement.
While he’s recuperating from surgery, a lovely young thing brings him a home-baked pie. Benza sums up the experience: “Talk about bliss. A Percocet, a Playmate and peach pie.”
Running through every page of Benza’s work is his sincere disbelief that all of this is actually happening to him. He makes no secret of the fact that at heart he is still a working-class Italian-American kid from Long Island, a graduate of C.W. Post, longing for the spotlight, yearning to conquer beautiful women, but without a clue as to how to go about it.
Miramax is developing Benza’s book into a feature film, which might bring it a more diverse audience. If the filmmakers leaven the coarseness of Benza’s escapades with a high degree of visual style and no small share of irony, it could elevate the material to its fullest potential. The result could be a complex and fascinating glimpse into the culture of celebrity as it played out in Manhattan during the last gasps of the 20th century.
Allison Burnett is a screenwriter and director whose credits include “Red Meat” and “Autumn in New York.”