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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Got Wood? Heds Up For An End To Vinnie’s Plenty

V. A. Musetto has left his Post after editing its film section for 25 years. As a movie reviewer, he’s got swell taste and has said he’ll continue to contribute. He writes headlines, too. And what headlines! Here’s how he described that gift to People magazine in 1987: “Zap, zip, zonk, nix, those are good verbs. Short. Short and powerful. They’ve got to convey a sense of urgency. Nouns? Tots, kids, fire, you know—SIX-ALARM FIRE. Blaze is good, but fire’s shorter. Siege. Siege is good. Madman, maniac, fear. My favorite word is ‘coed.’ When you see coed, people want to buy the paper. I don’t know why—just some young, innocent girl getting into a lot of trouble. It’s the dirty old man in people. It’s a very sexy word…Without the hyphen. Some people spell it with a hyphen, we spell it without the hyphen.”

The mechanics are simple, the punch is simpler: “Writing headlines is being able to say a complex story in three or four words that will attract a reader. It’s like advertising on TV.” But it’s day-to-day, hed-to-hed combat. “Anybody can put a newspaper out when it’s all happening—if they shoot the President of the United States. It’s when nothing’s happening—you have no stories, you have no photos—that’s the pits. That’s when you really earn your money.  I wrote HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR, the most infamous headline in journalism.”

But that memorable slug is a shrug to Musetto. “It’s not one of my favorite headlines… One afternoon I got a report that there had been a murder in a bar, and that one of the victims had had his or her head cut off. Someone said it might be a topless bar, but we weren’t sure, and then the idea of the headline came around, so we were really questioning to make sure it was a topless bar. We sent the reporter, this girl, and she so determined that it was a topless bar. I just wrote it, and everyone said ‘ha ha,’ but I didn’t think it would live in infamy.” His personal favorite? “GRANNY EXECUTED IN HER PINK PAJAMAS. It was about a woman who went to the electric chair, and she wanted to wear her pajamas rather than prison garb, so they let her. I don’t think you could pass that headline without reading the story. You see that headline and you immediately want to know what it’s about. It’s just the picture of this woman, this poor woman, you feel sorry for her, she killed somebody but you still feel sorry for her.”

Not many people have done the job so well for so long. He’d dreamt of it always. “For some reason I was always good at writing headlines. I think it had to do with my childhood, reading newspapers… I read the Post, the Herald Tribune, the Daily Mirror, the Daily News, the Journal-American and the World-Telegram. There were seven papers in New York City then; it was great. I used to dream about writing front-page headlines.”

“I came to the Post in 1975,” Musetto recalled to People. “The Post was dying before Murdoch bought it. It probably would have gone out of business. The woods—we call headlines “woods” because big type used to be made of wood—were always, you know, basic woods. Murdoch brought in a lot of guys who used Fleet Street-type headlines… “I WANT MY ROSARY BEADS.” We ran that a little while ago. Previously the headline would have read PRISONER SAYS HE ASKED POLICE FOR HIS ROSARY BEADS. And the headlines became physically bigger. I thought it was great. Murdoch sort of made headlines pop art.”

There’s something about wood: “Writing headlines is a good way to impress a woman. When you first meet her you tell her what you do. And then when she’s walking down the street, she sees this headline, and she says, “Oh, he wrote that. That guy I went out with last night wrote that.” And when you break up, they can’t ignore you. You’re on every newsstand. There’s no escape.” [More at the link.]

[A misattribution of one of Musetto’s titles has been corrected; h/t Lou Lumenick.]

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What about replacing Mr. Spacey with another actor? Mr. Plummer, perhaps.
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“Would I like to see Wormwood in a theater on a big screen? You betcha. I’d be disingenuous to argue otherwise. But we’re all part of, like it or not, an industry, and what Netflix offers is an opportunity to do different kinds of films in different ways. Maybe part of what is being sacrificed is that they no longer go into theaters. If the choice is between not doing it at all and having it not go to theaters, it’s an easy choice to make.”
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