On Charlie Rose a few nights ago, Rose and author-actor Frank Langella laughingly agreed that celebrities (like themselves) like to hang out with other celebrities, even celebrities of whom they are in awe (yup, celebs can be in awe of other celebs). Celebrities often congregate at big affairs to see and to be seen. And, if times have been professionally thin, to reaffirm that they are still alive, still up for work, still in the ranks of “celebrity;” maybe even offer political capital, like George Clooney does as a magnet for celebrity contributions to Obama's re-election campaign.
The annual White House Correspondents' Dinner, which took place at the Washington D.C. Hilton on Saturday, April 28, 2012, was such a gathering. The dinner is a celebration of Washington journalists, complete with awards for excellent coverage and scholarships for aspiring reporters. What ends up taking all of the headlines is the President's humorous address and the subsequent comedic routine by the host, in this instance late night talk show comedian, Jimmy Kimmel, who lived up to the dinner host’s reputation of “snarky.”
Comedian celebrity host Stephen Colbert displayed a bit of chutzpa when, in character as a whacked-out conservative TV interviewer, he raked over the coals then-President George W. at the Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006. Obama, got off a lot easier in 2012
The event was carried live by C-SPAN. Politics as infotainment?
The 30-minute segment of the “roast” of politics, politicians, and celebrities that I saw was jalapeñoed even more by Obama’s slicing swipes at ex-GOP presidential candidate hopeful Donald Trump, who was in the audience.
Obama quipped “The Donald can now focus on the serious issues, determining whether the moon landing really happened, and the whereabouts of rappers Tupac and Biggie."
The jokes and jabs were funny. But what I find most fascinating about the D.C. Correspondents' Annual Dinner event is how each year it is looking more and more like the Oscars. Hollywood and D.C. Filmmakers and politicians: Both love publicity and the power to influence, as means to an end or as ends in themselves.These publicity rainmakers court each other for glamour, money or favoritism in the marketplace.
The bi-coastal back-scratching and mutual allure go way back. In 1923, for instance, wanting to catch some of the Hollywood glitter, a decade before he became presiden of the United States, FDR submitted a screenplay about American naval hero John Paul Jones to the office of movie mogul and head of Paramount Studios, Adolf Zukor. It was politely rejected as being too expensive to produce at that time.
JFK’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, briefly ran RKO studios and cavorted with movie actresses. Movie stars George Murphy and, of course, Ronald Reagan, both held elective political office, as U.S senator and President respectively. More recently, Alec Baldwin has talked seriously about running for the Senate. So did actor Robert Vaughn (The man from The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and George Takei (Mr. Sulu in the original Star Trek series). The list goes on.
Hollywood and D.C. are not exactly revolving doors, but the players have clearly flirted with the idea. Actor-U.S Senator-actor again, Fred Thompson, best epitomizes the bi-coastal pull of each power center for those who love screen time and pulling the levers of power afforded by the two centers of “action” in the public domain.
The C-SPAN camera in the Washington Hilton lobby caught luminaries from both houses of celebrity, D.C. and Hollywood, milling about or “being seen” or interviewed by major TV celebrity shows like ET and Extra. The glitzeratti list included, among many others, Eva Longoria, George Clooney, Goldie Hawn and Piers Morgan of CNN, Diane Keaton, Wolf Blitzer, Gen. Colin Powell, Reese Witherspoon, and as many unnamed beautiful women as can be found posturing on the Oscar Red Carpet.
Borrowing a tattered page from the Oscar coverage playbook, the interviewers actually asked the mostly Fox News-blond beauties “Who are you wearing?” More fantastical, they were actually getting comparable designer answers (don’t ask me which ones. I’m a generic guy on this subject, but I’m certain I heard mentioned Donna Karan and Louis Vuitton at least once). Talk about blurring of boundaries…
Yet, it was more interesting to observe the videotropic stirrings in the eyes of many arriving guests as they literally trod “the red carpet walk of fame” (because red carpets are now everywhere that celestial bodies congregate, be it Hollywood, D.C. or at the senior prom in New Rochelle, New York).
Lights, action, and cameras drew eyes or turned heads as these powernistas walked through the glass doors of the lobby of the Hilton as limo after limo were observed pulling up at the curb. The buzz was palpable and beauty or power-based eye-candy was everywhere -- both are aphrodisiacs: to those who possess and exude it and to those who observe and feel its tug.
Seeing where the camera action is, calculating the chances of being “in the picture,” many celebrity, near-celebrity and hope-to-be celebrity guests migrated, perambulated or bee-lined through this corridor of beauty and power, drawn by the navigational pull of a chance for a few moments of video face time celebrity; if not as the focus of the cameras and microphones, then at least within the aura, the penumbra of attention cast by the luminary who holds that honor. Call it celebrity by association.
It’s a tight rope walk, however, this navigation toward face time, if only by being a bystanding extra on Extra during an interview with Kim Kardashian (why in God’s name was she there?).
One’s move into the frame can’t look desperate, contrived or loopy, however. It must be suave, en passant. If this interloping is deftly maneuvered, if it feels and looks just right, it could look like you are in the picture because you actually know (which you don’t) the celebrity interviewee; or that you’re standing in the frame because you’re waiting to say hello to him/her and engage in a Hollywood kiss-kiss, hug-hug or shoulder clasp-and-slap. Maybe you really strike postural gold and look like you’re patiently waiting your turn to be interviewed. You are so cool.
The power of politics and the power of TV or movie stardom come together approaching critical mass at conventions of the influential, the renowned, and the celebrated. We often make fun of this star-meeting-star ritual posturing (as I am now). We wryly comment on what USC Professor of Literature and author, Leo Braudy, called “the frenzy of renown” in his treatise on fame and its allure and privilege throughout the ages, from Julius Caesar to Frank Sinatra.
Living in this media-saturated era, many of us have developed a keen sense that so much of our life is about performance and image management and we’re looking for some way to cut ourselves from the herd of mediocrity. The marvelous insightful book, Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, by popular culture observer and analyst, Neal Gabler, looks deep and wide at how domineering our entertainmentized culture has become, perhaps to the point that entertainment and celebrity bestride reality as prime forces that demand our attention.
As the Internet and its killer apps like YouTube and Facebook have amply underlined, we are all actors as well as observers; some even attain online and then offline celebrity. Take Justin Bieber and the Vlogbrothers, John Green and Hank Green, for example. Or Matt Drudge. We perform for others to get their attention, validation, and acceptance.
Social, mobile media did not create this drive for celebrity; they only amplified it. Every new technological advance can be that streetcar named desire that we climb aboard to realize our hidden talents or, through a darker glass, our OCDs.
Technology activates many latent human tendencies -- like celebrity or fame, or exceptionalism -- and allows or encourages them to become driving forces in the individual, even the culture. As the lyric from the movie Fame goes:” Fame, I’m gonna live forever, I’m gonna learn how to fly…baby remember my name.”
The Internet, desk-bound or mobile, is just the most recent advance, preceded by newsprint, movies, magazines, radio, and television. Each has dramatically expanded the stages, actors and audiences for celebrity. Let's face it: Celebrity is now part of our cultural viscera, maybe even a birth right.
By way of example, on two successive days I spoke with two unrelated individuals with celebrity on their minds: one occurred during an interview about celebrity I was giving to a university radio and television major from Canada. When I turned the tables and asked her what her career goals were, she chuckled a bit then proudly proclaimed, “I want to host a celebrity show like Entertainment Tonight. Become one [celebrity] myself. Not so famous that I’m bothered by paparazzi, but almost.”
The other was a friend whose son is an athlete at the college level but with an uncertain professional future. When the father asked him what career he had in mind if pro-sports doesn’t happen, he immediately replied, “a commentator on ESPN.”
Sue, a teacher friend of mine, related this anecdote: "Working with a borderline student on 'goals and plans,' etc., I asked him where he wanted to be in ten or fifteen years. He said in a voice filled with pride and yearning, "I want to be known."
Often the term “celebrity” is spoken with accents of rolled eyes and snarled lips. It feels like a dirty word. Or at least a cheap, superficial word. Celebrities themselves are often described as essentially talentless people who are famous for being famous, celebrated, not for their accomplishments but for their notoriety or exhibitionism; people who have bloated their 15 minutes of fame.
Conjure up (or Google) names like Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, Kato Kaelin or Joey Buttofuco, and you’ll get the point.
But there is another angle to this thing we call celebrity. Maybe it’s not a road to nowhere, a ship without a rudder, fame for fame’s sake. It has a history, a conceptual durability for a reason. We might even say it’s in our DNA. I believe it is. We’ve all heard 5 or 10-year-old kids, when asked what do they want to be when they grow up, blurt out, wide-eyed,” I want to be rich. I want to be famous.” Famous for what? Rich, how? They often quickly reply,” I don’t know. They might not "know," but their collective unconscious can fill in the blanks.