Celebrity - The Incest of Actors, Politicians, and Journalists.
Is "celebrity" a virus, an aphrodisiac, or simply part of the human DNA?
Posted May 12, 2012
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.”
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.
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.
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?).
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."
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.