Who cares what celebrities think?
I was often asked that question after I wrote my previous book, Tales from the Left Coast, which chronicled Hollywood’s political activity. During a discussion on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country, for example, UCLA film professor Richard Walter maintained that celebrities are influential in “the movies that they make, not the press conferences that they hold.” He said, “Nobody cares a lot about what Jessica Lange thinks politically or intellectually. Do you? Do I? Why should it matter? They don’t.”
Professor Walter was sounding a familiar refrain, but a somewhat delusional one, as I’ve discovered in my years of covering the ins and outs of Hollywood. At the very least it’s an attempt to duck a substantive debate. When you hear someone remark, Who cares what entertainers say?, you can pretty much bet that person is trying to avoid a serious look at the kinds of messages that are coming to us from the entertainment community.
This kind of disregard creates a problem, though, because like it or not, celebrities do matter. They influence all of us, often in powerful ways.
USA Today addressed this issue in an article entitled “When Stars Speak, Do We Listen?” At a time when actors like Martin Sheen, Anjelica Huston, and James Cromwell were leading high-profile protests against the war in Iraq, the newspaper commissioned a survey to determine whether celebrities “really have any influence” over the public, and over politicians and policy. At first glance, the poll seemed to lend some support to Professor Walter’s position that America doesn’t listen to actors on political issues: 87 percent of those surveyed responded that no celebrity could cause them to change their position on the war. Only about a third “felt celebrities were ‘somewhat’ effective in influencing the views of the president and other elected officials.”
Polls like this have a built-in defect, though. Paul Waldman, coauthor of the book The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World, told USA Today that people are hesitant to admit they are influenced by anybody, much less a celebrity. Most folks, Waldman noted, “like to believe ‘I made up my mind myself.’ ”
The news media are certainly affording stars plenty of opportunities to voice their opinions on the issues of the day. Why? Because, as Waldman pointed out, the simple fact is that some “starstruck” news organizations are “more likely to agree to an interview with Jessica Lange on the topic of Iraq than some guy from the Council on Foreign Relations.” The more visibility these celebrities have, the more likely they are to hijack the debate.
Think about it: if the public weren’t influenced by famous names and faces, then celebrities wouldn’t be getting paid big bucks to hawk products and services, and celebrity endorsements wouldn’t be so actively pursued by activist groups, charitable organizations, and politicians.
Actually, the public is listening to celebrity spouters more intently than ever. In fact, when we talk about the entertainment community’s extensive influence, we’re not just referring to famous actors who jabber on issues. Sure, Sean Penn, Martin Sheen, Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Barbra Streisand, Alec Baldwin, and all the other celebs who hop to the podium to lecture the country on their political views are a big part of the story. But they’re by no means the whole story. In Tales from the Left Coast I focused on those celebs and their politicking, but as I examined the situation further I realized how much more there is to the psyche-swaying picture.
For starters, Professor Walter was partly right when he said that actors are most influential in “the movies that they make.” Inadvertently, he was acknowledging something that lots of left-leaners try to deny: Movies, TV shows, music, and other entertainment products don’t merely amuse us or divert us from reality; often they convey messages about political, social, and cultural issues. And since Tinseltown remains such a liberal bastion, as we witnessed during the last presidential election with the Dem fund-raising machine, those messages usually come with a distinct lefty twist.
Hollywood and its companion products are massaging many of our behaviors, attitudes, and ideas, but Left Coasters tend to admit that only when it suits their PC purposes. As film critic Michael Medved points out, studio heads like to boast that they do good by, say, showing a character in an action movie snap on a seat belt before a high-speed chase, or including “safe sex” scenes that prominently feature condoms. But those kinds of shots might account for a few seconds in a two-hour movie. Don’t audiences also receive messages about behavior from other parts of the film—like the violent chase and shootout that follow the buckle-up, or the graphic sex scene that inevitably accompanies the condom wrapper? No way, say Hollywood’s defenders.
Tinseltowners often fall back on the shopworn pretext “It’s only a movie.” But aside from the logical inconsistency of that position, folks instinctively know that films and TV shows do matter when it comes to shaping opinions, values, and behavior. And they matter a bundle. In fact, entertainment just happens to be one of the weakest portals of entry for us humans.
Hollywood influence is becoming particularly significant now that, as a people, we seem to be placing a higher and higher value on our entertainment needs and wishes. We Americans have quite a bit of leisure time on our hands. And we want to fill that time with gobs of entertainment. Whether it’s eating at a restaurant, shopping at a mall, throwing darts in a bar, or driving in a car, we crave diversion, excitement, and just plain old fun. Our obsession with amusement has created a world in which, as Joel Siegel of ABC’s Good Morning America tells me, “entertainment is unavoidable.”
Here we’re talking about what’s usually called pure entertainment. In recent years, though, something else has emerged that has even more clout over the way we see the world. It used to be that people got their news from their daily local Times or nightly network broadcast. But increasingly folks are getting their scoops and forming their opinions the entertainment way.
If you look closely you’ll notice that Hollywood has spilled over into the news business. Not content with merely playing roles, Tinseltowners now intrude on journalism’s turf. Through things like documentaries, docudramas, and agenda-driven movies, Hollywood can stretch the truth and bend the mind. Most conspicuously, filmmaker Michael Moore and others have redefined the documentary, corrupting the genre by presenting misleading information and outright falsehoods as fact. In Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, and Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore presented staged events as real and fiction as fact. And he carefully left out details that might inconvenience his arguments. Despite his apparent lack of concern for the truth, in one boo-ridden instance Moore was actually given an Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Film studios and TV networks are now releasing docudramas, which can be even more slanted and distorted because they blatantly meld fantasy with reality. Another Oscar winner, director Oliver Stone, has built his career around films that purport to represent historical events but are closer to Shrek in their accuracy. Stone’s film about John F. Kennedy’s assassination prompted a Newsweek cover story headlined “The Twisted Truth of JFK: Why Oliver Stone’s New Movie Can’t Be Trusted.” Stone offered a similarly skewed take on Richard Nixon. Cable TV host and news commentator Monica Crowley, whose first job out of college was working for the former president, tells me that “Oliver Stone had the script for the movie Nixon done and ready to go. He waited until Nixon died to put it into production, because he knew that Nixon would have sued him. The portrayal of Nixon was completely off the mark, not that I expected anything less—or different, I should say—from Oliver Stone. Oliver Stone’s approach to history is to take his own theories, as wild and inaccurate as they may be, and fold them into actual historical facts.”
Still, films can pack such a powerful punch that many people take the tall tales seriously. That’s why Hollywood honchos have the influential means that they do to shape the message. If they so desire, they can put a particular spin on a topic and get people to pay mega-attention to the argument. In essence, they can circumvent the news media—and the journalistic standards that require some degree of faithfulness to the historical record—and still trumpet their political messages. Because of this, such “entertainment products” can knead and knuckle people’s beliefs and do things that the Dewdrop Dispatch or the Peoria nightly news broadcast could never pull off.
At the same time, the news business itself is undergoing a Tinseltown makeover. To function as a free society, we need information delivered to us in an accurate, unadulterated, and uncensored manner. But these days our needs and wants seem to be at odds a bit, because we’re looking to receive our news and analyses in fun, bite-sized morsels. The truth is that bare-bones facts can be so—I believe the word is—boring. So papers dress up communiqués with eye-pleasing charts, headlines, photos, colors, and the like. Television uses brightly lighted sets, telegenic anchors, attention-grabbing sound effects, and arresting sound bites to give pizzazz to otherwise lackluster dispatches. And news organizations produce special reports and documentaries that aim to do more than just inform us; they try to make our imaginations take flight, tickle our funny bones, or scare the pants off us in a Saturday-matinee kind of way.
Ever so slowly things have gone through an adjustment. Now News is Big Entertainment. And Entertainment is Big News.
Anyone who has perused the East or Left Coast Times, toggled through the evening alphabet broadcasts, tuned in to a cable news show only to find his or her favorite sitcom star, or switched back and forth between a beloved action hero’s flick and his gubernatorial press conference knows exactly what I’m talking about. These days high-profile personalities from L.A. to Broadway appear regularly on TV and film to give their news and views. Politicians do the late-night circuit. And journalists and anchors find their own celebrity stars shooting north.
When Anderson Cooper moves from a reality show, The Mole, to grab an anchor spot on CNN; when Meredith Vieira transitions from 20/20 to The View to a syndicated version of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire; when network news shows devote time to “reporting” about prime-time program happenings and featuring reality-show castoffs, we can pretty much see that the borderlines between news and entertainment have been zapped.
Former Nightline host Ted Koppel has noticed what’s occurring. While speaking at the Hollywood Radio and Television Society’s newsmaker luncheon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, the ABC News anchor griped about news personalities being placed in non-news settings. “When we began taking our journalism more lightly, people began taking us less seriously,” Koppel complained. “I have no problem whatsoever with entertainers and comedians pretending to be journalists; my problem is with journalists pretending to be entertainers.”
Koppel was speaking only about the damage being done to the profession of journalism. But the fact is, this intense blending of information and entertainment fare is having a real impact on all of us. As things have progressed, we’re finding it harder and harder to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and insincerity, and virtue and vice.
When we used to talk about Hollywood, we were referring to a specific SoCal locale. But Tinseltown’s influence has seeped beyond its borders and now affects our whole society.
How can the entertainment community have so much influence over us? One big factor is our ongoing love affair with the famous, which seems to supply us with a kind of emotional power drink. Celebrities, and everything that surrounds them, provide a tonic for our psyches, a sort of glam Gatorade, if you will. We drink the sparkly elixir, and before the final drop hits the tongue we’re already craving more.
James Houran, a clinical psychologist who has researched the subject of celebrity obsession in America, remarks that each of us has a little Larry King inside: “There is a celebrity stalker in all of us.” Houran conducted a survey of six hundred people and determined that one person in three is a moderate to advanced celebrity worshiper. By my calculations, that means a little more than 33 percent of folks are deifying celebs, another 45 percent are the deified celebs, and 21 percent are still hoping to someday be deified.
The dazzle addiction isn’t new. But for most of human history, fame was usually visited on an individual as a result of an actual accomplishment. For centuries, warriors, conquerors, kings, and the like were revered.
Things have changed, though, in a supersized way. In the Information Age, when we’ve got hundreds of TV channels to choose from, countless websites available to us, and magazines devoted to any topic we can imagine, we’re constantly introduced to new faces and new stories. It’s as if we’ve got an ever-expanding roster of celebs who are pretty much famous simply for being famous. Fresh stars are popping up like ragweed in a hayfield.
It’s not just that technology exposes us to all kinds of people we might never have encountered decades ago. In the modern age, we have lots of spare time, a concept that our ancestors could never have imagined. As psychologist Joyce Brothers tells me, “We have the time and the effort and willingness to pay attention to things that aren’t a matter of food and shelter and other needs.” When those needs are taken care of, she says, “we start to look for other sources of interest or satisfaction or belonging or relating to others.”
Dr. Brothers believes that we are attracted to celebrities because we are acting out instinctive patterns. “In order to survive centuries ago,” she tells me, “human beings had to be able to tell pretty fast whether somebody was a friend or a foe. And the more times you saw somebody, the more chances that person was a friend.” So today, since we’re exposed to celebs so frequently, they become familiar, part of the tribe. Dr. Brothers cites a popular syndicated television show as an example: “When you see the same face again and again and again—these six people—they are familiar. So we assume they are Friends.”
Professor Geoffrey Beattie of Britain’s University of Manchester theorizes that stories involving stars are our contemporary version of fairy tales. Beattie believes that because we attach such importance to lives of the famous, our brains are programmed to recall details of the celebs’ experiences more than our own. The mere mention of their names conjures up the stories of their lives.
Familiarity helps explain why, whether we admit it or not, as a society we pay so much attention to what the famous are doing, saying, wearing, and so on. But of course, celebs have a certain glamour about them that, short of an extensive makeup, wardrobe, and surgery overhaul that most of us will never have, and that’s what makes them trendsetters.
It’s long been the case that the entertainment biz has provided the measuring stick by which we determine who, and what, is attractive or fashionable. As Joel Siegel puts it, “None of this is new. It’s been going on forever.” Siegel cites the famous example of how “undershirt companies went bankrupt” in the 1930s after Clark Gable appeared sans T-shirt in the Oscar-winning film It Happened One Night. Gable was the leading star of the day, a major sex symbol, and so, Siegel says, men took the cue from him and “stopped wearing undershirts.”
John F. Kennedy was that rare politician who had a glamorous air about him. As Siegel remembers, Kennedy broke with tradition by not wearing a hat at his inauguration. Hats were part of the standard look for men in those days—even at “ball games, they wore a hat,” Siegel notes. But as soon as people saw the fedora-absent inaugural footage, formal head attire went out of fashion.
Siegel also recalls the influence of Marilyn Monroe’s most famous scene from The Seven Year Itch, the “scene where the subway blows her dress up.” He tells me that at the time “women in Japan stopped wearing underwear to get that Marilyn Monroe look.”
Today we see the same sort of thing. Brad Pitt might be seen on the big screen without a shirt and the look is adopted by Joe Boxers everywhere. Meanwhile, Angelina Jolie might appear on the little screen looking as if she, too, is missing an undergarment and, voilà, an eye-popping female fashion is born.
Our obsession with celebrities troubles a lot of folks. Many parents express real concern about how their children respond to stars who don’t appear to be appropriate role models. The wife of Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich spoke out a few years back about the example being set by pop icon Britney Spears, the former Mouseketeer whose stage act has included ripping her clothes off, tossing a snake around her neck, and slithering in syncopated rhythm. Speaking at a domestic violence conference, Kendel Ehrlich said that it was important for women to get as much education as possible to avoid becoming dependent on anyone else. Then she said, “It is incredibly important to get that message to young women. You know, really, if I had an opportunity to shoot Britney Spears, I think I would.”
Mrs. Ehrlich obviously got a little too fired up. But as ill-chosen as her words were, many parents undoubtedly agree with her general argument that we need to pay attention to the images the popular culture is sending to our children. To understand why Britney would inspire such vitriol, we might take a look at what Madame Tussauds museum in London did with a recent exhibit. The museum claimed that it was tired of people saying that its wax models of the famous weren’t lifelike enough. So it decided to make Britney’s waxwork model breathe. The sculptors at the museum created a likeness of Spears in a pole-dancing pose with her back arched. To add realism, they installed a breathing mechanism so that, in the end, the waxwork model of the pop princess would have a mobile chest. London’s Sun newspaper reported that a source said, “For the first time we are installing balloons in her chest so it heaves in and out.”
I hear Madame Tussauds is planning to do a Bill Clinton figure. It’s going to use balloons in a different way, though. You push a button and Bubba’s head swells another notch.
Parents know that kids look up to stars like Spears, and especially that our children believe such celebs set standards of beauty. Kids aren’t the only ones trying to live up to the Hollywood ideal, though. A lot of us try to achieve the standards set by the stars we glorify. We get the message that if we want to be “in,” we’ve got to get our image to coincide with the person on the screen, magazine, daytime soap, or evening news.
Unfortunately, there’s a huge gap between that ideal standard and the reality that smacks most of us in the face, gut, and rear when we look in the mirror. The gap has always been there: The glamorous depictions of Hollywood stars of the Golden Age weren’t any more representative of real folks than Joan Rivers is of today’s seventy-somethings. But it does seem as though the distance between the ideal and the real just keeps getting bigger.
Even big Hollywood stars sometimes get frustrated over the disparities between expectations and reality. Speaking about the fact that, physically, things have sort of shifted for her over the years, Whoopi Goldberg joked, “My ass is bigger. That was a shock. I was like, ‘Whose ass is that and why is it attached to my body?’ I was being stalked by my own ass, and my ass said to me, ‘You know what? I’m here to stay. I’m not gonna get any smaller, and I don’t care how far you run or how hard you work out. You are gonna have a big ass.’ And my **** [breasts] said, ‘You know what? We fell. We fell, you didn’t even know it. So why are you worried about it now? It’s not like you’re gonna get us knocked off, ’cause who’s gonna believe that your **** suddenly went from here to here. Nobody.’ ”
Still, Hollywood keeps pushing perfection. The emphasis on youth, looks, and fame now extends far beyond Tinseltown to reach Main Street U.S.A. Supposedly anyone can achieve the right look simply by buying the formula being peddled. That formula can be anything from cosmetics to clothing to perfume to diet—and even, increasingly, to plastic surgery. People from just about every walk of life are getting liposucked, tummy-tucked, implanted, rearranged, sculpted down, and tightened up. More than 8.7 million people underwent cosmetic procedures in 2003, up 33 percent from the year before, and in 2004 9.2 million folks surgically altered their bods, up another 5 percent; this according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
We even have a special breed of reality show that documents people’s transformations as they go from bland to grand. There’s MTV’s I Want a Famous Face, where individuals go for the celebrity look-alike gold. There’s ABC’s Extreme Makeover, in which participants are handled by an “Extreme Team” of plastic surgeons, cosmetic dentists, makeup artists, hairstylists, personal trainers, dermatologists, and more. And there’s Fox’s The Swan, where women compete in a massive surgery contest and ultimately go up against one another in a beauty pageant. It seems that the more makeover shows there are, the more surgeons’ phones ring off the hook.
Actress Bette Midler commented that these nip-and-tuck reality programs “assume that you are going to be overjoyed and a happy person if you look okay. You’ll look okay for a while, but eventually gravity will take its toll, once again. And you’ll have to go back under the knife again! So it is best if you make some sort of peace [with yourself] at some point.”
Midler made a broader point about the current culture, noting that “there are so many things happening in the media that are hard to absorb.” No doubt she spoke for a lot of us when she said, “To have seen all of the changes in society that are so severe in such a short time, it really takes your breath away.”
Well, except for the Britney Spears wax figure at Madame Tussauds. Only a power failure can take her breath away.