As someone who attends plenty of junkets and the occasional red carpet and movie premiere, I’ve seen the gossip journalists up close and personal. I know some of the people who get the quotes you see on the IMDB news page, or who feed stories to Page Six. I’ve watched insanely aggressive paparazzi in action – even gotten elbowed in the neck by one. Some of these folks are unsavory, to say the least. A group of them commandeer a round table room at almost every junket, and they dominate with horrible, nasty questions. I know one reporter who got stuck with these folks at the Dukes of Hazzard junket last year – he finally stormed out in the middle of their inquisition with Jessica Simpson.
These people get mad when the celebs don’t spill enough for them, and they take what the celebrities do say and twist them and remove them from all context. It’s weird to see a quote with all the meaning stripped away, leaving only some kind of creepy and seemingly awful statement behind that the person never really meant in the first place.
As gross as these “journalists” are (and you know you’re bad when someone like me is using quotes to refer to your journalistic status), they aren’t operating in a vacuum. What makes these quote vultures and these paparazzi able to do what it is that they do is the large segment of the public who buys the magazines, watches the TV shows and visits the web sites that carry this gossip. These consumers are really the top of this gossip food chain, sitting like giant fat slugs having this shit shoveled into their gaping maws all day long. Maybe these people are the problem.
It’s important to define what gossip really is, though. First you have to figure out what really is newsworthy – although, honestly, almost nothing in the entertainment world is newsworthy in the good old Woodward and Bernstein sense. But for the sake of argument let’s put aside real concepts of journalism and accept entertainment journalism as a legitimate thing. Accepting that, and accepting the idea that elements of the personal life are important to an analysis of the artist’s work, I think it’s easier to break down what’s a legitimate news story and what’s horrible gossip.
Dave Chappelle taking off to Africa, abandoning his third season of Chappelle’s Show, is without a doubt a news story. Brad Pitt not liking his new apartment is not. Chappelle’s actions not only affected the production of his show, but the issues behind it certainly will affect his future work –whether it’s how he chooses projects or if it’s the fact that he writes the events into his routines. Chappelle’s from the Richard Pryor school, and Pryor used his own flammability as a punchline, so I don’t doubt that Dave will reference his own life. It’s hard to imagine Brad Pitt taking the experience of not liking his apartment and making significant acting choices based on it.
I have to admit a sort of bias here, by the way. I feel that the private lives of directors and writers are more important than the lives of actors, which is sort of the opposite way that everyone else in the world feels. Unless it’s Woody Allen, but he’s a great example of why I feel the way I do. Deconstructing Harry is a great film even if you don’t know who Woody Allen is. But watching that film with an understanding of the events in Woody’s life at the time gives everything a new level of meaning. Woody denies that his private life is reflected in his films – it’s hard to take that assertion at face value. On the other hand I don’t believe that Lindsey Lohan’s eating habits had much bearing on the final outcome of her Herbie film.
Of course it would be foolish to claim that personal experience has no bearing on an actor’s craft, or even their choice of roles. A great actor will tap into their own life to recreate emotions on the screen, and to people with a genuine interest in the art of performance it’s fascinating to learn more about from where they’re calling these emotions. But I doubt the people clicking over to What Would Tyler Durden Do are cineastes with a serious thirst for an understanding of craft. They’re interested in the tawdry details of people – often barely famous, because they don’t have the publicity machines to keep them out of trouble – being bad.
I suppose I can almost understand a certain fascination with the lives of the truly rich and famous, the mega-stars who dominate our culture. But who cares about the latest American Idol contestant or Jessica Simpson or Kevin Federline? These people are more and more the bread and butter of gossips and it’s getting to the point that you have to wonder how sick and empty your own daily life must be that you can spare even a passing thought for Britney Spears’ ex-husband, who was famous solely for marrying Spears. All of a sudden the 21st century seems intent on disproving Warhol’s famous for fifteen minutes thesis by stretching out the fame of some people to inordinate lengths of time.
Hypocrisy abounds, even with me. Believe it or not. I’m a sucker for newly dug dirt on old-time celebs; tell me your new book dishes out Cary Grant’s gay love life and I may very well plop my money down on the counter. I love the complexities of old Hollywood’s vices. How can I admit to that while decrying the current gossip industry? I can rationalize it, for sure – I don’t think something like Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon (one of my favorite movie books) is looking to tear down these people. In fact it’s using gossip in the opposite direction, to build up a mythology for these people. When someone today buys Star to see celebs without their make-up they want to see their idols destroyed. When I read Anger’s book I want to see my idols elevated to a place like the Greek gods, scheming and fucking and feuding, and doing it all wonderfully and deliciously and with style, wit and grace.
I don’t feel bad for these celebrities whose faces grace every tabloid cover. Sure, it sucks that your coffee guy is ratting you out, but you also have more money and more opportunities than I could imagine. What I feel bad about are the people who are trawling for this dirt, reveling in the squalor of celebrities who they only care about because of gossip. I can understand why Tom Cruise holds a certain fascination for us all as he’s legitimately famous and his actions are often legitimately weird, but I can’t understand why anyone cares who Wilmer Valderrama is fucking (unless he has videos. Prurience trumps all!). It’s sick to watch these quasi-celebs bartering off their private lives for a few more minutes on Access Hollywood, and it’s sick to realize how many Americans are bartering away pieces of their souls to feel just a little bit less like a fame-deprived underclass.