Stories don’t get much more bizarre than the death of croc hunter Steve Irwin at the tail of a stringray. Comments are pouring into Australian papers: 3,000 at current count at News.com.au, who knows how many at The Age.
by Jeff Jarvis
Here’s a post I just put up on CommentIsFree on Cruisey Tom.
The Hollywood movie mogul Sumner Redstone did everything short of calling Tom Cruise nuts.
It’s about time somebody did.
Pity the poor Hollywood star who starts to believe his own PR and has no one near who’ll dare disagree with it. Agents won’t. Studios won’t. Entourages won’t. Families won’t. The media won’t. They all fear banishment from the cool club. They all fear their trains will derail, spilling much gravy.
I’m reminded of the young scion of an incredibly rich and powerful family who was, to be blunt, downright unattractive, yet who was dating beautiful women. It was going to his head, to say the least. So I’m told that a loyal family retainer pulled him to a mirror, shoved his face in front of it and said: “Kid, do you think they’re dating you for your looks?” Slap. Thanks. He needed that.
Imagine if Tom Cruise had had such a friend. Or Michael Jackson. Or Mel Gibson. Maybe somebody could have stopped them before they went over the loony line. But most stars aren’t so blessed. They are surrounded by sycophantic slatherers who would never dare give such blunt advice.
And that includes us. We feed the celebrity ego with endless attention – supposedly unwelcome, but don’t believe that – and bottomless pits of money, all of it echoing in the sublime isolation stars enjoy thanks to the well-fed posses around them.
Of course, stars have always been stars. Since the invention of applause, they have had their wacky moments, their scandals, their falls from grace and fame. But I do wonder whether the problem of celebrities going crackers is worse now the media have spread worldwide and the measures and riches of fame have grown.
At the same time, the value of celebrity to media has skyrocketed. I had a very small supporting role in this. In the 80s, I was a rewrite man at People magazine, toiling over stories fawning over the famous: “Pierce Brosnan is the new Cary Grant!” “Who could be bigger than Mr T?” (Mr who?) People magazine became a giant on a very simple formula: take a top TV show, or movie, or singer; find out what they eat for breakfast to prove that the stars, like us, wake up hungry; take pictures of them in their kitchens (why did they all cook pasta? because all they could do was boil water); slather well; and sell.
But just then, the remote control passed 50% penetration on American couches, and at the same time cable and the VCR invaded US family rooms. We had choice and we took it. In the view of the entertainment industry, we “fragmented”.
At that same time, as it happened, John Lennon was murdered, and American magazines learned a lesson. Before this, the glossies would not put a dead person on the cover: downer, you know. But the Lennon story was so big they had to put it out front. And it was a hit. So death sells. And that was the moment when American editors realised that the event in the star’s life was more valuable than the event in the star’s career. Bodily fluids journalism, as I called it, was all about sex, marriage, babies, scandals, disease and death.
That was also the moment when the stars – and their PR people – realised that they held the key to magazine sales. And so the balance of power shifted. Editors were no longer gatekeepers to valuable audiences; PR staff were now the gatekeepers to valuable stars. Journalism would never be the same.
Neither would the stars. They came to believe they were invincible. They could sell millions of movie tickets and millions of magazines, too. (“They love us, they really love us.”)
And so they were allowed to get nuttier and nuttier before our very eyes. And it still made a good story. How often in the US have we seen Tom Cruise jumping like a loon on Oprah’s couch or grinning maniacally for the cameras? Plus we heard about Cruise and his cult; Jackson and his monkeys and young boys; Gibson and his Jews. They went off deep ends, and no one was there to catch them.
In the press furore that has erupted in Hollywood over Redstone’s outing of Cruise as a candidate for round-the-clock therapy, some – notably a few at the Huffington Post – treated this as politically incorrect sin on the studio’s part. One, Russell Shaw went just a few hundred yards overboard defending Cruise’s freedom of, er, religion:
And just what are the scornable consequences that Scientology has fostered? That car bomb planted by Sunni insurgents in Iraq against innocent Shia? The Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust?
No. However, they are answerable for John Travolta’s irrepressible ego.
But Redstone’s friend and board member, Alan C Greenberg, defended the mogul. “Tom Cruise has gone nuts,” he told the New York Times. “[Redstone] did the right thing. The guy diminished his drawing power.”
And of course, that’s what it is really about: money. The New York Times reported that we like Cruise less. Yes, that’s the other edge of the celeb sword: If we like you, you’re rich; if we don’t like you, you’re nostalgia.
And with fragmentation brought on by cable, satellite, DVDs, DVRs and, of course, the internet, with its You Tubes and My Spaces and podcasts and blogs and niches upon niches, it is harder than ever for a star to be big. Especially when you’re not just acting, but acting nutty.
Ever since the days of Fatty Arbuckle, Hollywood studios have worried about how the personal affairs of their stars would affect their business. The first impulse was always to cover up. But when you couldn’t do that, you ran away.
This morning on Howard Stern, Elijah Blue Allman talked about Scientology since his mom, Cher, dated the young Mr. Cruise and since Sonny Bono was also a Scientologist. Allman said it started as an effort to have a Hollywood version of the Masons: a club with a secret handshake. But clearly, it is more than that. I wonder, though, whether stars will start tiptoeing away if the realize that their “religion” could cost them at the box office.
I would like to think that we have reached the end of our cultural rope with stars acting crazy and all their entourages being afraid to tell them they’re nuts. Tom Cruise. Michael Jackson. Mel Gibson. I’d like to think that, but I doubt it.
: LATER: Nikki Finke gets mad a Paramount for urging the dogs on. I disagree. It’s time for Hollywood to start expecting sanity.
: LATER STILL: The HuffingtonPost continues its surprisingly rousing defense of Scientology.
And just what are the scornable consequences that Scientology has fostered?
That car bomb planted by Sunni insurgents in Iraq against innocent Shia?
The Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust?
The atrocities committed against Christians and animists in the Sudan?
The wars between Hindu and Buddhist in Sri Lanka?
The several decades of religious wars in Northern Ireland?
The mutual bloodshed in Lebanon?
Oh, and was it Scientologists who flew planes into the World Trade Center?