Swelter

"The need to be famous has become the paradigm of life, and we all want to be part of it. You see this at sporting events, fans waving at the cameras, trying to be seen by their families and friends at home. The camera is the glass wall, and on the other side of the glass is the special anointment of fame, where everything happens. On those exploitative talk shows, people are happy to expose themselves for minor celebrity. If all you have to give is perversity, then you bring that to the camera, or simply come up with something invented. It's a sad, pathetic degeneracy, but the heart of America is an ache.

"Everyone participates in the process of entertainment, although 60 percent of Americans don't vote in political elections. The cultural life of the nation has become the people's political apparatus, a pure New Deal that makes the citizens feel as if they have some sort of power left. Actually, the arc of a celebrity career mirrors Joseph Campbell's stages of a hero: They emerge, sometimes go to the top, and then inevitably fall into eclipse. We nominate the candidates of fame, vote for them with our attentions, and then we're reassured when they fail or succeed. We help them rise or push them down, and when they're humiliated enough, extend our forgiveness. We're both jury and executioner, and all celebrities operate according to a license granted by the public. Charles Barkley's life role, for instance, means that he can get away with things that Michael Jordan can't.

"Some celebrities never understand this power. Burt Reynolds didn't understand his changing life role, and hubris almost destroyed his career -- it'll be interesting to see what happens with his part in Striptease. Dudley Moore is over but doesn't get it, still acts like a big shot when we've counted him out. I saw Eddie Murphy on a talk show the other night, promoting one of his movies, and there was a faint suggestion in his eyes that he knew he'd have to change to come back -- seem more polite and accessible to the public. We made John Travolta a star again after Pulp Fiction partly because he'd always seemed so nice when the trajectory of his career arc went down. The public are the gods who can bring stars back to life, if we choose to.

"The dangerous thing about the power of entertainment is when its values purge everything else, when there is no longer any social or cultural hierarchy. The O.J. Simpson trial becomes the top story every day, and bounced legitimate news off the front page. Interviews with Michael Jackson are bartered, and royal treatment is extended to extremists. Newsweek allowed Timothy McVeigh -- a man charged with killing 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing -- to pick the photographer and writer who covered him, and then they put this hyperrealist portrait on the cover. At that point, the jig is up: The movie of life is truly all that's important, and any kind of celebrity can be transformed into entertainment."

So this, then, is the world Walter Winchell has brought us, this new dawn of gossip, terminal triviality, and debasement before the craven altar of celebrity. It seems to be the fault of one journalist or another, but Gabler believes the power of the press simply needs to be readjusted, to once again become a force of sanity in an insane world.

"The difference between modern journalists and Winchell is that he didn't take any crap: Publicists served him, he didn't serve them. Nobody told him what to do, from presidents on down, and he'd tell anybody to go fuck himself -- which may be a reason why so many people seem to like Howard Stern. Winchell never backed down and he didn't socialize with the people he wrote about, never tried to penetrate to the other side. Now you have columnists like Liz Smith and Suzy, whose entire aim is to support the rich and go to all the right parties.

"Then or now, power always has to reside somewhere, and lately it's with celebrities and publicists, exercising more and more control every day. Even considering Winchell's abuses of his influence, I'd still rather have the power of society in the hands of the journalists.

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