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Los Angeles Times Interview

David Brown

On the Nature of Celebrity: Past, Present and Premature

March 23, 1997|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is vice president and director of Hajjar and Partners New Media Lab

On Monday, the world tunes into Hollywood for the premiere rite of celebrity worship--the annual Academy Awards. A small legion of the ultrafaithful have already staked out positions in the gallery overlooking the entrance to the awards, happy to spend a night in the bleachers for a chance to catch a glimpse of their favorite stars in the flesh. The rest of us try to figure out how to win the office Oscar pool, while hairdressers stress over too many tresses, and every limo in town is booked and polished.

The Academy Awards are only the classiest and showiest symbol of a global passion for celebrities that seems to increase like an overheated stock exchange as we move deeper into our media-driven culture. But the adoration of our own kind is nothing new. It's wired into our common DNA, closely associated with our human nature to be curious and inquisitive, and part of our uncommon ability to fantasize about ourselves.

From tribal chieftain to supermodel, we have showered an elite with attention and bathed them in riches. We call them stars, and just like in the heavens, there are many kinds--sports heroes, business tycoons, political leaders, writers and artists, TV talk-show hosts and fitness gurus. Within this celestial universe we reserve a special place for movie stars. They are the corn on Hollywood's cob, and the care and feeding of these special celebrities occupies much of the time of those in the business of making motion pictures.

David Brown has spent his life among the stars. As a producer, with partner Richard D. Zanuck, of such films as "Jaws," "The Sting," "The Verdict" and "The Player," he's observed at close hand many of the screen's biggest celebrities. His films have won bundles of Oscars and, in 1990, he received the academy's highest honor, the Irving Thalberg award.

Brown had plenty of experience with celebrity as a journalist before coming to Hollywood to work for Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, in the early 1950s. And together with his third wife, former Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, he counts among his friends some of the greatest names in literature, art, music and politics. Now 80, Brown says he's as busy as he's been in 30 years, and is currently developing a new film, "Deep Impact," to be executive-produced by Steven Spielberg (he and Zanuck produced Spielberg's first feature, "Sugarland Express"). In an interview at the Bel Air Hotel, he recalled with joy trying to make Eddie Cantor laugh; standing in line at the draft board behind Frank Sinatra and introducing Carl Sandburg to Marilyn Monroe.

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Question: Can you tell me about some of the first celebrities you ever met, and how you felt about meeting them?

Answer: I suppose the first was Herbert Hoover. I have in my home a photograph of [Boy Scout] Troop 21 with President Hoover. That was in 1931, and I was 15. I also saw Charles Lindbergh take off on his transatlantic flight to Europe, though I didn't meet him. But once I became a journalist, I met many, many celebrities. There was the notorious gangster Frank Costello, whom I once had lunch with. I wrote comedy for a time for Eddie Cantor--he was a real star. Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, Al Jolson--I was lucky enough to meet all these and more.

I took the liberty today of looking up celebrity in the dictionary. It says, "Celebrity. The state of being celebrated, a celebrated person." Well, that doesn't quite do it for someone like Frank Costello, but I take the broader view.

When I came to Hollywood, the first celebrity I met was the man who hired me, Darryl F. Zanuck. Marilyn Monroe sat in my lap in the Administration Building at 20th Century Fox. I remember my wife and I taking Joan Crawford to dinner at the 21 Club, and it was like a scene from "Hello, Dolly"--they knew exactly what she drank, where she would like to sit. It was wonderful. And we also took Mae West to dinner at a restaurant called Le Seine. She came with her trainer--perhaps we should put that in quotes. I remember when we got up to leave, the entire restaurant stood up and gave an ovation, having never bothered us at all during dinner.

There is a difference between stardom and being a star. Stardom is temporal--one's stardom can rise and fall. Being a star is forever. Joan Crawford was a star, as was Marilyn Monroe. The essence of the star is to twinkle and, in fact, my wife calls those with stardom "twinkies." My wife, Helen Gurley Brown, is a star, but she doesn't know it. Or maybe she does. She keeps two sets of books.

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