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TAKE THREE / Three Views of the Southland | PATT MORRISON

Movie Star Justice for All

February 27, 1998|PATT MORRISON

Don't think you're gonna read about those millennial floods in this space. Or about that stand-down in Iraq. No, sirree--not when I've got a real story right here.

Senators Save Stars!

Since Dianne Feinstein and Orrin Hatch forged the Personal Privacy Protection Act, everyone, me included, has taken them to task.

That one-fiftieth of the United States Senate would bother about a federal crime law protecting celebrities who are unhappy at being shot with telephoto lenses, when obscure women and kids are being shot every day with guns, and with no more protection than a paper restraining order--it came across as frivolous.

Clearly, the spin was spinning the wrong way, and Screen Actors Guild President Richard Masur called to try to unspin me, straighten me out.

For one thing, he began, laws that protect people here may not even be on the books in Alabama or Maine, hence the need for uniformity.

The urgency of the Privacy Act was somewhat undercut last week when, under existing laws, two paparazzi who chased and terrified an ailing Arnold and a pregnant Maria--no last names needed--were sentenced to jail by a judge who found their actions "morally wrong." The defense lawyer called it "movie star justice."

Lest you too think it's "movie star justice," Masur wants you to know that the act is for everyone, not just celebs; in this Warholian world of capricious and unsought fame, you may be next. Six weeks ago, who knew from Monica?


The London radio program I provide Americana for each week called me breathlessly for a "special report." It had to be about Iraq; what else was news?

Shows what a poor reporter I am. In headlines big as license-plate letters, with grab-shot photos, a London tabloid hollered exclusively that Nicole Kidman's benign tumor, or maybe it was a cyst, had been removed. Saddam Hussein I was ready for, but I could barely recall who Nicole Kidman was, and her tumor and I were complete strangers.

So she had a tumor, or maybe a cyst. Who cares? Enough people, at least, for that London tabloid to get a return on its investment. That so many people do care enough to spend 50 cents to read all about it speaks less to the significance of Nicole Kidman's life than to the wanting quality of the readers'.

So OK, Mr. Masur. I get it. Talk to me. I'm listening.

The criminal part of the act tiptoes past the sand trap of the 1st Amendment by saying that you can print any story, any picture you can get--you just can't get them by chasing, harassing or imperiling someone. That could get you one to 20 in the federal slam.

The civil part decrees that if you use technology to get intrusive pictures or quotes you couldn't otherwise get without trespassing, you could be sued. Exhibit A is the paparazzo who got onto the roof of a vacant house next door to a famous actress and shot her swimming topless in her pool behind her fences. (Masur wouldn't tell me who it is; maybe if I read the tabloids, I'd know.)

This law essays a new and necessary definition of virtual trespass and privacy. As usual, law lags behind technology, whether it's surrogate parenting, super-zoom lenses or online companies like the one offering a Social Security number, birth date and phone number--a virtual ransacking of an identity--for $1.50.

It's the unexplored consequences that bother me. If this law is for everyone, could news crews be barred from photographing a Coast Guard rescue from a sinking yacht--which is after all private property? What of the campaign-killer photo of Gary Hart in a shipboard cuddle? And what about the Rodney King video, perhaps the most important amateur video since the Zapruder film?


Hollywood would hear less about "dishing it out but not taking it" if it could enforce some manners within its own swaggering, brawling, don't-you-know-who-I-am, take-a-golf-club-to-your-car-if-you-cut-me-off family.

Film shoots around town behave as if the phrase "We're making a movie here" deserves the deference of "We're curing cancer here." The Eagles, a rock group as dated as coke-spoon necklaces, is suing the National Foundation to Protect America's Eagles, claiming it infringes on the band's name and image! You wonder whether even a 400-millimeter lens is big enough to take in so monumental an ego.

Then Masur describes the paparazzi boors at the other end of the lens, who double-team celebs, slick as Fagin's pickpockets. One tags along, insulting whoever the star is with--spouse, parents, kids--taunting, even spitting. At last the star takes a swing, and the second guy takes the picture that sells around the world. They're creating an event, not covering one.

Makes you wish Edison had called in sick the day he invented the kinescope.

Makes you think the happiest man in Hollywood was silent star Lon Chaney, Man of a Thousand Faces--none of them his real one.

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