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In Hollywood, Flattery Is Everything

May 23, 2000

Flattery is the art of strategic praise, as fundamental to human society as chimpanzees' habit of grooming one another in hierarchical order.

And Hollywood is one of the three U.S. capitals of this praise-with-a-reason, according to "You're Too Kind, A Brief History of Flattery," by Richard Stengel (Simon & Shuster, 2000). The others are Washington and New York.

"Even though the more subtle flattery of movie stars is to flatter their minds, the minimum flattery, the entry-level flattery throughout Hollywood has to do with appearance. Even men in Hollywood flatter each other's appearance. "You look good" or "Hey, you look great" has replaced "How are you?" as the universal greeting.

"There is no sense that complimenting someone on their appearance may be gauche or a little bit vulgar, or out of line or even presumptuous. It's not seen as an invasion of space or privacy. In Hollywood, it is merely the price of admission. Every person is a walking billboard presenting himself or herself for admiration.

"Going into last year's Oscars, Dustin Hoffman turned to Joan Rivers, who was interviewing the procession of stars, and said with as much animation as you've ever seen on screen, 'God, you look good!' You look good is so ubiquitous, so common, that you must imbue it with real enthusiasm for it to register. He should have received an Oscar nomination for that one line."

In the book's epilogue, Stengel recommends "How to Flatter Without Getting Caught," including:

"Be specific. Forget one-size-fits-all compliments like 'You're the best!' Better to say, 'I love your first novel, which was only published in New Zealand and is now out of print.' "

And, "Be a little esoteric. . . . Find something out of the way to praise. Don't tell Tom Hanks you liked him in 'Forrest Gump,' but tell him that you admired that tracking shot in the opening scene in 'That Thing You Do!' "

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