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The Gloss Menagerie

Superficial, glowing interviews are a natural product of a culture that deifies celebrities and a media machine that hungers for access.

November 15, 2000|MIMI AVINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When was the last time you turned on the TV and heard Jay Leno ask his guest, someone like Claire Wellesley, the beautiful, high-strung, talent-free starlet, "Why did you want to do this movie?"

And Claire, after wriggling fetchingly in her chair, replies: "Well, Jay, I hadn't worked in over a year, and the last two films I made were, whew, you know, major turkeys."

Leno, unflappable as usual, tries to change the subject. "Well, I'd guess working with a big star like Bob Barrenger was a thrill."

"You bet," Claire coos. "That is, if you get a charge from not knowing whether production's going to be shut down, because instead of being on the set, Bob is unavoidably detained in the local jail, where the police are explaining to him their definition of statutory rape."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 16, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Interviews--An article Wednesday about celebrity media interviews quoted an "Access Hollywood" host. The comment was not made by show co-host Nancy O'Dell, whose photograph was among those that appeared with the piece.

That conversation is fictitious, but Claire is a real, fake movie star, (or would it be the other way around?) played by Sarah Jessica Parker in "State and Main," a satire that will open next month. The film chronicles the disasters that ensue when a movie company shoots on location in a sleepy Vermont town. Although the film is comic hyperbole, written and directed by David Mamet, who's married more than one actress, perhaps it contains a few grains of truth.

If directors are tactless, producers venal and stars amoral, as "State and Main" hilariously shows, then why are the interviews ubiquitous in print and electronic media--as well as on Web sites--so relentlessly positive? Maybe because what the public wants to hear about Hollywood is lots of happy talk.

Celebrity worship hangs on the belief that Hollywood's best are gods and goddesses who live in harmony on Mt. Olympus (or Malibu). They're all wonderful people blessed with kind souls and natural charm--and many of them surely are. The tradition of supporting that collective fantasy goes back to the fan magazines, which in the early years of motion picture history were virtual cogs in the major studios' publicity machines.

Yet the ease with which such illusions can be maintained exists in inverse proportion to one's distance from L.A. Living here provides many people the opportunity to see stars at Open School Night. Civilians stretch in the same yoga classes, eat at the same restaurants, share the same hairdressers, butchers and doctors as the famous. And if observing actors being themselves weren't a big enough dose of reality, the opportunities for images to be shattered are increased by people working in the entertainment industry who sometimes dine out on stories of closely witnessed celebrity turpitude. When a friend who's a successful set designer reports that one of the year's most adored new ingenues is, "not just a witch, but a dumb witch," the actress' saccharine chat with Larry King becomes a bit more difficult to swallow.

And yet, the inevitable question is asked, on "Entertainment Tonight," "The Today Show," CNN's "Showbiz Daily" and countless other purveyors of infotainment: How was it to work with (fill in the blank) big co-star, legendary producer? The answer is inevitably a glowing exegesis of said famous person's personality, delivered as if it were a very special secret.

Publicist Stan Rosenfield, who counts George Clooney and Robert De Niro as clients, says: "If an actor has worked with someone they didn't like, they'd rather be polite than stick their foot in their mouth. The public doesn't care. They consume what you give them today, and go on to the next."

Even if professionals fulfilling contractual obligations to promote a movie or TV series aren't telling heartwarming tales of how everyone became just like family during production, television hosts help perpetuate the myth. After finishing an interview with an Oscar-winning actress who at one time qualified as America's sweetheart, "Good Morning America" host Charles Gibson couldn't contain himself. "She's so great," he said to Diane Sawyer.

Oh Charlie, Charlie, Charlie. These people are actors! Who knows better how to act sweet? How to appear humble, thoughtful or sincere?

Likability is a more valuable commodity than thoughtfulness. Kurt Andersen, former editor of New York magazine who heads Inside.com, says a lot of what passes for entertainment coverage is inherently insipid. "For a station or paper that needs to fill time or space, it works," he says. "Sometimes, what a lot of the media needs to do is create and shovel content. This is the glossiest version of that."

"A magazine can do a story without access and cooperation," Andersen adds. "Television needs the star on camera, so that, among other things, drives the relative niceness or puffery of TV entertainment coverage." If an interviewer gets a reputation for straying from light conversation, future access to stars may be denied.

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