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Behold, the Capital of Fame

March 25, 2001

"On my signal, unleash fame!" All right, that's not precisely what Russell Crowe says in "Gladiator" before his Roman army vanquishes the barbarians from the north. But it gets to the point of the Oscar ceremony, that irresistible Mardi Gras of the fame industry.

Americans don't have royalty or the patience for prince-watching. So we support a fame industry that creates instant, disposable royalty to build up and tear down. They get rich, and we get to cheer and jeer--like Rome Coliseum crowds, without the free bread.

Tonight, our finely uniformed heroes and heroines enter the arena to compete for a golden statue of a sword-holding man. Alan Greenspan is on location producing another rate cut, so Steve Martin will emcee.

Americans treasure fame. If we could measure tonight's tonnage of this city's GFP (Gross Fame Production), it would exceed all the fame produced by, say, Canada in its entire history.

Tech stocks may tumble, but fame portfolios fly high, thanks to the insatiable hunger for fame fodder of magazines, TV shows, movies and, yes, Los Angeles newspapers. Like other aspects of the 21st century's new economy, the fame industry does not produce any tangible product. But it's lucrative and competitive. And tonight's competition makes Los Angeles the undisputed capital of fame, with plenty of bread on the line.

Competition makes entertainment, as long as you're sitting outside the splatter zone. Eighteen hundred years ago it was leopards versus tigers, lions versus Christians, gladiators versus gladiators. In the 1860s, Easterners took picnic lunches to watch the Battle of Manassas. Tonight, it's "Gladiator" versus everyone else.

It is, however, instructive to remember on this Oscar night just who was responsible for ending the ceaseless gore and meaningless murders that went unrated as entertainment in that older Coliseum, which also needs renovation. It was, in historical fact, another wave of bearded barbarians from the north. They finally conquered Rome and its civilization. The hairy newcomers were appalled at the gore and blood spilled for mere entertainment. As an early reform, the barbarians banned gladiator contests.

Barbarism, like fame, it seems, lies in the eye of the beholder.

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