Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Commentary

When Juicy Gossip Got a New Meaning

Ten years ago, O.J. Simpson made infamy culturally respectable.

June 09, 2004|Patt Morrison | This is Patt Morrison's first weekly column for the Commentary page. Her e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com.

For five or six quite untroubled years, the memory of it didn't even wipe its feet on the welcome mat to my brain.

And then, I went to the movies. To "Shrek II."

Who knew? Who even suspected that a kiddie film would unscrew the lid and bring it all splattering back?

If you haven't seen "Shrek II," this is the moment: Shrek the genial green ogre is fleeing the Far Far Away police. As he's making his getaway on a snowy steed, the police radio gabbles: We're in pursuit of a white bronco heading north....

Ten years after the gore, the glove and the creepily triumphal Bronco chase, the Dancing Itos and the Katos with two legs and four, it turns out the O.J. Simpson matter never did go away, and I was nuts to believe it had. It seeped into the culture, saturated it and stank it up like spilled blood soaking in between paving stones.

We joined the O.J. Simpson cult, and we'd do it again in a minute. Heck, we are doing it again. Just ask me anything about Scott Peterson.

The murders on June 12, 1994, sent us on a costly celebrity bender -- by one estimate, $40 billion in hours lost to coffee-break commentary and Watchman desktop broadcasts. Nancy Reagan was evidently so enthralled by the case that she dined with gossipista Dominick Dunne to get all the details; plunged in her private miseries, she could be forgiven for enjoying the distraction of someone else's public ones.

"It really was a kind of madness for a while, wasn't it?" marvels Leo Braudy, a USC professor who has written about fame all the way back to Alexander the Great. The best part was, you didn't have to pretend you weren't engrossed. This wasn't gossip. This was Haute Culture. It costumed itself as sociological profundities about race, crime and celebrity and went slumming in the best mags and rags, a fit topic for the salon and not just the saloon.

If Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman still breathed, O.J. Simpson would inhabit a "Hollywood Squares" reality, an after-dinner speaker at sodden, nostalgic sports banquets and a second-stringer at celebrity golf tourneys. Instead, the non-murderer, wink-wink, the man who drew a happy face in the O of the "O.J." he signed on his suicide note, now sells his autograph. He is politely asked how his own freeway pursuit compared with the televised convoy bearing disputed presidential election ballots to Tallahassee.

In 10 years, Simpson the non-murderer has had more classroom exposure than Simpson the USC student ever did, fleshing out what Braudy calls the penumbra of his own cultural shadow. A Penn State philosophy lecturer's essay argued that "Forrest Gump" and O.J. Simpson mark the death of the age of reason. Simpson's name appears with Tolstoy's "The Kreutzer Sonata" and semiotics in an Amsterdam academic program. He figured with Marx and Engels on a Pomona College reading list. Journals like Psychological Science, with circulations not much bigger than the Simpson jury pool, used the case as a petri dish of human nature. Someone got a book deal "channeling" Joseph Conrad, cutting and pasting quotes from Conrad's works into a commentary on O.J.

I drove back to chez O.J. this week. His house has been razed, and a new one stands on its footprint. The curb bears a different house number, just as the Reagans had their Bel-Air street address changed from the satanic 666 to 668.

Those aren't two names I would otherwise put together, Reagan and Simpson. The saddest thing I heard this week was from someone else who did, Anne Clar, a 59-year-old Bel-Air woman. Ten years ago, she said, she'd gone to the overpass where Sunset Boulevard meets the 405 to watch O.J.'s white Bronco roll by. She felt she had to do the same for Ronald Reagan's hearse. "This," she said, "is a famous corner now."

We were Simpson's conspirators. He did or didn't leave two hacked-up bodies. But he did escort us into a culture where fame and infamy are so conflated that you can't slip a stiletto blade between them. So Charles Lindbergh, family man, is Charles Manson, family man. Teddy Roosevelt, environmentalist, is Ted Kaczynski, environmentalist. And National Public Radio is the National Enquirer.

At another trial of the century -- a hearing, actually -- someone finally had the guts to demand of the inquisitor who had made his name by turning associations into infamy, "Have you no sense of decency, sir?"

The answer was the same 50 years ago, at the Army-McCarthy hearings, as it is now. No -- there's no percentage in it.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|