It has been nearly a half-century since American film critic Pauline Kael wrote that celebrity in the modern world provided its own raison d’etre.
It didn’t matter why you were famous or if you deserved to be famous, she said, but just that you were famous.
American Notes: confessional celebrity culture running wild
Lately, I have been thinking of Kael’s prophetic observation in the wake of sensational celebrity news and confessionals that have recently swept American shores across the entire range of American culture.
In the political arena, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards admitted that while campaigning in the primaries he fathered a love child with a groupie, a wannabe filmmaker who once panted next to novelist Jay McInerney. Last year New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was forced to resign after being named as a customer of a prostitution ring. His successor David Paterson felt immediately obliged to announce that both he and his wife had indulged in extra-marital affairs, dalliances that he took pains to assure were all in the past.
In the sports world, Tiger Woods, once hailed as the world’s greatest golfer, role model and family man, turned out to have led a double life as a sexual predator with a myriad mistresses, all of whom are now apparently willing to come out in public to sell their stories. In baseball, as his price for re-entering the major leagues as a batting coach, slugger Mark McGwire admitted that he used illegal performance-enhancing steroids while breaking the hallowed single-season home run records. He even cried in public, moaning about his “mistake” in using the drugs and wishing that there had been drug testing when he played in the 1990s.
The culture of celebrity is not a new phenomenon in world history and has always had its critics. As the brilliant young writer-activist Johann Hari pointed out last fall in the U.K.’s Independent, St. Paul in his letters to the Corinthians complained that “people only became Christian martyrs nowadays ‘to obtain a corruptible crown’ of celebrity.” Hari adds that the queen in one of Chaucer’s 14th century verses speaks disdainfully of unworthy people who seek “the good fame you don’t deserve.”
The twist in America today is the rise of the celebrity confessional. To be famous evidently requires participation in a cycle of fame, disgrace, and return to grace. The obligatory penance is best delivered on the couch of Oprah Winfrey’s highly rated television talk show. By the way, Oprah recently announced that she is ending her TV talk show on its 25th anniversary next year but not to worry – she will soon re-appear on a new television enterprise, modestly named OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network.)
Woe to the celebrity who doesn’t want to play this game. In the recent obituaries of the famously reclusive writer J.D. Salinger, who after the publication in 1951 of his first novel about youth disaffection, The Catcher In The Rye, continued to write but stopped publishing entirely after 1965, there was incredulity that he had turned his back on fame.
Shortly before she died in 2001, in her last interview Pauline Kael, who contributed so much to supporting new points of view in film and film criticism, lamented, “All that time I was promoting trash culture I never imagined it would become the only culture we have.”
Lee Lowenfish, author of the award-winning biography Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman, frequently comments on American sports and culture for ONE.