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Switch and Bait

A gossipy case against Hollywood celebrity.

By 5.20.04

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In review: Hollywood, Interrupted: Insanity Chic in Babylon -- The Case Against Celebrity by Andrew Breitbart and Mark Ebner (John Wiley & Sons, 394 pages, $27.95)

TITILLATION GOES DOWN BETTER when you can claim you're actually bettering yourself by wading in the muck. In the days when independent producers evaded censorship by showing exploitation movies in tents at the outskirts of town, they learned to sell sex by claiming to educate us about its dangers. Even mainstream movies sometimes began with a printed message testifying to their social worth, before moving on to all the kissing or shooting the audiences actually came to see. I guess you could call it a bait and switch, but if so it's an unusual kind: The viewer feels cheated if the switch doesn't come.

The trouble with Hollywood, Interrupted, Andrew Breitbart and Mark Ebner's "case against celebrity," is that it keeps giving us the bait when we're ready for the switch. The point of the book, I gather, is to give us as many tales as possible of celebrities and their hangers-on engaging in behavior that is criminal, or so irresponsible that it seems criminal, or so bizarre that it seems irresponsible, or so bohemian that it seems bizarre. It's filled with stories that make Hollywood look bad or weird; it's red meat for the red states. (The introduction identifies Breitbart as a conservative and Ebner as a "bleeding heart," but aside from a three-page segment on some slippery televangelists their targets come from the Republican playbook.) That much might make for an entertaining read, but the authors feel compelled to preach to us while they're telling these tales, as though they don't trust the material to make their points for them.

The result isn't just overkill. It's overreach. It's one thing to pass along a Hollywood nanny's allegation that an unidentified director-producer has some spoiled kids: "Every time the four-year-old would have any kind of problem -- she'd hurt herself, done badly in school, or gotten into a fight -- her mother would immediately give the kid a candy, or ice cream, or Popsicle." It's a bit much, though, to follow that up with the breathless revelation that sugar is "a substance one nitrogen atom away from cocaine." (They're trying to make sugar sound dangerous, but the actual effect is to make cocaine sound harmless.) Similarly, it's one thing to note that Roman Polanski sexually assaulted an underage girl. It's a stretch then to complain about the fact that he won an Oscar for The Pianist. (The authors have evidently confused the Best Director award with Humanitarian of the Year.)

This might not be as severe a problem for the general reader as it is for the reviewer. The American Spectator paid me to read every word of this book, whereas the rest of you can simply skim past the lectures and dive directly into the dirt. And there is a fair amount of dirt here. Breitbart and Ebner warn us that entertainment journalism has been neutered by its need for celebrity access; this book, they promise, will dish out the seamy stuff no one dares to write.

The theory that no one else will publish unflattering articles about celebrities is belied by the book's endnotes, a long litany of clippings from the mainstream press. But the authors do engage in some reporting of their own, though I don't care for their usual modus operandi: to find a single source (often anonymous) and completely embrace her point of view. Corroboration is not among the book's strong points.

Frequently we encounter another sort of bait and switch. In one chapter, one of the authors visits a semi-legal sex club and describes the debauchery on display. He tells us that the clients include "b-actors" and "Hollywood writers doing 'research,'" and "'old Hollywood' dinosaurs," but the closest he comes to naming names is "Hugh Hefner's personal physician." Either he's got feet as cold as those of any other entertainment journalist, or the actors, writers, and dinosaurs weren't even quasi-celebrities and we're just reading about the antics of sexed-up rich people who happen to live in Los Angeles.

THE STRANGEST SEGMENT is surely the section that promises to shed new light on the "sexual perversities" and "indiscretions unparalleled" of Michael Jackson. It opens with a long, purple stream of prose about their source: a detective cum gay porn actor named Paul Barresi, most famous for recanting his claims to have carried on a homosexual affair with John Travolta. By the time you're done reading Barresi's résumé, you might wonder just how reliable a source he is; the problem gets worse later on, when he's described doing something that sure sounds like suborning perjury. His tale of his interactions with the Michael Jackson machine are transparently self-serving, and the authors don't do their credibility any favors when they endorse his explanation for why he dropped a suit against the Jackson camp: "The only document of defense...made him look like a smarmy blackmailer." Maybe, just maybe, he is a smarmy blackmailer.

But the oddest thing about the chapter is that Breitbart and Ebner don't seem to recognize the implications of the story their source has told them. Barresi offers his take on the revelation two years ago that Michael Jackson had hired a gay porn director, Marc Schaffel, to helm the video for his song "What More Can I Give." By Barresi's account, Jackson was unaware of Schaffel's history, and Schaffel was plotting to plant kiddie porn on Jackson's estate in order to blackmail the singer. In other words, if Barresi's story is true, it makes Jackson look like an innocent victim. The worst you can say about him is that his handlers didn't pay off Barresi after they promised to. This is a celebrity scandal?

At other times the authors seem to realize that the story they're pursuing isn't panning out, but they stick it in the tome anyway. They pass along, for example, the well-established fact that the man who wrote the mediocre comedy Keeping the Faith has a history as a plagiarist. They tell us there are rumors that he plagiarized Keeping the Faith as well. They call him. He says he didn't plagiarize it. And then it all kinda peters out. Why is this even in the book?

Hollywood, Interrupted does include some interesting new vignettes, of which the most entertaining is the tale of some C-list celebs involved in a scam to sell frying pans. But it's most convincing when it's telling us stuff we already know: that Courtney Love is a bully, that Barbra Streisand is an airhead, that Scientology is creepy, that Hollywood liberals can be sanctimonious hypocrites. And its earnestness is a terrible bore: It's always insisting that there's more to the book than gossip, that there's a thesis here, dammit, even if it's hard to say just what that thesis is. That celebrities can be crazy? That Hollywood is Babylon? That it's OK to obsess about famous people if you say you're criticizing them? It's a gossip book, people. Let's have a little perspective.

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