Is Celebrity Culture That Bad?

Hosted by

I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business this week.

Two seemingly unrelated events have been rattling around in my brain since last week.

First, consummate Hollywood public relations man Warren Cowan died last Thursday at the age of 87. He'd been in the business since 1945 representing stars like Frank Sinatra and Audrey Hepburn. His obits were filled with words like "dignity," "honesty," "credibility" and "trust," terms not often associated with Hollywood PR people these days.

Those words were noticeably absent in press clippings noting the resignation of tabloid queen Bonnie Fuller as editorial director of American Media, Inc., the proud publisher of the Star gossip rag. Fuller is largely credited with turbo-charging the current celebrity craze in her previous job as the editor of Us Weekly.

My first reaction to the juxtaposition of these two news bites was to bemoan the civil relationship that used to exist between Hollywood, the press and the public. Warren Cowan personified that relationship: he was a dignified man who represented dignified celebrities with…well dignity. Bonnie Fuller, on the other hand, has become synonymous with our coarse, celebrity-obsessed culture…a culture that seems to place as much importance on Britney's custody battle as the war in Iraq.

But then I began to wonder if I was being nostalgic for a time that never was. Back in the day, the press largely cooperated with whatever malarkey the studios were spewing. Joan Crawford was the mother of a happy brood of adopted children. Yeah, right.

Now we know all too much about celebrities, but it wasn't Bonnie Fuller who made it that way; it was the rise of the Internet and the digital camera. Bonnie Fuller was just smart enough to capitalize on the emergence of super fast communication.

I can't stop thinking about how ugly it would have been if modern technology had been around in the 50's. What if someone had used their cell phone camera to catch Rock Hudson in gay flagrante delicto and posted the pictures on their website? It would have destroyed him personally and professionally; now, detailed coverage of shocking celebrity behavior is mostly monologue fodder for Leno and Letterman…and that's about it. We loved seeing Robert Downey, Jr.'s mug shots after a hooker- and coke-crazed escapade. But we're even happier seeing him clean and sober and starring in Iron Man. For God's sake, Mel Gibson is still working in Hollywood.

Not to take away anything from Warren Cowan, but PR was a simpler job when he started out in the business. Although I would never defend the behavior of many modern Hollywood flacks – I'm talking everything from syrupy sycophancy to bald-faces lies – they're placed in an increasingly untenable position in the Internet age. They either insist on going too far in controlling a story, or are forced into a defensive posture where denial and obfuscation are the safest bets.

Have we gone nuts with our celebrity obsession? Yes. Have our stalking proxies – the paparazzi –– gone too far? No doubt. But are things worse than they used to be? In some ways. And in some ways, maybe not.

Speaking of Robert Downey, Jr. and Iron Man, box office for the first summer blockbuster seemed unaffected by the roll-out of the most successful video game ever. In a previous edition of The Business Brief, I noted that Hollywood was worried that the predicted $400 million Grand Theft Auto IV would bring in in it's opening week would take some of the action for summer's action flicks. Well, it made $500 million but even though it came out just a few days later, Iron Man grossed $100 million in the US. having said that, it's worth nothing that Speed Racer – which came out the following week, did a paltry $19 million domestically. Both movies are based on an animated characters, but Iron Man looked like a movie while Speed Racer looked a lot like a video game. Did gamers – both movies' target demo – avoid the movie/game hybrid? I'm just sayin'.

For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman and that's The Business Brief.



Matt Holzman