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Shana Ting Lipton

Shana Ting Lipton

Posted: January 16, 2008 10:47 AM

Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead


Hollywood may have an affinity for youth, but just like in the movies, when one of its sagacious elders decides to speak, oceans part and proverbial ears perk up...especially when said utterance is published in Variety. Several days ago, soon-to-be-90 (that's 630 in Hollywood years) publicist Julian Myers told a Variety reporter that the WGA strike would hasten the end of Hollywood. Playing the part of a sort of Tinseltown Nostradamus, he voiced his fears that the stalemate is a harbinger of ill fates to come in the industry. He may be right. Maybe the writers will come to an agreement with the producers. Maybe we will return to our regularly scheduled programming. But...[cue ominous music and a voiceover by famed film narrator Don LaFontaine], Things will never be the same again.

No one needs a press release to see the writing on the wall. Hollywood -- in the grand monolithic cultural sense -- has been on its deathbed for some time now. Cheaply produced reality TV is experiencing its Golden Age, and the public seems more fascinated by celebrity bungles like Britney and Lindsay's latest antics, than in the mysterious, living-the-dream Hollywood stars of the past.

The old hoopla, hoorah and panache of H'wood, from Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable and Elizabeth Taylor, to Marlon Brandon, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman and beyond was, at its core, about inaccessibility, fantasy and being at the top of the hierarchy. Of course, the aforementioned had talent and made oeuvres that went on to be classics. We see small reminders of these larger-than-life figures today in the form of George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Leonardo Di Caprio and other actors (pronounced ack-torrs) whose very existence -- and many times integrity -- is a nod to the good old days.

But even the amazing craftsmen of the '70s heyday of independent-to-mainstream cinema like Robert Redford, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Jack Nicholson were surrounded by it: the crown and curse of celebrity. This word, once more or less distinct from the terms 'Hollywood' and 'actors' has become inextricably married to it -- for better or worse. And we all know there's nothing that the sensationalism-hungry masses love more than a flashy wedding...except maybe a down and dirty divorce. Celebrity is the magic ingredient that created the monster that is Hollywood today -- much to the chagrin of actors like Sean Penn and Warren Beatty (and of course the notoriety-hating late Greta Garbo). Cult filmmaker Kenneth Anger presciently tapped into a phenomenon that would later explode into an out-of-control epidemic in his classic book Hollywood Babylon, chronicling the lives of the famous and infamous in 1959. To understand how this idea has propagated (leading up to its ultimate downfall) we need to look at our nation's roots. When our settlers left Europe, they left a world of monarchies behind. They dreamed of a better life where everyone had a chance -- not just the privileged few. Fast forward about two centuries, and our culture has essentially mimicked the monarchy in its obsessive adoration of celebrity in the form of Hollywood stars. The irony here is that reality TV -- the great equalizer, the one to democratize our culture of celebrity -- came to us via the homeland, Europe (i.e. shows like Big Brother from The Netherlands, though we had our own wing of this in the '90s spearheaded by MTV's The Real World).

The timing of the reality TV revolution could not have been more appropriate. If our goal was to -- as President Bush has yammered on about -- spread democracy, we succeeded on a low-brow level. We spread Baywatch, Friends, The O.C., NYPD Blue, The Matrix, Spiderman and so on to the rest of the world like a college student spreading v.d. And so, it was time for a gift in return, from a foreign land. The Hollywood Factor had already increased its influence tenfold in our domestic political scene. And its sway over lifestyle was spreading (and continues to do so to date) into frightening territory: take, for example, one kids' party planner in L.A. that offers a 'red carpet arrival' for your spoiled rug rat. Now that's what I call jumping the shark (or in this case, the guppy).

So, entertainment was open to an extreme makeover. And reality television was in the right place at the right time. Today, the market is saturated with low-budget shows of everyday Joes and Janes hamming it up for the camera, eating worms, competing to see who dates a rap star that looks like a pimp, swapping spouses, etc. As the writers' strike continues, reality TV, as the official back-up of the industry, is even more ubiquitous.

I'll never forget growing up in here in L.A. and having a Starline Tours bus stop in front of my house when my dad was watering the front garden. A girl poked her head out the window, camera dangling from her wrist on a chain and asked him, "Are you somebody?" My dad's response: "I sure hope so." Now we have a nation of reality TV survivors who think they are somebody...and I guess if air time is a measure, this is indeed the case. But what happens when everybody becomes famous? In my opinion, the White Noise Effect. Everyone's famous, therefore no one's famous. Fame, celebrity, the Hollywood dream have effectively been neutralized.

Possibly the saddest lab test in the whole reality experiment has been the celebrity reality shows -- following their "private" moves from weight loss to re-hab. They have successfully, as was the case in the classic film The Wizard of Oz, pulled the curtain away from the Wizard with all his reputation, pomp and circumstance, to reveal just a small feeble man, so to speak.

Of course, you may say, look around, everyone's still obsessed with Hollywood and its denizens, don't you have eyes? My answer: just before the fall of Rome, was the Empire not rife with decadence, opulence and debauchery? At least that's what I think I learned from some Tony Curtis movie I watched late one night on TV.

Speaking of saturation, the recent-ish trend of televising every single industry awards show is a bit much. The Oscars and Emmys were fun and entertaining enough. But to be asked to sit through yet more ceremonies replete with of insider back-patting, self-congratulations and tears many times over... You would think these award recipients had cured cancer or were developing new clean fuels to help quell the energy crisis.

Most recently, the first major awards ceremony of the year, the Golden Globes, proceeded lackluster like a press conference, sans writers. Such programming glitches couldn't come at a worse time as the death knell sounds for Hollywood as we have come to know it. Another sign of that double-edged word, democratization? Appropriately, the parting shot might be: a group of so-called common people using rope and brute force to topple a giant Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences statue of "Oscar."

Read more about the strike on the Huffington Post's writers' strike page.

Follow Shana Ting Lipton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hindihollywood