July 26, 2015

The National Pastime


We as a nation and a culture suffer from a long-standing and, to my mind anyway, absolutely hilarious malignant impulse. We select individuals—sometimes on account of ability or talent, sometimes on account of wealth or physical endowments, and sometimes for no discernable reason at all—build them up, turn them into nationally-recognized and revered celebrities, and allow them to make millions of dollars over the course of several years or decades. Then we gleefully destroy them.

            I’m not exactly sure why this is, but its something we’ve always done. It’s the true national pastime, and may be evidence that the singular driving emotion fueling the entire culture is Schadenfreude. My friend Don reminded me recently that it was the great and unparalleled H. L. Mencken who once said, “Human nature is the enemy of all that is superior.” Not that I consider every celebrity who’s been publicly pilloried and demolished among the truly great by any stretch, but the simple fact they were considered celebrities means the masses looked on them with a certain sense of awe and wonder and envy—and so as something that had to be destroyed.

            Here are just a smattering of well known examples:

            Among silent-era comedians, Fatty Arbuckle may not quite have been on a par with Chaplin or Buster Keaton, but he was close. He was a hugely talented performer who was enormously popular among audiences here and abroad. But in 1921, when a young actress died during a party Arbuckle was hosting at a San Francisco hotel, the rumors began swirling about his involvement with the death, as well as the involvement of a certain Coke bottle. He was arrested and over the course of the next year was put on trial three times for rape and manslaughter. The first two juries were hung, but the third acquitted him of all charges. They even sent Arbuckle a note afterward apologizing for all he’d been put through.

            It didn’t matter that he was innocent. The feeding frenzy and salacious rumors were enough to do the trick. He didn’t work for ten years after his acquittal, and when he finally did start making shorts again, it was a little too late. These days you mention Fatty Arbuckle, nobody remembers his films (quick—name one!), they just think of the Coke bottle story.

            Lionel Atwill had been a big Broadway star before moving to Hollywood in the Twenties. He was a very busy actor, if not exactly a huge star. Still, he was in the gossip columns quite a bit, thanks to his lavish and extravagant lifestyle, his cheating wives and the like. Oh, people loved hearing about his big mansions burning down or being washed into the sea (which happened three times). But the public really got to gnaw on his skull for awhile in 1941 after a drunken and raucous Christmas party at his Hollywood mansion. Following the party rumors started spreading that he’d been showing porn loops. Others claimed it was a full blown orgy, that some participants were underage, and that one woman was raped. Well, despite the lack of evidence he was brought to trial on morals charges, and it was front page news across the country for weeks. An orgy? Porn? Underage girls? Rape? A tiger skin rug? And on Christmas no less? It was a story with absolutely everything the reading public was craving.

            The charges were dropped, but Atwill was convicted of perjury for admittedly lying about who was at the party. He was sentenced to six years probation, but that too, was dropped not long afterward. It didn’t matter—no studio was allowed to hire him thanks to the Hays Office’s unwavering stance on the morally suspect. Broadway wouldn’t have him either, so he spent the last five years of his life making jungle serials for Poverty Row studios—the last refuge in those days for actors and directors who’d been banished from Hollywood for whatever reason.

            Oh, it just rolls on and on. John Garfield was the biggest star in Hollywood until HUAC came to town. Pee-Wee Herman was riding high until he decided to spend an afternoon in a theater watching straight adult porn. Tiger Woods’ career was over after his wife went after his car with a golf club. Gary Hart’s meteoric run for the White House burned up when he started acting a little too much like JFK. Mel Gibson got drunk and (at least according to some star-struck cop’s transcription) began quoting one of Celine’s more notorious pamphlets. Jimmy Swaggart was demolished after he was caught doing something his cousin would’ve considered dull child’s play. Michael Richards was done for after responding in kind to a heckler. Oh, and how much fun we all had watching OJ take the big fall even if he was acquitted, right? After decades as the winningest coach in college football history, Joe Paterno had every trophy, every success he’d ever known stripped away from him so he could die in shame for something one of his longtime associates had done. After a swell and popular documentary came out about him, the guy who played Elmo on Sesame Street found himself unhireable after a handful of people made accusations about how much he really, really liked kids. And I’m not even going to get into what was done to Orson Welles, who was accused of nothing apart from being a visionary genius.

            It’s an endless list, really. And now add to it Bill Cosby, Brian Williams, and the spokesman for the Subway franchise.

            All it took in the case of Bill Cosby, despite years of rumors, was one woman to come forward and accuse him of drugging and raping her and that was that. There have as yet been no formal charges, and no convictions. Long before the release of that earlier sworn testimony it was already over for him. A single accuser and suddenly nothing he had ever done could ever be considered funny again. Not his Noah routine, not his Weird Harold bit, and not even his Chicken Heart story.

            I’m not saying anything at all here about anyone’s guilt or innocence. That’s not the issue and not what’s at play. I’m just fascinated by the whole process. As it all unravels and the celebrity in question is ground up in the gears of the media and the rumor mongers, the masses are drooling and snickering and rubbing their hands together, praying for that next naughty tidbit they can splash around their little social networks.

            So do we really prop people up just so we can kick the stool out from beneath them? Or do we simply make bad choices when it comes to selecting the people we decide to celebritize? Or on the other hand does the mere fact of becoming a celebrity fill these people with a sense of invulnerability that allows them to do all these things that they’d never consider doing otherwise?

            Here’s the weird thing. Other celebrities can do all these same things, and it’s taken in stride. Nobody bats a fucking eye. Time was the discovery of a sex tape would’ve spelled the end of everything, but now they’re produced professionally as a marketing tool. Some celebrities can do stints in prison, they can shoot people, run them over with cars, swing at cops, sell heroin to nuns, stomp on baby rabbits for fun, and the masses encourage them and give them more money and the job offers stack up.

            We only seem to target celebrities for public annihilation and castration if they’re considered beloved in one way or another. It seems as if someone comes off as charming, smart, funny, honest, and humble—in short, better than us in every way—we immediately begin aching to see them revealed to be as craven and deeply rotten as we are. And we are so desperate to see this proven in as public an arena as possible that the slightest hint, the vaguest of unsubstantiated rumors will do it. That’s all the ammo we need. As for those others who can get away with the same baby-raping shenanigans, well, we already know they’re vile, so who cares? What they’re doing is simply part of the show.

            (Though I must admit seeing Nixon go down was pretty satisfying. He was a brilliant and fascinating rat bastard.)

            So anyway, here’s what I’m thinking. This is my ingenious money-making scheme of the week, and another one on which I’ll never follow through.

            There are plenty of celebrity dead pools out there, where people toss in some money and guess which well-known figures are going to die in the coming year. It’s never that hard to come up with a viable list, right? Just look for people who are in their eighties or nineties, or those who’ve been diagnosed with some dread disease, or the obese or known drug addicts, and already you have hundreds to choose from. I mean, how can Zsa-Zsa Gabor and Abe Vigoda and Billy Graham still be alive, right?

            But my idea is much trickier and much more fun. Why not have people draw up lists not of who might die, but who will have their lives and careers completely obliterated by the media as a result of some as yet unrevealed scandal? The more endearing and beloved the celebrity, the more points they’re worth.

            The advantage over the standard dead pools is that in those cases you can’t exactly track down Abe Vigoda and kill him in order to earn a few points. I mean, you could, right? but that’s cheating, and you might well end up in jail if you’re not smart about it. But in the case of the Career Destroying Scandal Pool, you have every right and privilege to get out there on Twitter or some message board and anonymously claim one of the kids from the Harry Potter movies raped your pot-bellied pig. Then you can just sit back and watch all the other accusations roll in. What could be more American?


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