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Celebrity washouts

In the wake of the school shooting in Colorado, it seems every showbiz personality in America is being brought before the cameras to testify about violence and the mass media. Here we go again, you say. Still, interesting things are being said by some surprising sources.

On "Larry King Live," for example, who should appear but Sally Jesse Raphael? She made the salient point that kids can’t be left alone with the poison in popular culture and then went on to dis her rival talk show purveyor, Jerry Springer, for his considerable contribution to the toxic waste dump.

Going after Springer is like shooting fish in a barrel. It is inexcusable for a man who used to be a prominent civil rights activist to invite hapless yobs from the underclass to make asses of themselves on national television. You can tell the guests are baited and that, intoxicated by the glare of the lights and the audience’s rabble-rousing chants, they ham it up for the camera.

And that, I think, is what makes Springer particularly dangerous. Andy Warhol said that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. Indeed. The proliferation of media outlets has made fame more democratic. It has also made it more fleeting. And why wouldn’t everyone want to be famous when the alternative is anonymity in a society that is horribly dysfunctional and searching for spiritual succor in all kinds of dubious places, including celebrity? What Springer is exploiting is the public’s dread of anonymity. To be seen is to exist. Without the camera’s caress, the soul withers.

The tension between the desire for fame and the dangers of fame finds its loudest voice on E!’s "True Hollywood Stories." Interestingly, the show does not focus on major stars who enjoy a stability of fame that comes from being at the top of the Hollywood food chain. Rather, we visit the lives of minor celebrities, unfortunate lives at that.

Consider the profile of Ray Combs, erstwhile host of "Family Feud," who finally ended his life in the closet of a mental hospital. The show opens with its trademark stinger, underscored by dark, brooding music. Then we are whisked to someplace in Ohio where young Ray lives in bucolic splendor in the bosom of a big, loving, Midwestern family. The proverbial class clown, he eventually tries his luck at one of the local comedy clubs. He discovers his calling and before long he’s in Los Angeles paying his dues and rubbing shoulders with guys who have already made it.

And Ray makes it too, for a while. The producers of "Family Feud" came calling after they’d run out of patience with Richard Dawson, shown in a stock cutaway, nursing a drink and a smoke. Dawson, the cad, obviously didn’t give a fuck. Clearly now was the hour of opportunity for our eager all-American kid.

Alas, it wasn’t long before Ray’s ratings started to take a dive. Meanwhile, a comedy club he had opened in Cincinnati bled a sea of red ink. His marriage went on the skids. Then one day while out driving, Combs was in an ugly accident. Now he had to worry about his health as well as his career. What was once a sunny dream of fame ascendant was becoming a nightmare of fame receding.

As we move closer to that fateful moment in the closet, it becomes quite apparent that the show is up to something other than Ray Combs’ tawdry checkout. Hollywood knows that audiences are wise to how the industry goes about making its product. In fact, shows such as "Entertainment Tonight" invite audiences to revel in the artificiality of the process. This in turn inspires a false sense of savvy among viewers. But it does the job of deflecting any criticism about the industry by playing up the glamour of the industry. Who can resist being taken backstage for exclusive glimpses at how the wizards run Oz?

E!’s "True Hollywood Stories" also functions as effective propaganda by suggesting that, although there are individual cases of tragedy and failure in Hollywood, fame is still worth having. The dream is not suspect; rather it is the dreamer who either didn’t have what it takes or didn’t get the lucky breaks. Ray Combs’ nobility, it is implied, lies in the fact that he stuck with the program right to the bitter end. Instead of retreating back to Ohio to lick his wounds in anonymity, he kept trying to rebuild his career, even when he was forced to shill on a shopping network.

Far more problematic are episodes like the one detailing the murder of Dominique Dunne, daughter of Dominick Dunne, at the hands of a stalker boyfriend. Watching the elder Dunne fume and stew about the fate of his daughter and the lenient sentencing of her attacker, one has a hard time seeing any benefit of fame or of the LA lifestyle that attracts countless thousands of youths from across the country.

When the infamous clip of Dunne’s stunned reaction to the not guilty verdict in the Simpson trail appeared, I was reminded of Karl Marx’s maxim: first time tragedy, second time farce. But such is the price for wishing upon a star in a dead sky.

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