Life's Never-Ending Shadow Plays

RICHARD REEVES

July 23, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK — New York. -- Thanks, Warren. Thanks, Demi. With civil war in the Balkans, flood in South Asia, famine in Africa, guns and disease in the streets, with Arabs and Israelis building atomic bombs from kits and old physics texts, it is good to see that life will go on -- and probably be better-looking than ever.

It would be a shame to waste genes as handsome as those of Warren Beatty and Demi Moore. So a weary world turns its lonely eyes to Ms. Moore's life-filled and air-brushed belly on the cover of Vanity Fair and stock photos in the newspapers of the ever-boyish Mr. Beatty, whom some thought too young for paternity.

''What do you think of it?'' people keep asking about the magazine cover of Demi fully nude and fully pregnant. I answer: ''Who are these people? Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, husband of the lady? Why do they keep trying to force themselves on my life?''

He was an actor in ''Bonfire of the Vanities,'' I am told. Not possible. There were no actors in that movie.

Warren Beatty, I know. Perhaps that is because we are the same age. A smart fellow, I think, living what is to me an odd Peter Pan life. But his work is impressive, and now he is to be the father of a child borne by the girl of the moment. It is said they will not marry. All of this may have something to do with the fact that the girl of last moment, Madonna, seemed to describe him as sort of, well, avuncular. Warren has a reputation to uphold -- and a generation, mine.

We are, most of us, interested in these people, the theory goes, because in a changing, mobile society, they, our celebrities, are our neighbors, more real to us than the people next door. Kind of: ''Can you believe it? Julia left Kiefer on the day of the wedding and ran off with Justin.''

I can believe it. We follow these people through sin in the supermarket tabloids to the cleansing confessional of the Betty Ford Clinic and redemption in People magazine. I think this is what it must have been like following the lives of the saints in villages in medieval Europe. These people, our stars, live a complete shadow life on a plane or dimension separate from ordinary life, not unlike wayang kulit, the never-ending shadow plays of Java.

We can participate in the drama, walking in and out of the theater or arena, as the Javanese do, at any hour of the day or night. Our big arena, of course, is television -- 60 Glorious Channels, 60! -- inviting us in as children with the appropriately titled ''Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.'' But the medium is not the essential factor; it could be, for instance, Time magazine.

It was, in fact, Time magazine in a scene in ''The Next Best Thing'' by the Canadian novelist John Ralston Saul. A museum curator searching for religious artifacts in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia comes upon a Thai army lieutenant in the most remote of outposts who says proudly that he keeps in touch with the greater world by reading and rereading every issue of Time.

The lieutenant has a question for the Canadian: ''Why doesn't Mrs. Jackie Kennedy marry Mr. Pierre Trudeau?''

Gossip is not, as some say, a subset of journalism, the black sheep of the business. It is central to my trade, a predictor and check on news and information, reminding us always of ''the real story'' -- the possibility or certainty that there is more than meets the eye in what men and women say about great events and each other.

Gossip, our wayang kulit, more often than not broadcasts the real values and attitudes of the society, but by doing it indirectly allows us officially and publicly to renounce or criticize them -- particularly to our children. As Warren Beatty will soon learn. We are the puppets and the puppet-masters behind the shadows on the screen.

I was in Atlanta not long ago, and a local magazine, laid out proudly in my expensive hotel room, displayed a cover photograph of a local girl made good. She was presiding over a charity affair in the city. It was Marla Maples, who boosted adultery to the fast track. There was a time when the good Christians of Atlanta might have stoned her to death. Instead, she has been condemned to going to charity balls with Donald Trump.

Which is worse? What to tell the children? Of course, our children have their own gossip -- as I have followed Warren's life ++ but care nothing for Demi's -- and it would, as they say, curl our hair or knock off our socks. There are still some things it is better not to know.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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