See no evil, recall no evil

Where there is fame, there is often an overabundance of forgiveness


November 30, 2003|By Christopher Kelly | Christopher Kelly,Knight Ridder / Tribune

The holiday movie season is once again upon us -- and this year, the choices are particularly difficult to make.

So many felons to see, so little time.

There's a family movie starring the guy who was once pulled over while in the company of a transsexual prostitute.

But maybe you'd rather see the horror movie starring the woman who once crashed into another woman's car, then sped away from the scene.

Or maybe the romantic comedy with the Brit who was once arrested for soliciting a hooker in Los Angeles?

Then again, that horror movie also stars everybody's favorite multiple-convicted drug felon -- so I'm leaning toward that one.

It's probably just a coincidence that the perpetrators of some of the most notable celebrity peccadilloes in recent years -- Eddie Murphy (The Haunted Mansion), Halle Berry and Robert Downey Jr. (Gothika), and Hugh Grant (Love Actually) -- would all turn up in theaters in the same month. But it's a coincidence that carries weight.

It's not just that America, more than ever, has become a forgive-and-forget nation. It's that we now prefer not to be told the bad things in the first place -- especially when it comes to our celebrities and their exalted images.

Do people even remember, for instance, that two years before she won the Oscar, Berry was involved in a hit-and-run accident, which resulted in three years' probation and a $13,000 fine? They probably remember the Hugh Grant / Divine Brown incident -- but only because, after Grant's famous damage-control appearance on The Tonight Show, it certified what a lovable, stammering scamp Grant really was.

As for Murphy, people didn't just buy wholesale the absurd argument that he was just giving the 20-year-old transsexual hooker a ride home; they also went ahead and consecrated him as the biggest star of children's movies working today.

Accuse at your own risk

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, right? Well, I'm not seeking to belatedly chide these famous folk for their minor crimes, for which they have already repented.

But the rush to give famous people a free pass is a troublesome trend. Witness the media coverage of the Kobe Bryant rape trial, which has turned into a blame-the-victim free-for-all, complete with the tabloid The Globe naming Bryant's accuser and splashing a photo from her high school prom on the front page.

Who cares if this is precisely the sort of vituperation and humiliation that prevents other rape victims from coming forward? A Globe editor's defense, quoted in the New York Post: "The girl has made an enormous amount of allegations, and we felt it was time to let the public know exactly who she was."

In 2001, Premiere magazine published a detailed account of sexual-harassment charges against Arnold Schwarzenegger. This article didn't cause a ripple in Schwarzenegger's movie career. When the allegations surfaced again in the Los Angeles Times shortly before the California recall election this fall, they again failed to gain traction.

The public has made it clear that it prefers to look upon Schwarzenegger as they always have: an oversized but eminently lovable can-do guy, a hero here to save the world.

Don't trash our idols

Is it simply that Americans are suffering from a case of collective delusion? Well, yes -- but the delusion is willful. We don't care that we're only fooling ourselves, as long as no one thinks about raining on our parade.

CBS' recent decision to cancel The Reagans miniseries was especially bizarre in this regard. The miniseries reportedly portrayed Ronald Reagan as being unsympathetic to people with AIDS, and Nancy Reagan as being controlling -- both shockers, I'm sure, to anyone born after 1988.

But the Reagans -- who, it should be noted, were movie stars long before they ever occupied the White House -- get their free pass, too. Even if it means the rewriting of recent American history.

Sure, there was a modicum of outrage directed toward CBS for canceling the miniseries, but it blew over quickly. And the essential questions remain unanswered: Are the Reagans -- by virtue of their status as American cultural icons -- now beyond reproach?

Letting celebrities so wholly off the hook, I suspect, is merely another extension of the rampant celebrity-mania consuming our nation: the endless hand-wringing over Demi and Ashton's love affair, the quest to be on American Idol or Survivor, the eagerness to peer into the private lives of the Osbournes.

But now we seem to have coupled that mania with a screwy brand of empathy. By holding our celebrities to no standards at all, and by appointing ourselves their defenders, we're doing more than treating famous people with kid gloves. We treat them the way we would want ourselves to be treated -- if we were famous.

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