Now it's 15 minutes of shame not fame

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Surviving shame: The idea that in today's media driven world everyone enjoys 15 minutes of fame has mutated in Hollywood to surviving 15 minutes of shame.

 The obvious case in point is that of Mel Gibson, who's now going through the public relations motions of atoning for his recent sins while drunkenly speeding along the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu and then ranting afterwards to the arresting deputy about how "the Jews are responsible for all the world's wars."

 With Gibson's latest epic arriving in theaters Dec. 8 and the need for the actor-director to be able to spearhead its marketing campaign by promoting it with the media, it was a safe bet he'd wind up making some pre-"Apocalypto" apologia rounds and that should do the trick.

 It's an approach that fits with the new concept of "15 minutes of shame" that's surfaced in Hollywood as more and more high profile celebrities have found themselves basking in the unforgiving glow of the media spotlight after misbehaving in public. In this age of the 24 hour news cycle media coverage begins with breaking news and continues to focus on every mini-scrap of news a story generates. The public's become accustomed to seeing stars live through a cycle that goes from confrontation to redemption. A steady diet of tabloid TV shows and weekly celebrity magazines feeds the public's appetite for all the grim details.

 Typically, when stars get into big trouble, it's a stop press news event that's punctuated with a police mug shot displaying the celebrity's face in a way we've never seen it before -- warts and all, no makeup, no flattering lighting, no good-side only, no all's right with the world smile. Almost always there's video coverage at the scene because we're now living in a world of camera phones and video-capable Treos. It's routine today to have this kind of footage wind up almost immediately in the media's hands.

 Moreover, thanks to the Internet the media cycle has evolved into a never-ending loop. Video clips live on for weeks on popular web sites where anyone who missed seeing them on live TV can easily catch up with them and view them over and over again. Unlike traditional television newscasts that have a beginning, middle and end and newspapers that have a press time to deal with, the Internet news cycle is non-stop. It's always being updated and refreshed with new content. What that translates to is unending coverage of a star's arrest, trial, conviction, sentencing, entrance into rehab and return to life under terms of probation.

 The big surprise -- and very good news for Mad Mel, needless to say -- is that bad behavior no longer kills stars' careers the way it did in Hollywood's golden past. Today's public is almost always forgiving and typically grants a new lease on life to misbehaving celebrities who seek redemption. In return for suffering through and surviving what is, in effect, their personal 15 minutes of shame, the public is now willing to forgive and forget -- that is, provided the star in question is likeable. That's why Mel Gibson's disgrace is likely to play itself out in such a way that he will be able to continue making movies for years to come.

 And don't expect to see him apologizing much longer. Gibson's publicist has, in fact, already noted that reporters who want to ask Gibson about the anti-Semitic remarks he made the night he was arrested in Malibu for drunk driving will be given the transcript of the star's conversation with Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America." Pointing out that "everyone wants to talk to him, which is a nice place to be," the publicist was quoted as saying, "anyone who wants to talk to him about issues surrounding his DUI will be referred to ABC for transcripts."

 Hollywood's new textbook approach for getting through 15 minutes of shame is for a star to go on network TV and let his or her hair down. It's all about enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune on the right morning show or late night program and telling the world as sincerely as possible just how really terrible you feel about whatever it is you're supposed to have said or done. Then after sufficiently beating yourself up in public you turn around and point out that you're really a victim. The public loves to be nice to victims.

 In Gibson's case, he told Sawyer that when his controversial "The Passion of the Christ" was awaiting release and almost no one had seen it -- because he wasn't screening it at the time -- he considers that he was unfairly treated by members of the Jewish community who claimed his film was anti-Semitic and could inspire more anti-Semitism.

 "I was subjected to a pretty brutal sort of public beating," Gibson complained to Sawyer. "And during the course of that, I think I probably had my rights violated in many different ways as an American, as an artist, as a Christian, just as a human being&hellipBut the other thing I never heard was one single word of apology."

 As for Gibson's own apologies, it's hard to say whether he's apologizing for drinking or for drinking and driving or for making anti-Semitic remarks or for drinking, driving drunk and making anti-Semitic remarks. But, in the end, it doesn't really matter. The public will forgive him because he's a charming, attractive, personable movie star who can't even take a bad mug shot when he's smashed in the wee hours of the morning and the rest of us would look disgustingly vile. Gibson's likeable and that's what it takes to achieve redemption after 15 minutes of shame. Just ask Hugh Grant, who's even more charming, attractive, personable and likable and had the good sense to do his post-prostitute apologizing across the desk from Jay Leno. What Gibson really needed was for Sawyer to throw him a line like Leno's question to Grant, "What were you thinking?" When the public laughs a little it forgives a lot.

 It wasn't, by the way, always this easy for misbehaving Hollywood stars. In fact, in the past stars' careers were totally destroyed if they strayed too far and became embroiled in scandals that hurt their popularity with moviegoers. When that happened stars were called "boxoffice poison" and that was the last stop on the Hollywood railroad. The classic example of how early stars suffered tragically for real or imagined misdeeds is the case of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

 In 1921 Arbuckle had just signed a three-year deal with Paramount for the then kingly sum of $1 million. To celebrate that deal as well as his having finished making three films (silents, of course) at the same time, Arbuckle and some friends drove from Los Angeles to San Francisco to party at the St. Francis Hotel over Labor Day weekend. Their three day party began Sat., Sept. 3. On Mon., Sept. 5 Arbuckle's life changed forever when a young actress and so-called party girl named Virginia Rappe took ill while partying in his suite and needed to be hospitalized. Three days later she died of peritonitis resulting from a ruptured bladder.

 Arbuckle, who weighed over 250 pounds, was arrested and charged with her murder. He was accused of raping Rappe and crushing her with his own obese body. The case instantly became front page news and was an ongoing banner headline story in the popular Hearst newspapers of the day. Hearst had various reasons to jump on the Arbuckle story and do his best to destroy the star in his newspapers. Much has been written over the years about the Arbuckle case, including a comment from one friend of Arbuckle's, who speculated that, "Hearst was instrumental in wanting the motion picture industry in Northern California (i.e., San Francisco) and instead it settled in Southern California. I think that was part of his motive in crucifying Arbuckle."

 While there may have been some truth to that, Hearst had a better motive -- money. There was a huge increase in circulation that the sensational murder and ensuing trial gave to his papers. Hearst has been quoted as saying that coverage of the Arbuckle scandal "sold more newspapers than any event since the sinking of the Lusitania."

 While that was about 85 years ago, it's still true today -- celebrity scandals increase ratings for today's tabloid TV shows just as they boosted sales for the mass circulation newspapers of the 1920s. Most of the syndicated TV shows owe Gibson a debt of gratitude for kicking up their ratings in early August. Reports at the time said that "Entertainment Tonight" had its best ratings in five weeks then thanks to its coverage of Mel's Meltdown -- stronger than anything since Star Jones Reynolds quit "The View" in late June. Ratings for "Inside Edition," "The Insider" and "Extra" were all up nicely for the week ended Aug. 6 because of their Gibson coverage. On the other hand, "Access Hollywood," which for some reason did less coverage of the Gibson story, saw its ratings decline that week.

 But Arbuckle's fate was very different from anything Gibson's likely to see. For one thing, Gibson's not accused of killing anybody. Arbuckle, who reportedly had been set up to take the blame for Rappe's death, went to trial twice and there were two hung juries. After a third trial he was acquitted and the jury issued a written apology that read, in part, "Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him&hellipthere was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story which we all believe. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and women that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame."

 Unfortunately, the jury's apology couldn't save Arbuckle's movie career. The Arbuckle case had resulted in the appointment of ex-Postmaster General Will Hays as Hollywood's morality czar. The Production Code that the Hays Office devised and administrated was the precursor of today's movie ratings system. Hays made his first major policy decision on Apr. 19, 1922 -- which was to ban Arbuckle from the screen. That, needless to say, ended the comedian's movie career. Unable to appear on the screen, he worked for a time as a director under several pseudonyms (including Will B. Good, a name suggested to him by Buster Keaton, and also as William Goodrich), but Arbuckle's glory days were over and he passed away a few years later.

 Looking back at Hollywood and its scandals of the time, Adela Rogers St. Johns, a star reporter for Hearst's San Francisco Examiner and later a screenwriter and novelist, observed long ago, "Oh, we kept having scandals right along. If you throw into one small town and one small industry the people who can impress the world with their drama, their sex appeal, with their lovemaking, with all of the big emotional dramatic things that can happen, and you put them all together in one little bowl, you're going to have some explosions. I'm only surprised we had so few."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Apr. 20, 1988's column: "Orion's 'Colors,' which made a boxoffice killing last weekend, will expand its run April 29 to 1,200-plus screens, Orion Pictures Distribution president Joel H. Resnick told me.

 "'The opening is all we would hope for,' observed a clearly delighted Resnick. 'The picture has not only been successful at the boxoffice, but (has been cited by) many reviewers as a highly recognized work of art.'

 "Adds Orion executive vice president of marketing Charles O. Glenn: 'We're also enormously pleased that all of the things that might have happened or that certain members of the fourth estate and other people -- members of the police department, the sheriff's department or whatever -- thought might happen with this picture the weekend it opened (did not). There were very, very few if any instances (of gang related violence) and we're very pleased that all the things people thought might happen did not happen?'

 "The film's success -- and its failure to cause bloodshed in theaters, especially in Los Angeles where some officials wanted to ban it -- must be gratifying to Solo, who worked very hard to get the message across through media appearances that 'Colors' does not glorify gangs.

 "'The fact is that until recently no one paid much attention to gangs and gang activity in Los Angeles,' Solo told me? 'Now it seems to be in the forefront of everybody's discussions. Before my film was scheduled to be released (there was) a killing in Westwood a few months ago in a white middleclass neighborhood and suddenly we had a gang problem in Los Angeles. But meanwhile all these gang members for the last number of years have been killing each other -- and a lot of innocent bystanders, as well -- right, left and center. My film is not going to induce them to continue and for the real hard-core gang members it's not going to, in my view, convince them to stop.'"

 Update: "Colors" grossed a very respectable (for 1988) $46.6 million in domestic theaters, making it that year's 21st biggest grossing movie.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com.
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