You Don't Say.

Steve Buscemi (with Sienna Miller) directs and stars in
Steve Buscemi (with Sienna Miller) directs and stars in "Interview," a new film that improbably portrays a process that's heavily controlled by marketers. (By Jojo Whilden -- Sony Pictures Classics)

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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 5, 2007

Lindsay Lohan sends an e-mail to "Access Hollywood's" Billy Bush saying that the drugs weren't hers.

Esquire magazine publishes a 5,282-word story anointing Angelina Jolie "the best woman in the world."

Madonna is spotted on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on July 30 at 11 a.m., and the sighting is instantly reported on the cyber-tipsheet Gawker Stalker.

Chris Tucker appears on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," where he happens to do a killer Bill Clinton impression.

Zach Braff blogs about his career ("I am not leaving 'Scrubs'!") and stuff he likes ("Knocked Up = hilarious"). Oh, and "please go see 'The Ex' this weekend."

The Celebrity Interview is in a crisis. On the one hand, it has become a calcified artifact, a stale, airless ritual of the entertainment-industrial complex. A celebrity, on the hustings for a new movie or record or television show, sits on a couch or wafts into a restaurant to lunch with a writer, and for the delectation of the viewing and reading audience says something utterly surprising and revealing about the state of her inner soul.

Or she dispenses with the middlemen altogether, choosing instead to blog in her bathrobe or make a docu-reality show about her crazy marriage, thus refracting the traditional narrative into a series of unilateral pings on our BlackBerrys and TiVos. Between the tired tropes of Old Media and the hit-and-run scandals of the police blotters and blogs, is it time to put a fork in the Celebrity Interview or resuscitate it?

Consider "Interview," a movie that opens in Washington Friday: Steve Buscemi stars as a jaded newspaper reporter sent to interview an airhead starlet played by Sienna Miller. Buscemi also directed the film, an adaptation of a movie by the late Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, which takes on most of the conventions of the celebrity interview, and its exhaustion as a journalistic form. One scene in particular resonates with Buscemi, who was in town recently for his own round of celebrity interviews. His character asks a rote question -- "Have you always been interested in acting?" -- and Miller begins banging her head on the counter. Buscemi could relate. "On any given day I don't mind talking about that," he says softly, "but sometimes I feel like I've covered that ground so much, I just don't know what else to offer."

In its portrayal of a writer spending several hours with his subject -- in the starlet's football-field-size loft, with alcohol and drugs present, but no publicist -- "Interview" seems outlandishly improbable. Not just improbable but almost quaint in its depiction of an enterprise that has become controlled with militaristic precision by marketeers on the one hand, and subverted by gizmo-wielding "citizen journalists" on the other.

But, almost inadvertently, the movie gets the big thing right about celebrity journalism: It's an art form. Beyond all the cliches about duels and dances and dates, celebrity interviews are essentially collaborative performances, carefully crafted and staged to deliver a flawless portrayal of false intimacy. They are the secular confessional, the tutorials in morality (or at least manners), the chance to occupy the same normative grid that governs everyone in the world, even its best woman. Executed well, the Celebrity Interview is the very Platonic ideal of public privacy. It may be a bankrupted form, but it's still worth saving.

Personalizing the Stars

Modern celebrity started with Florence Lawrence, the first movie star. Until 1910, when she left the Biograph movie studio to work for legendary impresario Carl Laemmle, she was known simply as "the Biograph Girl." But when Laemmle took over Lawrence's contract, he gave her name back -- by sending anonymous reports to the press that she was dead, then angrily denouncing his own fictions and dramatically producing her in St. Louis on the day their first picture together was to begin shooting.

Thus did the collective thrall with the private lives of stars begin, finding voice in fan magazines like Photoplay, then in the radio interviews of such gossip titans as Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell and, finally, reaching a watershed with Edward R. Murrow's " Person to Person."


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