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The Celebrity Interview Is An Exercise in Ersatz Intimacy. Let's Talk About Reinventing It.

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."

It was with this show, which Murrow hosted from 1953 until 1959, that cameras first went into the stars' homes, where Murrow would interview them from his own "home," his studio. "It was a really astounding innovation," says Bernard Timberg, associate professor of communications at East Carolina University and author of the book "Television Talk.""No one had taken a camera into people's homes. It got to be a shtick where Murrow would say, 'Is that a picture you have on the wall?' And [the star] would get up and say, 'Oh yes, that's a very lovely Degas we just picked up.' He was the precursor to Barbara Walters and all the celebrity interviewers who came after her. He basically invented the form."

Murrow famously hated doing celebrity interviews (thus ushering in another tradition of the serious journalist grumbling over having to do fluff). But with the 15-minute chat format of "Person to Person," Murrow dovetailed perfectly with the needs of an entertainment culture that in the 1950s was undergoing a seismic shift, as political and economic forces converged to weaken the once all-powerful studios and strengthen the hands of individual celebrities. As the studio system gave way to the star system, it became incumbent on the stars and their publicists to generate interest in their ongoing stories, rather than individual projects. "The personal is the political," goes the feminist saying; in Hollywood's version, the personal is the promotable.

"World War II was the watershed," says Leo Braudy, author of "The Frenzy of Renown." "After the war, when stars start getting more powerful, there's an effort to personalize them. It's not like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's saying, 'All the Stars in Heaven.' It's about individual stars and experiments in ways of creating a greater intimacy between the public and the star."

From an actress showing Murrow her Degas, it doesn't take long to get to Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah's couch. But one must stop along the way to thank Johnny Carson for institutionalizing The Couch, the chief signifier of yet another pivotal point in the Celebrity Interview's morphology: the late night talk show. Others came before him -- Jack Paar, Steve Allen and Arlene Francis to name just a few. But it was Carson -- and later such innovators as David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and the recently departed Tom Snyder-- who perfected the art of what Timberg calls "structured spontaneity" that was the aim of every interview.

A team of talent coordinators interviews celebrity guests before the show, with anecdotes and leading questions written out on green cards -- they're always green cards -- for the host. From the set's design to the height of the host's chair, the show is a meticulously controlled environment within which, with luck, just the right amount of daffy anarchy will slip through. The monkey will smack Johnny. Drew Barrymore will flash Dave. Danny DeVito will show up drunk on "The View." Too much structure, and it's all canned candor and "I'll be in Las Vegas all weekend!" Too much spontaneity, and Bobcat Goldthwait sets The Couch on fire.

Does anyone buy this stuff? Can anyone believe that what they're getting is the truth? "I wouldn't put it in terms of truth," Timberg says. "I'd put it in terms of a spectrum of most private to most public. We'll never see them at home like we are, at the depths of despair, fighting with our significant others. But we're going to see some moments, some revelations. That private-public tension is one of the interesting things about talk shows."

Structured Profiles

If structured spontaneity is the coin of the realm of TV, then ersatz rapport is the folding money of print. "I write for a lot of women's magazines, and I'm always encouraged to make my subjects 'relate-able,' " says Jancee Dunn, whose memoir "But Enough About Me" chronicles her career writing celebrity profiles for such publications as Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and GQ. "It's a word I hear over and over. That and 'likable.' And apparently that's due to reader demand. It's all very structured. They want to relate, they want to think of the celebrity as their best friend, or at least someone they could be friends with."

In 1996 former Washington Post reporter Martha Sherrill, on assignment for Esquire, wrote a profile of a fictional actress named Allegra Coleman, after vowing that her most recent celebrity profile for the magazine, of Steve Martin, would be her last. (For his part, Martin has called doing movie publicity "the worst day of your life." In 2001 he wrote of celebrity in the New York Times, "A slip of the tongue in an interview and it's easy for me to feel I've sold out some private part of my life in exchange for publicity.")

Sherrill's interview with the 22-year-old starlet comprised several thousand words of note-perfect overwriting, hyperbole, pathetic license and over-identification. She sent it to her editor as a goof, and he printed it as November's cover story. Then the magazine started getting calls from agents looking for Allegra.

"I just couldn't buy into it anymore," Sherrill says, explaining her creation (who was played on the cover by actress Ali Larter, herself celebrity interview fodder since starring on "Heroes"). "After Sinatra, it became okay for talented feature writers, people who are reasonably educated and erudite, to waste their time following the likes of movie stars and other celebrities around and writing these furrowed-brow thoughtful think pieces about what it means to be X."

By "Sinatra," Sherrill is referring to the ur-text of Celebrity Journalism, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," which Gay Talese wrote for Esquire in 1966, and which changed the course of celebrity profiles forever. The story -- a masterpiece of empirical observation, psychological projection, shoe leather and diamantine prose -- is the one writers have been trying to imitate ever since, opening with cinematic "scenes," establishing the writer's personal proximity to the subject, then with novelistic sweep somehow miniaturizing him to human size while making profound, grandiose pronouncements on his cultural, social, political and historical importance.

But what Talese originated -- as a piece of literary nonfiction, it bears noting, not celebrity journalism -- has over 40 years turned into a kind of mannered, overwrought style that few have tried harder to shake up than the editors of Esquire itself.

"There's no form of journalism that's more depressing or demeaning than the celebrity profile," says Esquire Editor in Chief David Granger, "which is why we go to such extremes to make them interesting." In 2001, Tom Junod wrote a parodic profile of Michael Stipe that was literally -- and deliberately -- half-true. Lately, the magazine has taken the postmodern, how-meta-can-we-get approach, having the celebrities annotate their own profiles (Jon Stewart) or interview their interviewers (Halle Berry).

And sometimes, they take the classical form to its most florid extreme. It was Junod who called Angelina Jolie the best woman in the world last month in a profile that exemplifies post-Talesian prose at its most ambitious. Determinedly un-starstruck, and deeply serious, the story is a disquisition on fame, civic virtue and the actress's tiger tattoo. As much as a portrait of Jolie, it's a portrait of a writer swinging for the fences in trying to make that tattoo mean something.

Sherrill tried that, too. But, she says, "no matter how much you want to tell yourself that you're creating art or literature when you're writing about Clint Eastwood or Peter O'Toole, you're fooling yourself that you're making some kind of contribution to the culture. What you're really doing is getting people to go out and buy a ticket to a movie."

You may walk in feeling like Joan Didion, but you walk out Jiminy Glick.

Forging a New Narrative

Can we do better? With fame and reality converging in the green flash of Gawker Stalker and "American Idol" (Stars! They're just like us! Us! We're just like stars!), with the celebrity profile a hackneyed shadow of what "Sinatra" hath wrought, with the bloggers and the blotters and the couches, can a new form be invented?

It might be worth remembering that, to write the greatest celebrity interview in journalistic history, Talese never interviewed Sinatra. Indeed the writer, reached at his home in Manhattan, still bristles at being credited -- or blamed -- with creating the modern celebrity profile. "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," he is eager to remind those who would imitate it, was not a product of access to the star, or 45 minutes in his trailer. Instead, Talese went to Los Angeles, he followed Sinatra, he watched, he talked to the singer's friends and family and he took notes for several weeks. "It's the art of hanging around," says Talese, now 75. "You don't use tape recorders, you don't work the phones, you hang out ."

"I wonder if I could publish 'Frank Sinatra' today," Talese says, adding that Sinatra wasn't even at the height of his stardom when the piece was written, and the story was published without a promotional peg. "I don't think I could. The magazine writer today has to be writing on a topic. It has to be tied in."

The tyranny of the tie-in has never been more vise-like, as media companies consolidate and cross-promote with promiscuous abandon. Who can expect anything like intimacy, or even spontaneity at its most structured, when stars are herded through press junkets like soldiers on the Bataan Death March? Stuck in a hotel room while the same TV crew photographs a steady stream of broadcasters doing four-minute interviews, it's no wonder the talent can develop a 1,000-yard stare. "The worst day I ever did was for the movie 'Escape From L.A.,'" recalls Buscemi. "I did, like, 70 in one day. I literally just got tired of talking and tired of thinking."

But sometimes, something real breaks through the artifice, even on TV. When John Travolta danced with Ellen DeGeneres on her talk show earlier this year, his sinuous hips expressed more than he could ever say. And there's nothing like the Old Medium of radio to capture a side of a celebrities that exists outside their fetishized images, as Terry Gross and the NPR show "Fresh Air" consistently prove.

And new forms are percolating: A few years ago filmmaker Jamie Stuart began attending press junkets for movies and created unusually smart, poetic and funny film essays that skillfully convey the hothouse world of film marketing in just a few impressionistic strokes. One of the best is "An Amy Adams Picture," a collaboration with the actress in which he gave her the camera during the press junket for the film "Junebug." It's a tantalizing hint of what could be a New Journalism of New Media.

"What I'm doing is the art film, and everybody else is watching TMZ," says Stuart, referring to the gossip Web site. "There are tons of interesting things that can be done with new media, in terms of interviews and promoting people. It really ultimately comes down to the talent of the filmmaker." (Stuart's work can be seen on his own Web site, http://www.mutinycompany.com.)

Choire Sicha, managing editor of www.gawker.com, says the celebrity profile is in desperate need of reinvention. "There's so much candid video, TMZ is camped out behind nightclubs every night, there are sometimes three or four sightings of one person on Gawker Stalker in a day -- all that can be assembled into something meaningful. It hasn't been, yet. But at some point definitely there has to be some sort of collage-microscopic-profile art created out of this."

The Talese of the iPhone is out there, with the technological chops and philosophical insight to create something brand new, something observant and witty, compassionate and detached, ruthless but deeply humanist. Surely, the world is ready for a new celebrity narrative, one that explodes old forms, reveals the subject at hand, and conveys something essential about ourselves.

Surely someday, Lindsay Lohan will have a cold.

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