Russell Crowe's rumble in the Mercer Hotel in New York this week suggests a possible new use for Neverland after the Jackson verdict is rendered. It could be refitted as a rehabilitation facility for stars, CEOs and ersatz billionaires afflicted with the classic symptoms of Narcissistic Celebrity Disorder.
There are rehab centers for every kind of substance abuse, but none for the galloping threat of NCD. Early warning signs of this dread malady include climbing on television studio couches while overhyping one's infatuation with a starlet, firing one's longtime public relations/business manager in favor of a member of one's family, surrounding oneself with religious advisers of dubious denomination, and (an Australian variant) turning a thwarted attempt to place a telephone call into six hours in a precinct house being fingerprinted, mug-shot and booked for second-degree assault and criminal possession of a weapon (the telephone).
We will probably look back on the Jackson trial as the last time a world-class star found a way to be truly outlandish in the grand tradition of Elvis and Brando. Celebrities and their banal delinquencies are now overexposed to the point of being deprived of any capacity to surprise. Between the saturation tabloid and TV coverage and the produced invasiveness of reality shows, fame is entirely demystified. We are not getting much bang for the buck peeping into famous lives. The silver screen is just a big bathroom mirror.
Jackson himself has been of declining interest since 1993, when we first learned the secrets of his way of life. His early bigness still clings to him like a period costume, giving Court TV its second record month in a row. But by the time of this trial we already knew everything important there was to know about Jackson. So what have we gleaned that gives the trial some value added? That he had some older-woman porn around the house as well as the expected Barely Legal stuff? That he wears a rug? That he has a bad back?
It would have been more exciting to discover, for instance, that Jackson has a sense of humor (he hasn't got one, alas) or some convincing spiritual dimension (but don't hold your breath waiting for the King of Pop to become the King of Soul). Instead we got an unappetizing cameo on "Good Morning America" by his former mentor Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (or is it Rabbi Smiley Botox?) airing tapes of Jackson choking up about his love for little children. (Botox said listening to Jackson's insights about kids made him, the rabbi, a better father himself.)
From the moment the mother of the alleged victim stated that she feared that the staff at Neverland might abduct them all in a hot-air balloon, the accuser's whole family swiftly established themselves as too wacko to tug at our hearts, despite the boy's awful back story of childhood cancer. And it's always been impossible to warm up to the rest of the freeloading Jackson clan. (Pick your favorite family detail: That eldest son Jackie once suffered a broken leg when his first wife ran over him after catching him in bed with Paula Abdul? That Jermaine named his kid Jermajesty?) As for blaming the whole thing on Michael's sad, emotionally abused childhood -- well, check out "Dr. Phil" any afternoon of the week. Everyone's got one of those.
If we weren't much moved by testimony from the accuser, that was partly because there were no cameras in the courtroom. What's truly strange is that, as Maureen Orth points out in this month's Vanity Fair, the lack of real emotional involvement also seemed to extend at times to the jury. After describing the reluctant, painfully convincing testimony of an earlier Jackson Special Friend, Orth writes: "The young man sitting in the witness box before [the jury] had just gone through one of the most humiliating ordeals of his life, but they did not exhibit the slightest sign of empathy. They ignored him as they laughed and talked together."
It's as if all the exhibitionism about what was once private life is gradually draining us of our own humanity. "SWEAT, FREAK" was the New York Post's cruel front-page headline about Jacko last Friday, as the jury retired to determine his fate. Steeped in "CSI" and Court TV's most popular show, "Forensic Files," we are becoming more involved with procedure than people.
Perhaps the contempt familiarity breeds is increased by the way superstar removal from reality no longer feels as exotic as it used to. The richer you are, the less you need to experience anything unprocessed. You never have to leave your world, your plane, your bed, your private zoo . . . but the rest of us, too, are increasingly able to inhabit an entirely customized culture, building walls around ourselves so we never encounter anything we haven't planned. The middle class has its own knockoff version of the layers of insulation that surround the stars. Since the explosion of the cell phone even 14-year-olds have unlisted numbers. We design our lives more and more to avoid confronting reality, staying home with our DVDs and our flat-screen home "entertainment centers," locked into our iPods, avoiding the stray invasion of an unwelcome story from a newspaper by downloading our self-selected, pre-scrubbed news. Insulation from reality has become a measure of success.
Every so often in our blissful insulation a bullet from a distant mountain pass unexpectedly whistles through the consciousness. There was that extraordinary report by Carlotta Gall in the New York Times over the weekend of the inconceivably brave and outnumbered American soldier in Afghanistan who blasted away at the enemy from the gun turret on a flaming Humvee long enough to allow his comrades to escape with their lives. It left you with a jarring whiff of raw experience.
Could it be that it will take celebrities themselves to break out of the prevailing cultural coma? Brad Pitt cannily insisted with "Primetime" ABC producers that his few evasive sound bites on his private life came at the price of four long segments about hungry kids in Africa. It may just be a brilliant PR move to counteract dumping America's girl next door for a luscious femme fatale, but it could also be a small sign that obliviousness is getting old.
If I am wrong, there are plenty of rooms left for us all in Neverland.
(c) 2005, Tina Brown