Robert Mitchum was a glorified B-movie actor with two growing reputations — one for his flinty knack for the dramatic arts, another for his natural ability to attract trouble — when he was busted for smoking pot in 1948. When Los Angeles police officers asked for his occupation, the defiant detainee joked, “Former actor.”
Mitchum knew that press coverage of his arrest would cause headaches for his studio, RKO, and new owner Howard Hughes. But he also knew that his career wasn’t likely to be derailed by this boost to his already-notorious image as a Hollywood bad boy.
Today, when Russell Crowe, a spiritual son of Mitchum’s, addresses a New York City concierge with the broad side of a telephone, it’s a white-hot topic of conversation that carries through three or four news cycles, followed by a few bonus rounds of hand-wringing over our own tawdry interest in the subject. Celebrity journalism is America’s collective guilty pleasure — our most indulged, and regretted, distraction.
We've always had Paris
When the newsmedia zeroes in on the indiscretions of a larger-than-life actor, entertainer, athlete or politician, it’s often accompanied by plenty of lofty clucking about how tabloid journalism has gotten out of hand. But we’ve always had Paris, or some other eye-poppingly wayward personage like her.
The reality may be that it’s the rampant proliferation of media in the digital age — not the public’s seemingly growing hunger for the trials, tribulations and unfortunate video moments of the famous — that has magnified the amount of celebrity journalism with which we’re inundated. Where we once got our news from the old living room Philco and the nearest newsboy, most Americans are now addicted to an intravenous drip of cable news crawls, wireless headsets and the bottomless World Wide Web.
There were, to be sure, certain factors beyond a relatively compact news industry that limited the extent of celebrity coverage in the early half of the 20th century. When told of Mitchum’s arrest, Howard Hughes’s first reaction was to ask where to direct the hush money. Police, reporters, politicians and other gatekeepers of information were more prone to back-alley arrangements then than now, in our ever more transparent age.
Sportswriters and campaign reporters, it’s now well known, were disinclined to reveal the secrets of the athletes and politicians on whose livelihood they depended. The indiscretions of Babe Ruth and John F. Kennedy are just two of the best-known examples of public figures whose statuesque shoulders have been spattered by insinuation and inference since their deaths.
Many topics were taboo. Were Montgomery Clift, for instance, acting today, he almost certainly would be expected to submit to a Barbara Walters sit-down about his sexuality. William Faulkner might have been hounded into a public apology after one of his alcoholic episodes was caught on videotape, in the next suite over from David Hasselhoff’s.
Not that the newsmedia once knew only the high road. The mysterious death of starlet Virginia Rappe at a San Francisco bacchanal hosted by the silent-film comedian Fatty Arbuckle set off a national debate about Hollywood morals — even as editors and readers alike obsessed over the sordid details.
Charles Lindbergh was a little-known aviator when his cross-Atlantic flight made him an overnight sensation. Much to the shy young daredevil’s chagrin, hordes of reporters rummaged for any shred of detail that would illuminate some fresh clue to the character of the new American hero. When Lindbergh’s baby was kidnapped a few years later, the incident was covered like an outbreak of war. For better or worse, they’re called human interest stories.
In the modern age, the private lives of celebrities have never been as private as they might have wished. Charlie Chaplin’s penchant for teenage women was such a part of his off-screen legend that one biographer has suggested it was an inspiration for Nabokov’s “Lolita.” Billie Holiday’s struggles with drugs and alcohol were well-documented, as were Frances Farmer’s mental health issues.
The influential career of the syndicated columnist, opinion leader and scandal-monger Walter Winchell was an early lesson in the star-making power of the star-breaking machinery. With the rise of the Winchell-styled gossip hound, the question for the self-monitoring news business — more than a half-century before Larry King’s nightly parade of accusers and confessors — “was whether hard news could survive once it had been exposed to show business,” writes Neal Gabler in his superb biography, “Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity.”
The 1950s were a golden era of yellow journalism, with the Hollywood rag Confidential leading the charge into the closets, dressing rooms and back seats of the rich and famous. Liberace and Dorothy Dandridge were two of the many entertainers who sued the magazine for libel; Frank Sinatra was incensed about a report on the effect of Wheaties on his sex drive. Groucho Marx, who was portrayed as a cranky skirt-chaser operating a fixed game show, took another tack: “If you persist in publishing libelous articles about me,” he joked in a letter to the editor, “I will have to cancel my subscription.”
If Confidential and its competitors marked the beginning of the end of celebrity immunity, the celebrities themselves were philosophical about the nature of the beast. “A celebrity is a person who works hard all his life to become known,” the comedian Fred Allen once said, “then wears dark glasses to avoid being recognized.”
MSNBC.com and Boston Globe contributor James Sullivan is working on a book about James Brown in the 1960s.