Exotic mating rituals of a tribe called Hollywood

A penetrating field study reveals the mysteries of courtship, marriage and procreation as practiced by the indigenous peoples of La-La Land.

By Amy Reiter - Carina Chocano
December 28, 2000 1:00AM (UTC)
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The august anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss believes that the customs, traditions and myths of all cultures, no matter how bafflingly diverse, mimic the characteristics of the human mind. However disparate the details of our lives, deep down we're all a lot more alike than we think.

Lévi-Strauss, we're reasonably sure, has never spent much time with the members of Hollywood's A-list. We, on the other hand, have spent the year in slavish observation of their every move, mood and utterance. And certain patterns have emerged (linking them most intimately, strangely enough, to the cruelly elitist but drop-dead gorgeous Mbaya-Guaicuru of Brazil).


Deprived of contact with other, lesser tribes and cut off from civilization by armies of publicists, agents, bodyguards and sinister husband-Svengalis, these well-insulated hill and coast dwellers have survived undisturbed in the manicured desert of Southern California for decades. The royals of the tribe enjoy disporting themselves at tournaments (also known as "awards ceremonies") while leaving menial tasks to others. Like the Mbaya-Guaicuru, described here by Lévi-Strauss, "these kings and queens like nothing better than to play with severed heads brought back by their warriors."

A lively scientific interest in the customs and traditions of the Hollywood A-list has also made it the most closely studied tribe on earth. And, as if in grotesque demonstration of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, these gentle, insular peoples have become a vain peoples, a self-obsessed peoples, a peoples who need peoples -- kept, naturellement, at a safe but adoring distance.

And while, as aspiring A-lister Geoffrey Rush said earlier this year, "There's no secret establishment in the deserts of Australia where they're turning out hunky men and beautiful women ready to invade the village of Hollywood," the traditions of the Hollywood tribe still reflect both their tragic isolation and their fulminating conspicuousness. From their glimmering manses, they look out on the wider world with childlike wonder. They display their rank by strutting about in revealing costumes. They smile for the birdie. They can say money in 22 languages. They are often very cute.


We have spent the past year compiling an inventory of the customs of a native community and its lifestyle. Beyond this, we are powerless to interfere.

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No one is leerier of a mésalliance déclassé or, for that matter, an alliance flambé than this fierce entertainer tribe. Consequently, their social interactions have become highly structured. They can be broken down into five distinct phases:


1) The display of affection

The courting process starts when two tribal members of equal rank begin to engage in furtive displays of affection, usually described as a "friendship." (In January, Jim Carrey presented Renée Zellweger with a $200,000 Harry Winston diamond "friendship ring," for example.) The couple generally carries out these early rituals away from the rest of the tribe (frequently while on location in Europe). This stage is sometimes known as "canoodling" and may include eye gazing, hand-holding and synchronized absences from tribal meetings (also called "premieres"). This behavior serves to announce the couple's attachment to the community as well as to their protector, the director of their current film, and to their on-again, off-again ally/enemy, the press.


If the union is deemed favorable by the community and the press, the couple will be feted in boldface type and anointed by the tribal foot servants, the paparazzi. But as with all A-list courting rituals, the couple must carefully adhere to prescribed behavior or risk being shunned by the community. The latter was the case in this otherwise auspicious romance:

Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe "secretly" kicked off their courtship while filming "Proof of Life" in London and later took it on the road to Australia for the Olympics. While denying their romantic involvement, the pair was spotted "canoodling" on both continents, sometimes pausing in mid-display of affection to sign autographs. The union (which had big box-office potential and required Ryan to shed her longtime marriage to Dennis Quaid, who may not be long for the A-list tribe) was approved by the press and the paparazzi and seemed set to proceed to the next level.

When, however, the couple refused to appease their matchmaker, director Taylor Hackford, by using their relationship to promote the film in print interviews, he declared war. "I am deeply hurt that they couldn't [do interviews]," Hackford said, setting in motion a wave of criticism against the transgressive couple, "and [ensuring] that 'Proof of Life' will probably best be known as the film that sparked a love affair between Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan."


That the film had less heat at the box office than its leads had for each other somewhat erodes Crowe's and Ryan's status within the tribe.

2) The proclamation of love

Once the new couple has been embraced (read: hounded mercilessly) by the press and the paparazzi, and once the tribal chiefs have become convinced of the couple's mutual bankability, the couple then proceeds to rechristen the "friendship" as "love."


Catherine Zeta-Jones says she went through a "nine-month sacred love dance" with Michael Douglas before they began publicly yodeling about their affection for each other. (He even started a Web site to issue his own press releases about their relationship.)

This ritual -- which includes extolling each other's virtues ad tedium and gushing about how "lucky" they feel -- is intended to both elicit envy (a tradable commodity) and signal that the love is unlike any other that ever came before. Emphasis on the mate's "talent," "genius," status and/or physical beauty plays an important part in the degree of love expressed.

After going public, Zeta-Jones began saying gooey things about Douglas. Douglas returned the favor by singing his wife's praises thus: "She's got a great voice, and she's a great jazz tap-dancer. One of my big thrills is to beg her to put on those shoes and do it. She's great."

Hinting at the startling intensity of intercourse is also looked upon favorably, as is tattooing one's lover's name on one's shadowy recesses.


Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton, each of whom has been inscribed with the other's name, describe the love feeling even more vividly.

"You know when you love someone so much you can almost kill them?" Jolie asked the world at large back in June. "We nearly kill each other ... I nearly was killed last night, and it was the nicest thing anyone ever said to me."

"I was looking at her sleep and I had to restrain myself from literally squeezing her to death," Thornton explained, adding that sex is "almost too much" for them. "It's so intense that sometimes we can look at each other and think, 'You know what, we can't get into this right now or something's going to happen.'"

Statements such as these are considered not only acceptable but utterly charming and very salable.


Which brings us to the next phase ...

3) The impulsive engagement

In between projects, the couple hurl themselves headlong into engagement, reinforcing the idea that the love in question -- even if just weeks old -- is unlike any other.

Stricken with testicular cancer, Canadian comic Tom Green listed his girlfriend of only three months, Drew Barrymore, as the likely recipient of his donation at a sperm bank. Not long after, the two confirmed their engagement.


The impulsive engagement nearly resulted in an impulsive on-air marriage on "Saturday Night Live," but Barrymore impulsively backed out, intuitively sensing that exchanging vows on the show would be somehow -- she wasn't sure how -- "inappropriate."

4) The denial of engagement

News of the engagement is leaked to the press so that the couple can begin emphatic and acrimonious denials of the engagement, which call attention to the engagement, which does in fact exist. Fervent denials also serve as a reminder that the love is a fiercely guarded love like no other.

Madonna was seen wearing a ring resembling a small glacier around the time of the birth of her son, Rocco. As the ring had been given to her by the child's father, Guy Ritchie, she immediately took umbrage at the press' suggestion that a wedding was imminent. Ritchie had taken to referring to Madonna as "the missus," so naturally Madonna issued a strong denial that the two intended to marry. Her denial was apparently so strong that her publicist continued to deny reports of an upcoming wedding even after Madonna herself began confirming them.

5) The clandestine wedding preparations

Once the engagement has been resoundingly denied, the couple can begin exhaustive wedding preparations while criticizing public interest in the preparations.

Exclusive pictures of the wedding may then be pre-sold to the highest-bidding glossy publication. Zeta-Jones and Douglas funded their lavish wedding extravaganza by selling exclusive images (reported to have commanded $1.4 million) from the happy day (reported to have cost $1.5 million).

(At this stage in the courtship, the engagement may still be denied.)

If the wedding itself is clandestine, the engagement may be denied even after the marriage has taken place. Representatives for Jolie insisted that not only had she not married Thornton in Las Vegas, but they weren't even dating.

The search for the wedding site

The wedding site is of utmost importance, as it sets the tone for the way the new couple would like to be perceived. Are they "rock 'n' roll"? Vegas will do nicely. Are they "traditional"? A lavish hotel might be gutted, raised and rebuilt for the occasion by the set decorators of a hit show. Are they "down-to-earth"? A natural setting is preferable -- Steven Spielberg's backyard or Aaron Spelling's bucolic private planet. If the couple want to be remembered simply as "richer and better than anyone else," they might try the Vatican.

Although Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston refused to confirm their nuptials until the week they occurred, they somehow managed to put together a whopping million-dollar wedding with hundreds of guests and $20,000 worth of fireworks on the Malibu, Calif., estate of TV exec Marcy Carsey. The romantic sunset ceremony featured the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop.

Not long thereafter, speculation about the locale of Zeta-Jones' and Michael Douglas' nuptials occupied the British tabs for months, until they finally decided to embrace convention at New York's Plaza Hotel. And, oddly enough, after expressing interest in Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral and a site near Princess Diana's grave, Madonna and Ritchie settled on Scotland's Skibo Castle, where Zeta-Jones and Douglas had been expected to wed.

The marriage ceremony

Preparations for the marriage ceremony begin months in advance of the event as the bride and groom and sundry servants start bringing to fruition what may be the happiest, most well-publicized time of the couple's year.

The prenup

If the union is deemed particularly remunerative for one of the lovers, the press engages in a denunciation of the motives and/or depth of feeling of the possessor of the lesser fortune, particularly when the details of the prenuptial agreement become known.

As Zeta-Jones and Douglas prepared to consecrate their union in the eyes of God and the National Enquirer, there were rumors that Douglas had offered Zeta-Jones $1.4 million for every year she stayed married to him -- in the event that they ended up divorced. Zeta-Jones had insisted on three times that amount, and a compromise was reached at $2.8 million.

But the prenup is not just a defense against a resounding future fleecing; it also formalizes (far more than the informal "engagement") the couple's intention to marry. It also allows the economically superior half of the couple to display his or her wealth while the economically inferior one flaunts his or her noble intentions.

Recently irritated by speculation that she was only in her relationship with Douglas for the money, Zeta-Jones asserted that "prenups are brilliant, because it's all sorted out."

So while attorneys hammer out the details of the post-separation dowry, the more impecunious lover often takes the opportunity to loudly praise the intended's business acumen.

"If I were marrying someone of lesser fortune who was 25 years younger," Zeta-Jones reasoned, "I'd be doing exactly the same thing."

This occurs only after the more impecunious lover has been foiled in his or her attempts to raise the amount offered to an acceptable fortune.

The gathering of the tribe for the wedding feast

The wedding should draw a crowd of at least 400 of the couple's closest business associates. Mothers may attend in the rare instances that they are not "estranged." They may not, however, sit in the front row unless they happen to be Mike Ovitz.

It is acceptable to decline to invite "problematic" blood relatives, though if the couple is young and new to marriage, the inclusion of family is often considered quaint. Charmed guests at the Aniston-Pitt wedding remarked that "it was an emotional wedding; it was not a business thing." The more traditional union of Madonna and Ritchie was attended by Gwyneth Paltrow, Celine Dion, Sting and Elton John, but not by Madonna's brother Martin.

The authoring of the vows -- by the couple

Not only are traditional vows a bit restrictive, but they tend to shed the spotlight on the minister, shaman or cult leader conducting the ceremony, who is rarely cuter than the couple and often drones on and on.

Young celebrity couples often use their vows as a short comedy interlude to lighten up what can sometimes be very long and overly "serious" ceremonies.

Aniston and Pitt delighted their guests with solemn promises such as "I promise to make your favorite banana milkshake" and "I promise to split the difference on the thermostat."

The assembly then goes wild.

Pregnancy and childbirth

Public ululation about the desire for progeny is believed to aid in conception. Earlier this year, Kate Winslet expressed a wish to have three or four children, while Ben Affleck claimed to want eight. That Winslet now has one daughter, Mia, and Affleck has none does not mitigate the belief. When, despite repeated assertions by a couple that they want children desperately, conception does not occur, they explore adoption. Adoption allows the mother to be photographed in maternal attitudes immediately, without having to wait to shed the weight gained during pregnancy.

Sharon Stone was "ready for motherhood" two years ago, explaining why she and husband Phil Bronstein "make love every moment that we get a chance." This year, the couple adopted a boy and named the child Roan, after a Celtic seal.

Denial of pregnancy

News of a pregnancy is leaked to the press, allowing the couple to indulge in emphatic and acrimonious denials. After months and months of denying rumors that she was pregnant, Madonna came forth with the news. These denials serve as a reminder that the fetus is a fiercely guarded fetus like no other fetus that ever came before. Fetus love also recharges protective instincts, and strains relationships between the A-list power brokers and the press.

"We would be grateful if the media would kindly allow us some privacy at this special time," said Ritchie when Madonna's pregnancy was announced. "And we thank you all for your good wishes."

Body consciousness

Once pregnant, the female of the couple attempts to fend off weight-gain-induced panic by dwelling on increased bust size.

Kelly Preston, Zeta-Jones and others, as young, female members of the tribe, can easily become fixated on the characteristics of reproductive organs -- even secondary ones.

"My husband loo-ooves it when I'm pregnant," said Preston of John Travota, whose increase in affection for her is apparently related to her breasts becoming engorged with milk.


Natural delivery or childbirth assisted by anyone who is not a member of the medical profession is often seen as preferable.

Before giving birth to her daughter, Winslet declared she would decline drugs during delivery, explaining: "Giving birth is what we're designed to do, so we should bloody well get on with it." Winslet did, however, allow that she might call her acupuncturist for a little shot of relief.

Childbirth is seen as a new challenge for the competitive female member of the tribe. Childbirth also provides rare hands-on life experience.

"I'm stoical and have a pretty high pain threshold," Winslet said. "I've had a good training for labor with some of my film roles, especially 'Titanic.'"

Child rearing can then be handed off to qualified professionals.

Retreat and reemergence

The postnatal period is time for retreat and renewal. The female is kept sequestered until the fat comes off.

When Zeta-Jones' intended arrived at the maternity ward with a box of chocolates in hand, she chastised Douglas for his insensitive gift choice in light of her desire to shed her pregnancy weight before their wedding. Douglas returned bearing a $25,000 diamond bracelet.

Adoptive parents may appear in public immediately, but are also required to engage in the ceremonial postpartum public display of emotion.

Postnatal public emotion

New mothers are expected to proclaim newly discovered baby love.

Winslet says motherhood has made her "squishy" and that she is now "a lot less hectic than I was. I've stopped smoking and I've become a much calmer, softer person."

After the birth of her son, Madonna echoed Winslet. "I'm more comfortable with myself and I am different," the Maternal One said. "It grounds you when you're a parent. I could have spiraled into the clouds, but I look at my children and the person I love and realize this is reality."

Members of the tribe also attempt to incorporate these new and exciting emotions into their work.

"I'm sure I'll find it a lot easier to cry on-screen," Winslet says.


When a marriage lasts so long that it ceases to draw attention, one member of the couple (often the over-50 male) is obliged to cast the other member of the couple (usually the under-50 female) adrift on an ice floe with a very large sum of money.

This year, the divorce of former spouses Bruce Willis and Demi Moore became official, and Harrison Ford announced he was separating from Melissa Mathison, his wife of 17 years.

This rite of passage is often followed by denials of a relationship between the man and a much younger, much skinnier woman.

Ford denies that he is romantically linked to actress Lara Flynn Boyle, as does Willis. Flynn Boyle was formerly linked to petty chieftain Jack Nicholson, who is now romantically linked to himself.

Amy Reiter

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Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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