It's OK -- she's a public figure

From Mike Piazza to Winona Ryder, celebs have replaced minorities as the people it's OK for America to make fun of.

Published December 11, 2002 8:54PM (EST)

Last March, the veteran British performer Jim Broadbent won the Academy Award for best supporting actor in "Iris." Broadbent has had a varied career, consistently brilliant if not high profile. He weaseled his way through Sir Ian McKellen's "Richard III," was the very fulcrum of the establishment in "The Secret Agent," and killed as William Schwenck Gilbert in the Gilbert and Sullivan movie "Topsy Turvy."

The night after the awards, David Letterman's "Top Ten List" consisted of "Top Ten Things Best Supporting Actor Jim Broadbent Did Today." The digs, felt perhaps a little more keenly than usual that night, included:

  • "Purchased baseball cap and sunglasses, so he can go out in public without getting sunburned."

  • "Asked phone company to check his line, because no one's called all day."

    That the premise seemed to say less about Broadbent's comparative obscurity, and more about Letterman and his staff's ignorance of Broadbent's career, didn't matter. The host and the audience laughed, with license.

    See, Jim Broadbent got an Academy Award, and getting an Academy Award makes you a public figure, and being a public figure means you get a big target painted on your back.

    Last week, one of the idiots on the Fox News Channel -- mighta been a comedian, mighta been a bureau chief, it's hard to tell -- decided to refer to Hillary Clinton as a lesbian. It's not true, and even if it had been, there might be a bit of a debate over whether or not discussing someone's sexual orientation in a non-news context belongs on something that calls itself a news channel.

    But Hillary Clinton is a lightning rod of a senator, and being a senator makes you a public figure, and being a public figure means you get a big target painted on your back.

    Several years ago, someone pilfered videotapes of the actress Pamela Anderson having sex with her husband from a vault in her home. The tapes have been sent across the Internet, bootlegged and, in short, played and replayed more frequently than "Law & Order" episodes on cable. When Anderson tried to get a court to enjoin some of the Web sites that were showing what was on this stolen property, the judge laughed her out of the legal system.

    Obviously, Pamela Anderson is a near-naked actress, and becoming an actress makes you a public figure, and becoming a public figure means you get a big target painted on your back.

    Last summer, the late and unlamented gossip columnist of the New York Post, Neal Travis, took some prepublication magazine hype from the then-manager of the New York Mets about how baseball was ready for an openly gay player and twisted it into meaning that the manager was clearing the way for one of the team's star players to out himself. Travis felt himself licensed to tell the ages-old rumor that a Mets star player cohabited with a local television personality. Shortly thereafter, the Mets' star player, Mike Piazza, held an impromptu news conference in which he denied he was gay.

    Every few weeks since, regardless of the context, whenever there's a charge of wrongdoing against anybody, the aforementioned Letterman trots out the now wheezy joke of substituting the new charge into Piazza's denial: "Mike Piazza denied he was a corporate CEO."

    But Mike Piazza is a major league baseball player, and being a baseball player makes you a public figure, and being a public figure means you get a big target painted on your back.

    Every week, a column in the Los Angeles Times -- said to be the most widely read piece in Sunday's paper -- reports breathlessly on the real estate transactions of the stars. Whether Stephen Bochco is buying a house in Pacific Palisades or Wayne Gretzky is selling an estate in Malibu, they're in there. Towns are always listed, as well as square footage, age, price and any distinctive views or architectural quirks. I bought a condo once in Beverly Hills. The number of stories in the building, its approximate distance to shopping, the heights of its ceilings, and the agents on both sides of the deal were included. Everything but the street address.

    This was about a year after the young actress Rebecca Schaeffer had been murdered by a deranged fan who had tracked down her address through public records and a private detective. I telephoned the Times' columnist, Ruth Ryon, to question the appropriateness of the column's all-too-detailed information. Stretching my point hyperbolically but not unreasonably, I asked her how she would've felt if Schaeffer had moved into not an apartment but a mansion and if the Times had inadvertently helped her murderer find her.

    She gasped. She said she'd never thought of that before.

    Of course not. All of us in her column had become public figures, and becoming a public figure means you get a big target painted on your back.

    This all came to mind last week during the sentencing of Winona Ryder. Not the thing in the courtroom with the power-hungry district attorney accusing her of "dragging the dead body of a baby" out in her self-defense; the sentencing by joke.

    I'm the last one to defend a system in which actresses and television reporters become millionaires and teachers become paupers. As evidenced by the L.A. Times real estate column, I've dipped my toe in the celebrity pool just enough to feel its warmth, and gotten a minor dose of the chlorine sting. I know that ceding some of your personal life is inevitable, and I also know that if you aren't willing to participate, you have to do a disappearing act worthy of J.D. Salinger and not try to finesse it, not to try to pick when you're famous and when you can wear your lounge pants with the unfortunately placed bleach stain to Home Depot.

    This is more than that. This is about the institutionalized ridiculing of public figures, especially actors, politicians and athletes. It is safe to say that all respect has been erased - and that that erasure has happened during the exact same time that formerly acceptable targets of humor and criticism have been gradually ruled out of bounds. Ten years ago, it was still hilarious for movies to make sport of drunk drivers. Thirty years ago, Don Rickles' act was a string of ethnic and racial insults that would, today, get him dragged before the International Court at The Hague. Fifty years ago, two white men wearing blackface and doing outrageously stereotyped voices were among the most beloved figures on network radio.

    Women, minorities, stutterers, the physically challenged and a hundred other groups that couldn't hit back used to provide fodder for our public giggling. They are no longer available, yet our appetite for giggling must still be fed. So at some point, we gave ourselves the right to focus on the famous with impunity.

    It goes far beyond comedy, of course. Very few defendants would learn, as Ms. Ryder did, that the night before their sentencing the prosecution had decided to broadcast internationally the specific prescription medicines they had in their handbags at the time of their arrest (especially if, like Ms. Ryder, they faced no charges for possessing them). Very few defendants would be told that on a first-time shoplifting charge, they were receiving special treatment because they didn't go to jail. Very few defendants would be without the legal remedy of suing when their minor offenses were exaggerated into high crimes by talk-show hosts and alleged newscasters.

    Celebrities have become our last unprotected minority group, the final authorized whipping boys. One of the smartest and deepest people I've ever known, an actress friend of mine, sums it up very nicely. She thinks all this is a direct product of the Puritans and their stocks and scarlet letters. We feel that celebrities have sinned and must pay the price. "We treat celebrities," she says, "like animals in a zoo." They are caged for viewing and serve at our pleasure. They must submit to being poked with sticks in exchange for the free service and cushy digs. "But they don't get it for nothin' -- we want payback. Especially if they get uppity."

  • By Keith Olbermann

    Salon columnist Keith Olbermann hosts the ABC Radio Network's "Speaking of Sports ... Speaking of Everything."

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