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The Zsa-Zsa-ing of the American Mind?

Life as a B-Grade Movie

11:00 PM, Dec 13, 1998 • By DONALD LYONS
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Curiously, there is very little mention of the far more grievous celebrification of the New Yorker by the same Tina Brown who had turned Vanity Fair into a celebrity machine -- both times with the eager collaboration of New York's liberal intelligentsia. Gabler does find time to chide Camille Paglia for her antics, but none to examine her ideas.


There's little original research in Life the Movie. It's a cut-and-paste job whose bibliography is full of earlier treatments like Leo Braudy's The Frenzy of Renown and Richard Schickel's Intimate Strangers. (Even the People magazine stuff comes not from People but from a book about the magazine.) And that's not to mention celebrity bios and autobios like Zsa Zsa Gabor: My Story.


The all-but-forgotten Gabor emerges, rather oddly, as a significant figure whose "achievement was much more complex" than that of prior celebrities known for being known. (There are times when this book reads like a worried essay written for the Saturday Review of Literature in the 1950s by someone like Marya Mannes or Harriet Van Horne.) Ignoring her substantial screen accomplishments, Gabler treats Liz Taylor merely as someone who has taken the life-as-movie paradigm farther than anyone else.


In a rare moment of insight, Gabler treats Madonna as a post-modern celebrity -- that is, someone who delights in exposing the mechanics of her image-changes. But at best, these ruminations amount to a C+ paper in Cultural Studies.


When, for example, he attempts to judge or evaluate by citing high culture, Gabler stumbles badly. He contrasts Andy Warhol, the artist as pure entertainer, to his predecessors: "For Warhol art wasn't a celebration of God's handiwork, as it was for so many of the nineteenth-century painters; and it wasn't an expression of the artist's sensibility, as it was for most twentieth-century painters." Can we trust anything from a writer who could so describe either the century of Turner and Cezanne or the century of Matisse and Picasso?


And besides, all this wailing underestimates the moral health of most people, who do not in fact worship Princess Diana or hang pictures by Andy Warhol. After initial fascination, most of us incorporate technology into our lives and forget scandals, however transmitted.


It is when Gabler handles figures of genuine moral authority that he reveals most clearly his own complicity with the trends he deplores. In an offensive passage, he compares Pope John Paul II in pain and prayer at Czestochowa in 1991 to "soul singer James Brown's act, where Brown stumbles and collapses only to be helped to his feet by his acolytes and draped with a protective cape, a man stricken by the burdens of rock and roll." Gabler devotes ten pages to regurgitating the thesis of Lou Cannon's book President Reagan: The Role of a Life-time -- that Reagan shaped his tenure of office as a movie, an entertainment proffering feel-good escapism and distraction from "issues." Bush's Gulf War was subsequently constructed like "a World War II picture from Reagan's Hollywood heyday."


Nothing is too snide for Gabler to repeat if it concerns a Republican president. But Clinton? Ah, he's a victim of the media's addiction to "entertainment value" in their unjustified airing of his "alleged affair" and "alleged behavior" with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton's high-minded handlers, according to Gabler, lack the manipulative savvy of the Republicans. Gabler may have been wrongfooted on Lewinsky because his book went to press before Clinton confessed, but the kid-glove treatment of Clinton well into his second term bespeaks a naivete at best and a tendentious and hypocritical partisanship at worst.


Gabler concludes Life the Movie with a mind-boggling switch-eroo. After denouncing the perversion of life into entertainment, Gabler suddenly waffles on the last pages. Fearful, perhaps, of seeming traditionally judgmental or intolerant of anything whatsoever -- wanting, perhaps, to be loved -- the author concludes by confessing he can't decide whether it's all a Good Thing or a Bad Thing.


"Either we stood on a precipice or we stood in a bright new dawn" (these limp tropes are not, by the way, the rhetorical antitheses Gabler evidently thinks they are). We can only be certain, he insists, that "vitally important issues with the most profound implications" are involved. Yeah, yeah. This is at once the dopiest and the dullest book of the year.

 

Neal Gabler

Life the Movie

How Entertainment Conquered Reality

Knopf, 320 pp., $ 25




Donald Lyons is drama critic of the Wall Street Journal.