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Under the Influence of Celebrity

Hollywood's blind spot for drunk driving.

11:00 PM, Feb 8, 2007 • By LOUIS WITTIG
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"HOLLYWOOD is out of touch with mainstream America."

I love saying that. Especially when I'm midriff deep in the plain-folk American things I do every day: eating apple pies baked in the shape of individual states, shopping for the brand of brake pad that reminds me most of Ronald Reagan, or taking a break from raising a barn just to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. And honestly, it's never bugged me that it's not entirely true.

This isn't as fun to say, but Hollywood mostly obeys the same commandments they do in Peoria. For example, in Hollywood, thou shalt not kill. In Hollywood, adopting underprivileged children is good. (There's even a supplemental child-country-of-origin bonus point system by which hot-bistro reservations are allotted.) Interrupting your comedy routine to hurl fevered racist insults at nearby strangers is also bad in Tinseltown. And--this holds equally true for sitcom leads and longshoremen--leaking a sex tape of yourself can greatly complicate (and, occasionally, greatly enhance) your career. But one issue where Hollywood's moral instincts really are out of sync is when it comes to drunk driving.

Lots bad things happen when ordinary Americans drive drunk. Fines. Prison sentences. Deaths. (There were 16,885 DUI-related deaths in 2005.) When celebrities drive drunk--and there's a swerving parade of them: Paris Hilton, Tim Allen, Haley Joel Osment, Rip Torn, Tracy Gold, Nick Carter, Andy Dick, assorted reality TV stars, that cook character from The Sopranos, Mike Tyson, Gus Van Sant, (Britney Spears hasn't yet, but the odds that she will on WagerWeb.com are such that if you bet she will be caught, and you "win," you actually lose money). But the closest these celebrities come to disgrace is a preciously befuddled mug shot. (Oh, the humanity.)

The crime itself, which is more or less the equivalent of attempted criminally negligent homicide, takes a backseat to the hairdo. When Nicole Richie was popped--driving the wrong way down a six-lane highway, high on vicodin, with her headlights off in the middle the night--the gossip blogs were, understandably, agog. But not for the reason you think. It was because the police report revealed that the scary-skinny Richie weighed just 85 pounds.

For some strange reason, we treat celebrity DUIs as entertainment, like some real-life version of Law & Order. Arrest. Rehab. Repeat. With this sort of stultifying line-up, DUI producers are under constant pressure to go farther. Earlier this year Lost co-stars Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Watros left the same party, driving different cars, and were arrested on the same road just minutes apart--simultaneously inventing and taking the gold in women's synchronized drunk driving.

Yet instead of becoming outcasts, society seems to look playfully at these offenders. Consider the great Mel Gibson scandal. After being arrested for DUI, what people were really outraged about where his drunken, anti-Semitic ramblings. On every channel, for days, people clucked their tongues. Condemnations came from every corner and people went back through his old movies looking for anti-Semitic subtext. Important industry leaders were offended. And no one even seemed to remember that he had been caught with a blood-alcohol level of 0.12. Forget what Gibson said; isn't it just a little worse that he could have killed someone?

I can already hear the grumbling. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney both have DUIs on their record, so why hold Nicole Richie to a higher standard? But consider that in 2000, before his DUI arrest hit the press, Bush was leading in the polls. Shortly afterwards, he lost the popular vote. Now try to imagine how many Americans avoided seeing The Lake House specifically because Keanu Reeves drove drunk in 1993.

For some reason, celebrities get a special pass on DUIs. But it's a pass that we, their adoring public, give them. Why?

A hypothesis: We follow celebrities' personal lives so intently because they create for us the perfect illusion of a carefree life. Celebs are rich and beautiful and loved. You never actually see them working. The problems that vex them? Wardrobe malfunctions. Petty break-ups. Slightly embarrassing rumors. For most mainstream Americans, just soaking in the possibility of this unbothered life is mild rapture.

Murder and racism are crimes of wrath and hatred. But drunk driving is, fundamentally, a crime of carelessness. (And until someone gets badly hurt, an apparently harmless one.) We can't really blame celebrities for doing it. Doing untroubled, egocentric things--that's what we love them for.

Sure, Hollywood is out of touch with mainstream America when it comes to drunk driving. But maybe that's what its audience demands.

Louis Wittig is a media writer in New York.