|In 1988—I think it was ‘88—my older son asked if I’d take him to the Tyson-Spinks fight. You may re-member it; this is the one that lasted roughly five punches and 38 seconds. When we got to the Trump venue where the fight was being held, a functionary whose job it was to collar “celebs” steered my son and me toward a room where, he said, we could relax, eat canapés, and meet others of our ilk. Other celebs, in other words.
I don’t recall if the guy mentioned privacy as well as canapés, but if he did, the son of a gun lied. The room—which my son remembers as being the size of a banquet hall—was full of photographers and those soft-news people who are always more interested in who showed up than they are in what happened. Each time a new celeb made his or her entrance, the paparazzi would school like tuna to-ward a new feeding ground, yelling “Oprah!” or “Jack!” (The first thing celebs lose is their last names.) At some point—around the time I was thinking I ought to get my son out of there, the atmosphere was that lynch-party feverish—Sean Penn walked in, holding hands with Madonna.
The reporters and paparazzi went nuts. “Sean!” they shouted. “Over here! Madonna! Hey, give us a smile, honey!” The room seemed to shrink in that flashgun glare, a light that’s both brilliant and somehow thin; it’s the way you see things when you’re suffering a high fever.
Madonna fed on it—this, at least, is my son’s memory. We are both in agreement, however, that Mr. Penn was caught flat-footed. Like me, maybe he had foolishly assumed that “a place to relax and get away from the crowds” meant a place of relative privacy.
They made one seemingly endless circuit of the room with the press in full pursuit, Mr. Penn tugging his sweetie by the hand. They passed close to my location, and I got a good look at the expres-sion of horror on Penn’s face. It was the face of a young man who’s finally beginning to understand what he’s gotten himself into.
This memory comes back to me whenever I hear that a soft-news press pool has hired an air-craft to get pictures of a “celeb wedding,” or when I see front-page tabloid photographs of some celeb who has either put on a lot of weight (indicating heartbreak) or lost a lot (indicating cancer, and ne-cessitating use of the word “brave,” as in BRAVE [INSERT CELEB’S FIRST NAME] FACES CANCER WITH HELP OF EX-WIFE… AND GOD!). I think of Mr. Penn and his one stunned How-do-I-get-outta-here? cir-cuit of the “celeb room” every time I read a bit of tattle about who bought what (and for how much; that’s always important), then stiffed the waiter at lunch. I thought of him recently when I noted that at least one immensely popular magazine—not this one, I’m happy to say—had invented the one-word moniker Bennifer for Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez… as if their romance summed up everything we’d ever care to know about them. Are they talented? Can they sing, dance, and act? Doesn’t matter. When dealing with celebs, talent’s a side issue.
I know that some actors and singers relish the limelight, but for others the hysterical quality of the coverage first becomes disturbing, then rather terrible as they discover that there’s no way out, that a normal life is now denied them. Can you imagine Mr. Affleck and Ms. Lopez (that’s J. Lo to you, buster) ever dining quietly à deux in a neighborhood restaurant? For that matter, can you imagine them having a neighborhood?
Many people have no patience with this point of view. Celebs like “Bennifer,” they argue, live in a way “the rest of us” can only dream about, eating caviar in private jets while the rest of us stand in airport lines for hours, waiting to be groped at the security checkpoint. Unless their financial wallahs screw up, celebs never have to look at a price tag or calculate the cost of a restaurant meal. Want a vacation home in Aruba? It’s yours. How ‘bout a brand-new Porsche? Drive it away. Life’s a freebie for celebs, this argument goes, so how dare they complain?
Right. And everyone laughs at you if you’re off-kilter and go out in public wearing a veil; they call you WACKO JACKO. And you’ll never get to look at a price tag because you’ll never be able to shop in a store—unless the management shuts it down, that is. When you drive your new Porsche away, you’ll see the “fotogs” trailing along behind in your rearview mirror, snapping and snapping. To most of the world, you’re just a freak with a pretty face.
Life’s a banquet for celebs; your waiter will gladly settle for an autograph instead of a tip. (Es-pecially since he can sell it on eBay for big bucks, if he’s ever really hard up.) But there is a price to be paid. I think Sean Penn’s sad face sticks in my mind because I saw him on the night when he was realiz-ing it was too high. Eat all you want, sure. But all too often you get to the end of the meal and dis-cover that you’re for dessert.
As promised, here’s the answer to EW’s First Annual Hollywood Babble-On Competition: Candlestick Park