Emote Control

Angelina, Britney, and the art of the celebrity interview.

Angelina Jolie

The primary value of last night’s ferociously dull special edition of Anderson Cooper 360° lay in its status as a two-hour reminder of what CNN does worst. Cooper’s guest was the noted childbearing philanthropist Angelina Jolie, and the lesson was that, with the exception of the charming and resourceful Jeanne Moos, the many-headed Cable News Network couldn’t cover popular culture if you gave it a tarp. The most risible evidence of its incompetence airs weeknights at 11 p.m. ET on Headline News in the form of Showbiz Tonight, an entertainment newsmagazine that’s too classy to be fun and too dumb to be intelligent. It just sits there in a cheap glaze of smarm and secondhand stardust. Likewise, Cooper’s exclusive postpartum chat with Mr. Pitt’s better two-thirds—a good get, as they say—was so dignified and sincere that not a single quote escaped from the best lips of our era. Worse, his look at her humanitarian work with refugees did the cause a moderate disservice.

But my first beef with “Angelina Jolie: Her Mission & Motherhood” is that the host spent part of the interview sitting with his legs crossed in a way that not only obscured our view of Jolie’s fine ankles but also caused the bottom of his right shoe to face the camera—a fireable offense at Al Jazeera, I should think. In addition to the lace-ups, which may need to be resoled, Cooper wore a dark suit, an open-collared blue shirt, and an expression that alternated between faintly nervous awe and appropriately stern concern. The actress wore a conservative black dress that performed double duty by obscuring her new-mommy figure and urging us all to remember that she was here not in her capacity as the object of our filthy cravings but as a U.N. goodwill ambassador. Everything she said was consistent with the dress, and while none of it was at all memorable, she said it with poise and eloquence.

Unfortunately, the network was not half as articulate. Early on, Cooper set up one of his fawning questions by referring to problems Jolie has had getting her message heard through “this blur of sort of endless suffering in Africa.” Then he went on to duplicate it, introducing a slew of indistinguishable dispatches about inhumanity in the sub-Sahara. The various reporters did very little in terms of explaining the tribal pasts, the political presents, or the long-term futures involved with half a dozen catastrophes. Rather, they simply spoke over shot after shot of people on the edge of death. Just as I was wondering when they’d tell me what I could do for the price of a cup of coffee, CNN showed a 1-800 number. Maybe this was admirable, but the footage of so much inhumanity with so little context doesn’t do much to humanize the victims.

In the almost-a-year-now since Cooper surfed Hurricane Katrina to superstardom, has anyone forwarded the idea that the key to his particular success as a newsman is that he is a Vanderbilt? Whereas the on-air styles of such anchors as Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather are bound up with their urges to bounce up and out of the middle-American middle class, an aristocrat like Coop is acting, in some way, out of noblesse oblige, and it showed both in his righteousness in New Orleans and in his courtliness with Jolie. He would never even begin to think of slithering around the what’s-off-limits agreement his producers worked out with the do-gooder’s handlers.

Thankfully, Matt Lauer, though a son of Manhattan’s upper middle class, has no such inhibitions. It has now been 20 months since Barbara Walters retired from 20/20, and Lauer’s June 15 Dateline NBC sit-down with Britney Spears—a conversation focusing on her career, her judgment in selecting spouses, and her “so-called mommy mistakes”—suggests that he is the new master of the celebrity interview, which is not an art but, like boxing, a science. In “Britney Spears Speaking Out,” Lauer looked like Sugar Ray Leonard at the ‘76 Olympics.

Choosing his wardrobe properly, he wore a linen jacket, blue jeans, loafers, and, in a virtuoso touch, no socks. He introduced Britney Spears—her yellow hair stringy, her denim skirt shredded, her maternity top translucent—as the “defiant Britney Spears.” Who was she defying? Bonnie Fuller? Gawker? Or maybe her own publicist? Watching this masterpiece, I started to think that her PR rep ought to be canned for again allowing Spears in front of a camera with gum in her mouth. Then I realized that homegirl was simply keeping it real. Lauer’s producer, Deborah Trueman, chose to capture much of the interview with a shaky hand-held camera, lending the chat the naturalistic air of cinéma vérité or perhaps gonzo porn.

And as the camera weaved and jabbed, so did Lauer—trying trick questions with a faux-ingenuous smile (“I love to hear mothers describe their children!”); playing to the home audience (Matt: “How’s your marriage?” Brit: “Awesome, thank you.” Matt: ” ‘Awesome’?”); calling his subject out for scrunching her face around so that she looked “almost like a little puppy.” He sparked the climactic crying jag by asking what she thought it would take to get the paparazzi to leave her alone. Speaking through her tears, snapping her gum through her speech, Britney made a plea for respect. There followed five minutes of happy talk, and then everybody went home. The Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University should make this Dateline episode required viewing. My only complaint is that they did not give more play to her masterwork, “Toxic.”

In the kind of coincidence that Paul Auster would call fate, today is also the fifth anniversary of the best bad celebrity interview of our time. There, the interviewer and subject also talked about Africa, AIDS, and the United Nations—not to mention debt cancellation, mortality, Radiohead, and Dublin. A choice excerpt:

CHARLIE ROSE: How often do you just get tired of it and say, you know, just—I got to get away, I’ve got to—I can’t—BONO: Oh, I can’t stand—CHARLIE ROSE:—I can’t take one more—BONO:—whingeing pop stars. I mean, I really—they—that really—CHARLIE ROSE: Yes.BONO:—you know, that really upsets me, the whingeing rock stars. I look—I know I’m spoiled.