There was something hilarious in the recent controversy over the Angelina Jolie press-coverage contract. You know, the stern, legally enforceable “contract” her reps tried to get celebrity journalists to sign as a precondition to interviewing the star during her PR blitz for A Mighty Heart, the film in which she plays the wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl.
The contract demanded that “the interview may only be used to promote the Picture. … The interview will not be used in a manner that is disparaging, demeaning or derogatory to Ms. Jolie.”
Now, I found it admirable that several media organizations rebelled against this pre-censorship and the demeaning assumption that their job is merely to “promote the picture.” Especially considering that the producers of A Mighty Heart announced that its premiere is to be a tribute to Reporters Without Borders, a group that fights restrictions on the press. (The contract was withdrawn after its embarrassing exposure, and Jolie’s lawyer took the blame for being “boneheaded” and “overzealous” in drawing it up; Jolie asserted that she “wouldn’t have put it out there.”)
But the joke of it all—the Angelina Jolie contract and the revolt against the contract—was that anyone was foolish enough to think a written contract was really necessary. When was the last time you read a celebrity profile that was “disparaging, demeaning or derogatory”?
The rules of the game, as established by the glossy magazines and the stars’ PR reps, ensure that “access” (well, a half-hour chat in a restaurant that enables the magazine to proclaim it has an “exclusive” interview) and the all-important exclusive cover shot are granted only to those magazines and journalists who will refrain from anything but fawning prose. It works out well for everybody. Celebrity journalists who play along get a good payday, magazines get newsstand sales bumps, and the rest of us are inculcated into the received myths of Celebland, the legends that sustain the illusion that it is somehow truly important.
Sure, it’s possible to publish a rant on the Web (as U.K. journalist Brendan O’Neill did in a devastating piece calling Brad and Angelina “celebrity colonialists“), but such critiques are largely irrelevant to the vast, well-oiled, pap-dispensing Publicity-Industrial Complex (a phrase I believe I was the first to use, in an essay arguing that J.D. Salinger’s rejection of this apparatus is a reticence to be admired rather than ridiculed).
The fact is, celebrities don’t need a signed contract—celebrity profilers know that the power lies in the hands of PR people, who in many cases demand writer approval before committing one of their stars to a cover story. And no profiler who makes a lucrative living off elaborate fawning wants to do anything that might jeopardize his pre-approval status.
But when it comes to fawning, there is nothing quite like the elaborate, elevated, wannabe-highbrow fawning that “gentlemen’s magazines” (mainly Esquire and GQ) do when they produce a cover story on a hot actress. And in the history of fawning gentlemen’s-magazine profiles, there is unlikely to be a more ludicrous example than the profile in the July Esquire of—yes—Angelina Jolie, which spends many thousands of words and invokes grave national tragedies to prove to us that Angelina Jolie is not just a good woman, not just an enlightened humanitarian, not just a suffering victim of celebrity, not just strong and brave, but, we are told, “the best woman in the world.”
To understand the peculiarly cringe-inducing prose of the gentlemen’s-magazine actress profile, one has to realize its conceptual fig leaf function. The main thing is that the magazine wants to publish an alluring cover photo of, say, an unclothed Angelina Jolie clutching a wispy sheet over her nakedness. But the magazine wants you to understand that it’s not running some Maxim-type lowbrow lingerie spread featuring an actress who used to be on the WB.
No, the piece is a serious profile, and there are serious reasons for running it. There are serious issues raised, there are profound questions about The Way We Live Now to be discussed. The result is a meretricious prose whose pretense at arch sophistication has become a schlock art form, the written equivalent of a Leroy Neiman nude.
Before I begin quoting from this amazing essay, I would like to say that I don’t regard this piece as an attack on the writer (whose noncelebrity work I’ve often admired), but as an attempt to rescue him, to save him from further assignments of this nature. It’s a losing game: The desperate attempt to endow celebs with Deep Meaning is not worthy of his talent.
Consider his opening paragraph. Facing a full-page, full-length “classy” cheesecake picture of an unclothed Angelina with a wispy silvery sheet clutched between her thighs, we find this piece of … prose:
This is a 9/11 story. Granted it’s also a celebrity profile—well, a profile of Angelina Jolie—and so calling it a 9/11 story may sound like a stretch. But that’s the point. It’s a 9/11 story because it’s a celebrity profile—because celebrities and their perceived power are a big part of the strange story of how America responded to the attacks upon it. And no celebrity plays a bigger role in that strange story than Angelina Jolie.
So, it’s a 9/11 story. That’s heavy, dude. And it’s a 9/11 story because, um, because, well, celebrities—which were a totally unknown phenomenon before 9/11, as everyone knows—are a 9/11 phenomenon, and Angelia Jolie is a celebrity. A stunning concatenation of insights!
Sure, it uses the death of thousands on 9/11 as a rationale for running a picture of a half-naked Angelina Jolie. But look, if we can’t exploit 9/11 when we need to add a little gravitas to that silver sheet between Angelina’s thighs, the terrorists win, right?
But are all stories about celebrities really 9/11 stories? Well, maybe, but Angelina Jolie is really the quintessential 9/11 story because—he tells us—”in post 9/11 America, Angelina Jolie is the best woman in the world because she is the most famous woman in the world—because she is not like you or me.”
Hmm, “best woman in the world”? Better than Ayaan Hirsi Ali, say, the Somalian refugee who risked her life to protest genital mutilation and stand up for Enlightenment values against theocratic oppression? (Read her book, Infidel.) Apparently, she is not famous enough.
It takes some time for the author to offer an expanded justification for this insight. First, he must present us with the obligatory gentlemen’s-magazine Hot Moment in which the author implies, “She totally woulda done me.”
In this case, it involves telling us “the main thing” about meeting Angelina Jolie:
“What is the main thing? Well, there was a moment when she unzipped her dress for me. It was sort of a requisite celebrity profile moment.” Note extremely sophisticated meta take: He’s no ordinary celebrity-profile hack, so he can both say it and not seem to be overimpressed or boastful about it.
The circumstances of the unzipped moment: He had asked to see a tattoo of an endangered species of tiger, “and she obliged, reaching her hands behind her back and pulling down her zipper. The black dress parted and in the conventions of the celebrity profile, I should have been thinking, Hey, sexy. But I wasn’t.”
I’ll leave the big reveal of the deeply philosophical, nonsexual thoughts about media and reality that he was really thinking when “the black dress parted” for those who read the entire profile for themselves.
Instead, let us follow, or attempt to follow, the rationale for Angelina Jolie being “the best woman in the world” and how that relates to 9/11 and celebrity. (The highbrow celebrity profile must always offer a novel theory of Celebrity Itself.)
And here it is—he begins with the question: “Does 9/11 still have meaning for most Americans? Does it have more meaning than celebrity? Does it have more meaning than the very specific message of meaninglessness contained in the weekly parable of Angelina Jolie’s twisted double life? Or have we reached the point where its meaning is somehow inextricable from the meaning of celebrity, as 9/11 recedes into the past and celebrity gives birth to the future?”
I’m not making this up. I’m copying it right out of the pages of a well-known magazine, which (full disclosure) I’ve written for in the past. But I will be deeply indebted to any Slate reader who can make the slightest bit of sense of this paragraph about meaninglessness. Is it an example of what they used to call at Yale “the fallacy of imitative form,” in which in order to write about meaninglessness you have to be meaningless?
Actually, I suspect it is the product of someone who has read the late George W. S. Trow’s famous essay, “Within the Context of No Context” and is attempting to ape its convoluted way of saying the obvious without even having something obvious to say.
But does anybody ever read this stuff? Does anybody take it seriously? Does the writer? It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes of prose. There’s a certain sadness to it, as well. To paraphrase that line in “Howl”: I saw some of the best writers of my generation destroyed by celebrity profiling.
I don’t think, in some puritanical Trowvian way, that there’s anything wrong with people being interested in celebrities. There’s just something condescending in the way certain magazines think they can put one over on the reader with these transparently insincere intellectual rationales for caring about celebs.
A meretriciousness that reaches a peak in the final column of the story, when we finally get the Angelina Jolie-as-victim theory that at last ties together Angelina, 9/11, the suffering of the wretched of the earth, and the analogous suffering of celebrities. It is a rule of the Celebrity Profile that celebrities Suffer for their Fame because they’re always whining on about how difficult it is to go to the supermarket without being recognized and other tragic inconveniences.
Or as our profiler puts it in Esquire: “She fulfills her vision of herself as the underdog; because she’s the underdog she connects to the world’s genuine underdogs … and so, in the end, finds meaning and a measure of happiness. It is the kind of conversion encouraged by all of the world’s major religions, but because celebrity is the religion in question here, the conversion of Angelina Jolie is regarded as out of reach—the function of fame and privilege.”
But he doesn’t stop there with the vision of the Christlike Angelina’s suffering and her “conversion” to some vague religion of celebrity. She’s not merely a Christ figure: “It’s pretty damned clear that the word that best describes her is a word the religion of celebrity has made difficult to say, and more difficult to swallow:
God that was brave of him, to call Angelina Jolie “good.”
One thing that’s a little sad about it is that there was something he could have talked about other than the meaninglessness of the meaning of celebrity: the meaning of the death of Daniel Pearl. Which, ironically, really was a 9/11 story, in that many investigators believe that Pearl was murdered by the suspected 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (who confessed, albeit after torture, to killing Pearl).
Well, I’ll let you be the judge: Read the whole thing. But I feel that in a wasteland of celebrity profiles, this one rises to immortality with its final paragraph.
Because nothing matches the stately assurance of its own self-importance, nothing reaches what I’d call the “existential pompousness” of that final paragraph, with its last sentence devoted to a reprise of the “suffering” that Angelina Jolie undergoes and how she transcends it all in her uniquely saintly, best-woman-in-the-world way:
“The people who travel with her are always amazed by how she bears up when she’s barraged by photographers.” (Statements like this always make you wonder whether she’d suffer more if no photographers bothered to badger her.) “The people who travel with her are always blinded by the flashbulbs and wonder if something’s wrong with her eyes, for she just stares at the photographers as if she’s taking them all in, and then moves forward, as if they mean nothing to her at all.” End of story.
Oh the bleak meaninglessness of fame! She’s seen through to its essential nothingness. She sees through it; her eyes are fixed on a more distant dream. He knows it, our profile writer, he’s not blinded by the lights, the way the lower orders are. He’s on a spiritual realm with her, above the foolish fame-blinded masses. A plane of pure altruism and suffering. Someday we too can aspire to the wisdom to see what they see from the perspective they share together. For this gift of hope, this glimpse of what it is to be so spiritually evolved, we must be grateful.
But meanwhile, I’ve got a great concept for a profile of Britney: See, in her suffering she’s really like Iraq. I mean if you think of K-Fed as Saddam, then the divorce was “regime change” and …
* Correction, June 20, 2007: This piece originally attributed the Pulp Fiction quote “That’s a bold statement” to Samuel L. Jackson’s character. It was John Travolta’s character who delivered the line. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) And due to an editing error, the piece originally misspelled Rosanne Cash’s first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)