The Religion of Celebrity

September 9, 2006 at 7:33 pm Leave a comment

 “‘Jimmy Stewart, Everyman‘ …most likely, that image survived because Stewart was not, for the public, an actor: He was a star. And our image of stars stems not only—perhaps hardly at all—from what we see on-screen, but from what we know or invent of their personal lives. In this respect, Stewart was the anti-Mel Gibson: His upstanding reputation (Princeton graduate from a small town, genuine war hero, and husband of 45 years) made, and continues to make, his on-screen darkness a little hard to see.”From:  Jimmy Stewart’s dark vision. By David Haglund – Slate Magazine

I recently came across the above excerpted article on Jimmy Stewart, which I found to be both eye opening, and encompassing. Haglund is right on, in his analysis of the great actor’s often overlooked abilities and gives us above a biting, right on, commentary on our idealization of movie stars. 

We seem to expect our stars to be squeaky clean, never allowed to dip one toe down from the pedestal on which we have placed them.  And when they do, as almost all men will, we are so quick to excuse them, to forgive them, to fight for their innocent, perfect image, because for some reason, the world doesn’t make sense to our minds without this hierarchy of those we cannot but hope to touch.  They are our modern day gods, and their deeds our the edicts we turn to for how to live our lives.  We make them into saints, or sinners in our mind.  Saints who can do no wrong, and whom we should never forget, or sinners whose behavior like the warring Greek Gods, is utterly forgivable, because they have earned the right to be forgiven, simply by being famous.

The question of the hour seems to be in relation to Mel Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic tirade while being arrested for DUI.  The question is not, did he make such remarks?  Are such remarks wrong? Was he drinking and driving?  Does he have an alcohol problem?  Is his character flawed?  We know the answer to those questions.  No, the only questions we seem to want answered is:  How long until the world forgives him?  How long will it affect his movie career?  There is no question that he will be forgiven, his faux pas forgotten and his career revived.  It is only a matter of “Corrective PRand perhaps a scripted apology.

Then we have Tom Cruise.  Arguably, the biggest movie star in the world today. The man who was ostensibly fired by Paramount Pictures’ Viacom chairman, Sumner Redstone for his alienating strange behaviors and the escalating costs of his films.  But, strange as his behaviors may have become, the public still champions this superstar and cheers for his oddities.  Never mind that he claims to be an expert in the mental health field.  Never mind that said expertise comes from reading a book written by Scientology founder and Phoenix alum,  L. Ron Hubbard, whose “scientific” advice has not been questioned or compared against any modern medical advances in the 20 years since his death.

“Hubbard died at his ranch on January 24, 1986, reportedly from a stroke. He had not been seen in public for the previous five years. Scientology attorneys arrived to claim his body, which they sought to have cremated immediately. They were blocked by the San Luis Obispo County medical examiner, whose examination revealed high levels of a drug called hydroxyzine (brand name Vistaril), which is sometimes used for its antihistamine or anti-emetic properties, but is also psychoactive (which would make it disapproved of, if not forbidden, under Scientology doctrines). The Church of Scientology announced Hubbard had deliberately “discarded the body” to do “higher level spiritual research,” unencumbered by mortal confines.”


I cannot say everything about Scientology is harmful.  My sister went through a very effective drug rehab under their care, but: Are they really advocating suicide, as an acceptable religious sacrifice? 

Such word wrangling, was not uncommon to Hubbard. The prolific science fiction writer is hailed as a humanitarian, and religious leader. But he claimed educational degrees and military service, even careers he did not in actuality have.  He then determined to make his best selling book Dianetics, into a religion.  A religion, that for the most part, worships all things L. Ron Hubbard, including a belief of descendancy from space aliens.  But how can they build a religion around a man who did not even practice what he preached.  A man who, himself used psychoactive drugs?!

In short, Cruise’s claims of being an expert in the field of Psychiatry are not only ludicrous, but extremely damaging to a society that reveres it’s Superstars just enough to believe him. 

The fact that he recently apologized to Brooke Shields for his attacks on her use of prescription drugs to treat post-partum depression, leaves one wondering if recent events in his life, namely the birth of his daughter Suri, haggard shots, and absolute retreat from the media of girlfriend Katie Holmes, signal a possible bout with post-partum depression within the walls of his own home that he would be, understandably, laggard to admit. 

“I think John Wayne could kick Tom Cruise’s ass!” (an elderly gentleman’s response to a question regarding the state of movies today)

From: Comedy Central’s Mind of Mencia

I made sure to remember the above quote because I knew my Dad, a die-hard John Wayne fan would appreciate it.  Actually, I’ve yet to find a single soul to disagree with the statement. 

So, what does that make John Wayne?  The Zeus of our modern CelebGods?  Judging by the fact that my sister’s one year old son has, (courtesy of Grandpa), a huge portrait of The Duke hanging supremely over his crib, I would have to say yes.  In our home at least, there will never be another star like Wayne.  The 6’4″ giant, whose iconic face graces a postage stamp, whose boots fill the leading role in over 142 films, and whose heroic status is memorialized in names of airports, state parks, and countless books, songs and tributes; seems untouchable. 

“…Obsessed with projecting a positive image of both Hollywood and America, he denounced every film that, he felt, hurt the public’s notion of the industry and the country. He thus deplored the new trend of antihero films, with “psychotic weaklings as heroes,” because they were “unfair to the He-Man.” “Ten or fifteen years ago, audiences went to pictures to see men behaving like men,” whereas at present, “there are too many neurotic types,” which he attributed to “the Tennessee Williams effect on Broadway and in movies.” Williams went “far afield to find American men who are extreme cases,” he reasoned, “these men aren’t representative of the average man in the country, but they give the impression that we are a nation of weaklings who can’t keep up the pressure of modern living.”

From: Emanuel Levy, John Wayne: Prophet of the American Way of Life, The Scarecrow Press, Inc.: Metuchen, N.J. and London (1988).

Mere mortals they may be, but there is no questioning our obsession and subsequent exaltation of these celebrities.  It is only sad, when we consider that so many real heroes live out their lives in obscurity, their songs unsung, their heroic deeds inspiring no-one to greatness. Wherever the fault lies, I don’t see this as a problem that will easily go away.  Day by day we deify our celebrities each a little more, handing them power to which only they can claim responsibility.  Only the celebrities themselves can choose what to do with their ill-gotten fame.  But only we can choose to think carefully and consider which of their deeds deserve lauding.


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