What Price Shame?


The Year 2000 staggered to a Chuck Wepner sort of ending, a bruised, bloody, and beaten boxer just barely standing when the final bell dinged and Dick Clark mercifully rocked in a New Year (as only the Baron of Bloopers and Pasha of Payola can). It wasn't pretty, the ending of the first year of the New Millennium (or the last year of the Old; such confusion is part of the problem). In the closing weeks of an annus horribilis that will doubtless be remembered as the year America finally lost its innocence by killing the one TV show that incarnated beauty and grace, slamming the coffin shut on Steve (Die Laughing) Allen, and herding our fathers' Oldsmobiles off a cliff like so many buffalo, it was impossible not to be confronted with any one of three nausea-inducing spectacles.

We speak not of Dyslection 2000 which — not unlike Dick Clark's bloated, three-and-a-half-hour-long Rocking New Year, seemed to drag on and on, turning us into a nation of Rhesus monkeys anxiously wondering only when the next shock to our system would be administered and when the next ulcer would kick up. We speak not of the NASDAQ's December death rattle, the velocity and intensity of which not only made us wish that Founding Father lookalike Louis Rukeyser actually was George Washington but also pushed any number of decent Americans into unholy Internet-based relationships with trophy husband Alan Greenspan. And we speak not of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, whose gargantuan box office success is as utterly inexplicable and unsettling as Jim Carrey's decision to do a bad Sean Connery accent in the title role.

No, we speak of three other highly public, year-end spectacles that had us reaching for our Jimmy Carter signature "Vomit Buckets" — the mega-hyped weddings of Michael "Greed is Good" Douglas to Catherine "Forget Zorro, I'm actually Welsh" Zeta-Jones, Madonna "I'll teach you how to fuck" Ciccone to Guy "Snatch" Ritchie, and Kate "Almost Famous" Hudson to Chris "hung like a fucking pimple" Robinson of the Black Crowes.

Douglas and Zeta-Jones were the first and most public celebrity couple to tie the knot, at New York's Plaza Hotel in late November. News accounts of the event stressed the couple's chuckle-inducing point spread (Douglas is 56, Zeta-Jones just 31, a differential that even maximum-dose Viagra will soon struggle to overcome), the shindig's price tag (a cool $2 million), the preponderance of decidedly B-list "stars" (e.g., Art Garfunkel, Rhea Perlman), and the $1.5 million deal the obviously strapped-for-cash duo struck with British tabloid OK! for exclusive photos of the "old-fashioned…extravagant wedding."

When it came time for Madonna to "do the natural thing" and make an honest man out of the father of her second child (and, more importantly, the director of her next film), the famously reclusive singer did so semi-secretly at Scotland's Skibo Castle while surrounded by the likes of Sting (England's answer to Art Garfunkel) and Rupert Everett (the Sceptered Isle's answer to Rhea Perlman).

In a bit of bold New Year's Eve counter-programming, Kate Hudson, the daughter of Goldie Hawn and sad-sack variety show vet Bill Hudson, and Robinson, the ex-husband of former Corey Haim gal pal Lala Sloatman, went head to head with Dick Clark by saying their vows on December 31. (The ratings victory, in the end, must go to Philadelphia's answer to Dorian Gray; Clark managed to get the Baha Men live while the Hudson-Robinson party surely had to settle for a recorded version of "Who Let the Dogs Out" at their Aspen ceremony.)

What is it about such events that moves us to figuratively "blow chunks," "mug the hurpey," and "sell a Buick"? Nothing like simple matrimonial jealousy — those of us who are married are ecstatically bound to soul mates (sometimes even our own) and those of us who are single surely prefer the chill sheets of a narrow twin bed to the prospect of waking up next to a rock star.

No, it is this: the public credulity that celebrities insist on when they get married. We know that these marriages, marriage-like couplings, and declarations of lifetime love are inevitably shallow public relations ploys that have every bit as much chance of success as the second season of Survivor. We are happy to consume such spectacles on the level of pure entertainment — Michael marries Catherine is a plot twist that will be fun to watch for a couple of episodes, just as it was when Luke and Laura finally got together way back when on General Hospital. But we resist being forced to take such couplings seriously. Despite the occasional long-lasting celebrity relationship (Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, say, or Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn — and even those have seamy sides that mark them as less than dream romances), the simple fact is that Dennis Hopper's eight-day marriage to Michelle Phillips in 1970 remains the Hollywood standard. Whether the stars themselves understand this as they enter another doomed covenant is another matter, of course, and one that is ultimately irrelevant.

Indeed, it's worth recalling the legendary love matches that went south in 2000, a roll call that includes Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan (she's really in love with Russell Crowe, whose star just happens to be on the rise); Ted Turner and Jane Fonda (Hanoi Jane is now married to Christ, a coupling that seems as doomed to failure as her unions with Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden, and The Mouth of the South); Dennis Rodman and Carmen Electra (bouts of sobriety, like bouts of drunkenness, can doom certain relationships); Bruce Willis and Demi Moore (thinking up stupid names for kids just isn't enough to keep parents from growing apart); Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche (Heche's love that dared speak its name on every possible occasion strangely cooled along with Ellen's career); and Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher (shortly after snagging a Rolling Stone cover with celebrity sperm donor David Crosby). Certainly, the clock is ticking on such latter-day Abelards and Heloises as Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, Frank Gifford and his third wife, Kathie Lee.

What are the odds out of Vegas that Kate Hudson and Chris Robinson will be watching the same sunrise come January 1, 2002? About as good as the odds that the Black Crowes front man will make it through a tour without collapsing from exhaustion or trying to share the missus with occasional tour mate Jimmy Page. Far more likely they will follow the path of the bride's biological father, the aforementioned Bill Hudson, currently being dropped like a Led Zeppelin by wife number 2, Cindy Williams, who cites "irreconcilable differences" and is trying to deny the former love of her life spousal support.

"Contemporary stars are well-paid but impotent puppets," writes economist Tyler Cowen in his engaging recent study of celebrity, What Price Fame?. Cowen traces the evolution of fame from a phenomenon associated with military leaders who often demanded sacrifice from their citizens to a commercial-based process by which an audience seeks pleasure through symbolic affiliation. "They serve their fans rather than making their fans serve them," argues Cowen — a point worth remembering when faced with the next supposed love match of the ages between celebrities. Today's stars get to live like royalty, soaking up huge amounts of money for relatively little effort, getting freebies for which they can afford to pay, and even having sandwiches named after them (something even Ajax, Achilles, and Hector never accomplished). But surely it is too much to ask of us that we take seriously the idea that recovering "sex addict" Michael Douglas, regardless of occasionally watchable film performances, is in true love. Indeed, realists that we are, we suspect that a reported $5 million "fling fine" written into Douglas' pre-nup will fail to keep the Oscar winner on the straight and narrow; after all, if OK! is willing to pay $1.5 million for wedding photos, it would gladly throw $5 million at celebrity porn shots. Until that footage surfaces — and it will, in one form or another — we (and our truly significant others) will take a page from Prof. Cowen and amuse ourselves at the stars' expense.

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.