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Of Sheen, the Tsunami and Brand Loyalty: Sometimes It’s Not About You, Hollywood

March 18, 2011

In the January 27 episode of 30 Rock, entitled “Operation Righteous Cowboy Lightning,” Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy discovers that the most widely watched reality programming on a network is the celebrity-studded benefit for another country’s natural disaster. To cash in on this, he has the idea of pre-taping a number of different benefits for a number of different catastrophes — a notion which would effectively give NBC the edge of being able to air its benefit on the actual night of the event, while other networks scramble to throw their own celebrity specials together.

I was reminded of this episode the other night when, in the wake of the devastating tsunami which ravaged Japan, I was flipping through my television channels when I came across an episode of Access Hollywood in which the night’s lead story was how a special-effects team was able to effectively re-create the horrors of tidal disaster during a tsunami scene in Clint Eastwood’s 2010 film Hereafter. Forget that only hours before, tens of thousands of people actually suffered through these horrors; were we seriously meant to marvel at — after seeing the footage of Japan’s misfortune — how accurate the same scenes in Hereafter were? It was tasteless. It was uncalled for. It was just another example of how detached Hollywood has become with the occurrences of the real lives of regular, non-celebrity human beings. This was not a setpiece in a Michael Bay movie. This was real life; and it all seemed to be lost on host Billy Bush.

Only weeks before, sensationalist Hollywood media had injected their own sheltered world into another set of current affairs. During the violent, bloody protests in Egypt surrounding the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, one headline on the same program heralded not that this was a precedent-setting event in the cause of Middle Eastern democracy, nor a pivotal point for the nation’s history as its citizens turned on each other with fists and stones in the street. No; in fact, its headline was that Angelina Jolie’s upcoming big-budget Cleopatra epic might have to be pushed back because some proposed shooting locations may have been compromised by the revolution. How dare the course of human events waylay a multi-million dollar film! Don’t these stupid Egyptians know who Scott Rudin is?

This is what it’s come to. This is the situation we ourselves have created, a society where our deification of celebrity has literally spurred Hollywood “news sources” to deliver to us the defining details of the world outside our homes in the simplest terms: how each new development will affect our own personal entertainment. In some ways, it’s not the fault of Billy Bush or Mario Lopez. They’re simply callous mouthpieces giving us what they think we want. Even sadder, it’s probably a.) how some of our friends and neighbors are actually learning of these events, and b.) it legitimately is what some  of us want.

And that’s just fine by Hollywood, which would love opportunity to plug its handsome faces into any situation available. They need us to need them, global catastrophe or not. They clamor for us to think, nay, know, how important they are — validating themselves by our adoration.

In fact, it reflects the many ways by which “Hollywood” has become a brand far bigger and far more powerful than Apple, Nike or Ford; any shrewd owner of a corporate conglomerate will tell you that the way to succeed in business is to adapt. If people want iPods, give them a shoe that implements their iPod music into their running routines. If people want to talk on their cellphones nonstop, invent technology that allows them to fuse their cellphone capabilities into their dashboards. It’s simple evolution. And as Hollywood the Brand continues to remain relevant, it must naturally find ways to become a part of what’s happening in the rest of the world. It must plug its spokespeople, its product, into every outlet available. This is why the immediate response from its publicity managers and PR machines is, naturally, to ship its delegates to the sites or put them on television to extol the awfulness of the situation. Even sadder, these celebrity benefits seem to prove that there seem to be people in this country who can’t, of their own moral accord, donate to relief funds on their own general principles — they need James Franco to tell them to do it. They need a famous actor’s stately voice to tell them how horrible things are over a montage of pictures and film. They need to respond to, in essence, Hollywood entertainment about the event to process the event. And Hollywood the Brand, of course, is more than happy to deliver this product to the people.

I feel that a couple of exceptions should be noted. In the eternal quest for many celebrities to “importantize” themselves in world affairs, there are among that faction some who seem to possess a higher quality of empathy. I’ve never, for instance, once doubted that Sean Penn’s ongoing relief visits to Haiti following its devastating earthquake, where Penn has rolled up his sleeves and boarded truck beds to hand out supplies to those in need, were in any way a deeper-seeded attempt to further his own notoriety. I’ve never felt that Brad Pitt’s efforts to rebuild entire neighborhoods of homes washed away by Hurricane Katrina, paid for from his own pocket, were in any way a plug for his career as an actor. And I’ve never felt that the caveats made by Bono or George Clooney — that Good Morning America or The Today Show can interview them, fine, but only if they bring their cameras along to also capture horrors in far-flung parts of the world — were part of a more self-serving purpose. There are giants among that industry, to be sure, using their fortunes, clout and voices to truly do what they can to help. These honest-to-God celebrity philanthropists have been and continue to be worth their fame in gold and resources to those who need them.

Many celebrities, however, simply come off as that blowhard at your dinner party who can’t stop talking about what he’s going to contribute to or volunteer for next. These are the stars who can’t be bothered to stop their arena tours to visit a small village or halt production on their next blockbusters to join a relief team, something any number of them have easily the money or time at their disposals to do at a moment’s notice, but will gladly sign on for a star-studded evening of telethons where they’ll be included among their equally-famous colleagues. They’re more than willing to help, sure, but there had better be cameras and Vera Wang dresses and touching musical performances. This, after all, is the kind of thing Hollywood the Brand is known for: being dramatic, while cameras are running.

Much has been made of Charlie Sheen’s apparent quest for complete, televised-and-tweeted self-destruction in recent weeks. Truly, Sheen has become the real-life counterpart character to Tom Cruise’s Frank T.J. Mackey, the loudmouthed anti-self help guru of Magnolia.  Sheen has widely and without irony continued to extol his own virtues to anyone who will listen — which, in this case, seems still to be all of us — and unabashedly admits that he is not like normal people. He is not like you or me. He and his ilk, he maintains, are among a pantheon in which we could only wish to be included: those who lead charmed, perfect, indestructable lives. You’re an alcoholic who relapsed? You’re a troll. You do what your boss says? You’re weak. You have no idea how to live your life the way Sheen lives his. Of course, it doesn’t matter to Sheen that you or I aren’t, in our near futures, going to have the luxury of making two million dollars for twenty minutes of terrible jokes each week. Sheen’s in control of his destiny, man! And if you can’t see his power, you’re worthless.

For as infinitely wise and cunningly smart as Sheen seems to think he is, however, perhaps his public-eye ranting and raving and machete-waving is simply pulling back a curtain which exists far more than we might think. Perhaps the greatest casualty to Sheen’s deteriorating mind is that he’s lost the infinitely valuable, well-guarded filter of celebrity that dictates “we know we’re better than these mouthbreathers, but we’re never supposed to act like it.” Sheen couldn’t care less about you or me. But he does care that we all want to hear every word he says; and as long as we’re listening, he’s just going to keep talking.

As I write this, Sheen is within 5,000 followers on Twitter of reaching a whopping, unheard-of three million. That means that none of us are unfollowing him as he grows further and further away from his rational mind. We’re buying more from Hollywood the Brand. We’re only feeding him. The same way we’re feeding Billy Bush’s nightly masturbations of Hollywood’s A-List. The same way we’re feeding the egos of stars who desperately need us to know how much they care about everything going on in the world and how wonderful they continue to be on and off the screen. Meanwhile, there are people — people who live in our neighborhoods, work in our workplaces and exist in our communities who are putting aside their own meager non-blockbuster payday salaries and who are not on your television in your cineplex — who are caring about this world with absolutely no profit or return in it for them whatsoever. These are the people who truly possess Tiger Blood. These are the true A-Listers. You know them. They’re the ones who send out an earnest email asking for help in donations or supplies to someone or some group in need instead of introducing Patti Labelle with a scrawling phone number across the bottom of the screen. Don’t get me wrong; I truly believe celebrities aren’t terrible people — but there are things in this world that, and some of us may be surprised to hear this, are bigger than what’s going on in Hollywood. Perhaps it’s time we stop looking to entertainment icons to tell us what to do and start listening to that quiet guy in accounting who’s putting a small relief effort together for his church or child’s school. Once we start heeding the call of those people, we begin to put our heads back into the immediate, real-life world in which we all live. That gives Hollywood the Brand a little less control over all of us — and makes us all a little smarter than Operation Righteous Cowboy Lightning gives us credit for being.

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