Last March, the veteran British performer Jim Broadbent won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Iris. Broadbent has had a varied career, consistently brilliant if not high profile. He was the very fulcrum of the establishment in The Secret Agent and killed as William Schwenck Gilbert in the Gilbert and Sullivan movie Topsy Turvy.
The night after the awards, David Letterman's "Top Ten List" consisted of "Top Ten Things Best Supporting Actor Jim Broadbent Did Today." The digs, felt perhaps a little more keenly than usual that night, included:
"Purchased baseball cap and sunglasses, so he can go out in public without getting sunburned."
"Asked phone company to check his line, because no one's called all day."
That the premise seemed to say less about Broadbent's comparative obscurity, and more about Letterman and his staff's ignorance of Broadbent's career, didn't matter. The host and the audience laughed, with license.
See, Jim Broadbent got an Academy Award, and getting an Academy Award makes you a public figure, and being a public figure means you get a big target painted on your back.
Recently, one of the idiots on the Fox News Channel -- mighta been a comedian, mighta been a bureau chief, it's hard to tell -- decided to refer to Hillary Clinton as a lesbian. It's not true, and even if it had been, there might be a bit of a debate over whether discussing someone's sexual orientation in a non-news context belongs on something that calls itself a news channel.
But Hillary Clinton is a lightning rod of a senator, and being a senator makes you a public figure, and being a public figure means you get a big target painted on your back.
Several years ago, someone pilfered videotapes of the actress Pamela Anderson having sex with her husband from a vault in her home. The tapes have been sent across the Internet, bootlegged and, in short, played and replayed more frequently than Law & amp; Order episodes on cable. When Anderson tried to get a court to enjoin some of the Web sites that were showing what was on this stolen property, the judge laughed her out of the legal system.
Obviously, Pamela Anderson is a near-naked actress, and becoming an actress makes you a public figure, and becoming a public figure means you get a big target painted on your back.
Last summer, the late and unlamented gossip columnist of the New York Post, Neal Travis, took some prepublication magazine hype from the then-manager of the New York Mets about how baseball was ready for an openly gay player and twisted it into meaning that the manager was clearing the way for one of the team's star players to out himself. Travis felt himself licensed to tell the ages-old rumor that a Mets star player cohabited with a local television personality. Shortly thereafter, the Mets' star player, Mike Piazza, held an impromptu news conference in which he denied he was gay.
Mike Piazza is a major league baseball player, and being a baseball player makes you a public figure, and being a public figure means you get a big target painted on your back.
This all came to mind earlier this month during the sentencing of Winona Ryder. It is safe to say that all respect has been erased - and that that erasure has happened during the exact same time that formerly acceptable targets of humor and criticism have been gradually ruled out of bounds. Ten years ago, it was still hilarious for movies to make sport of drunk drivers. Thirty years ago, Don Rickles' act was a string of ethnic and racial insults that would, today, get him dragged before the International Court at The Hague. Fifty years ago, two white men wearing blackface and doing outrageously stereotyped voices were among the most beloved figures on network radio.
Women, minorities, stutterers, the physically challenged and a hundred other groups that couldn't hit back used to provide fodder for our public giggling. They are no longer available, yet our appetite for giggling must still be fed. So at some point, we gave ourselves the right to focus on the famous with impunity.
It goes far beyond comedy, of course. Very few defendants would learn, as Ms. Ryder did, that the night before their sentencing the prosecution had decided to broadcast internationally the specific prescription medicines they had in their handbags at the time of their arrest (especially if, like Ryder, they faced no charges for possessing them). Very few defendants would be told that on a first-time shoplifting charge, they were receiving special treatment because they didn't go to jail.
Celebrities have become our last unprotected minority group, the final authorized whipping boys. One of the smartest and deepest people I've ever known, an actress friend of mine, sums it up very nicely. She thinks all this is a direct product of the Puritans and their stocks and scarlet letters. We feel that celebrities have sinned and must pay the price. "We treat celebrities," she says, "like animals in a zoo. They are caged for viewing and serve at our pleasure. They must submit to being poked with sticks in exchange for the free service and cushy digs. But they don't get it for nothin' -- we want payback. Especially if they get uppity."