Books: Fame in the 20th Century, Chapter Seven: Towering Earthquake, 1969-1981 |
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Fame in the 20th Century, Chapter Seven: Towering Earthquake, 1969-1981

In the quarter of the twentieth century since World War II, America’s position as the world’s dominant cultural power had grown beyond challenge. Could the Russians produce an Elvis Presley? Where was the Chinese Frank Sinatra? No, America decided who became world-famous and the most famous American, the President, was the focus of the whole world’s attention — even when he played with a yo-yo, was seen in public with Spiro Agnew, or turned out to have two close friends called Bebe Rebozo and Bob Ablanalp.

President Nixon was short of style. Still painfully aware that JacKennedy’s charm was not among his own attributes, Nixon admitted that he lacked charisma. He could have been less nervous about making the admission. Nixon’s abilities were real. Kennedy had been famous for inviting Pablo Casals to play in the White House. But when Nixon invited Duke Ellington, Nixon could do what Kennedy had never actually been able to — he could play the piano. So Nixon performed one o f his own compositions on television. By nature he would never be entirely comfortable with the medium, but he looked less uncomfortable all the time. A lot of people out there were as awkward as he was. They weren’t glamour-pusses either. Young long-hairs who smoked illicit substances mightn’t like him, but most people with a stake in the set-up thought Nixon was at least competent. His notorious tricksiness turned into fame for being hard to fool. Nixon wouldn’t do anything stupid out of misplaced romanticism. The heavy had become the leading man.
The leading man took on a sidekick, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger was Nixon’s roving troubleshooter on foreign policy. He had a foreign accent to match. Kissinger never learned to speak like an American because he never listened. He was a bright man who always knew best. But he had one weakness. He simply loved being famous, because it made tall women love him. Here was the century’s clearest proof that fame really must be an aphrodisiac. With Kissinger to advise him, Nixon turned the world stage from a metaphor into a fact. He actually went to China instead of just sending messages. By being there, he identified American worldwide influence with himself. Go anywhere, do anything. He went to Moscow and did the same thing again. Nixon was making it look like America’s world. Somewhere back there behind the Kremlin, Brezhnev had a secret collection of American cars. Nixon wasn’t collecting Russian ones. He was there to prove that he had the moral edge, the historic stature.
Vietnam looked like the only thing Nixon couldn’t fix with a personal appearance. For young people at home and abroad, the war was his fault. Some of the more reprehensible aspects of it undoubtedly were. Nixon and Kissinger conspired to bomb Cambodia without Congress finding out. It was illegal, and when the news leaked many Americans of good heart began to despair of their system of government. Jane Fonda was a famous young film star from a family of film stars. She first came to prominence as a back-combed mindless love object in Barbarella. But the film’s director, Roger Vadim, helped introduce her to the world of ideas. One of the ideas was that a female film star should be something more than a sex symbol. Reborn as a politically aware person, Fonda was admired by all for trying to make intelligent films. She got a more mixed reception when she tried to make political points. First she came out against the Vietnam War. Then she risked her career by going to Hanoi in protest at her own country’s aggressive policy towards innocent freedom fighters. The innocent freedom fighters were delighted when she agreed to pose on an anti-aircraft gun otherwise employed to shoot down American bombers. Staking her fame on a point of principle made Fonda more famous than ever, but she came home with no guarantee that she would ever be allowed to star in films again.
If Nixon had had his way, she wouldn’t have. Behind the scenes, he set the tax authorities to harass famous enemies while upfront he was gladhanding his famous friends, who gladhanded him right back. One of them was Frank Sinatra, who had switched allegiances after the Kennedys, worried about the bad publicity attached to his alleged Mafia connections, shut him out. Since it was not unknown that JFK had shared a mistress with a mobster, Sinatra had a right to feel hard done by. And the hard done by were Nixon’s constituency.
It looked as if Nixon and his buddy Henry could handle anything. The silent majority knew that if the only way out of Vietnam was to do a deal, then Dick and Henry would be the ones to do it. Nixon had proved that he was the one with the staying power. When the going gets tough the tough get going. It was his favourite saying. Patton was his favourite movie. But all the media attention that made it look as if Mister Fix wasn’t so bad after all couldn’t be turned off when it transpired that a private commando group financed by CREEP, the committee to re-elect him, had broken into the Watergate complex in Washington with the intention of bugging Democratic Party headquarters. Weatherbeaten political observers who knew that Presidents had always done unsavoury things were stunned only because Nixon hadn’t needed to do something so risky. He was going to win anyway. But for young idealists everywhere Watergate was heaven sent. The villain who had been threatening to turn into a tough-guy hero was back to being a villain again, and this time he was double-dyed.
The villain fought a long and bitter rearguard action. If he had been a snowman he might have melted quickly. But he was up there on the world’s television screens for ages, denying the undeniable. He had kept tapes of everything he said in the Oval Office. When the Senate Committee forced him to hand them over, he coughed up an edited version from which the crucial conversations were magically missing. Enough bad language was left in for the media to hang him all over again, but Nixon didn’t have to curse to stand self-condemned. When he started admitting some of what he had previously been denying, coming clean sounded as furtive as the cover-up.
Nixon had disgraced himself and desecrated the Presidency. He brought fame itself into doubt. A world of sceptics had been created, who from now on would always wonder about the real story behind the aura. The sneaking suspicion that Mother Teresa might really be after a recording contract started with Nixon. Vietnam was just a lost war. When Nixon left the White House, it was a lost world. No American public official above the rank of dogcatcher would ever be fully trusted again. After Watergate, the American public was ready for a heartwarming movie that showed healthy family values at work, even if the family were gangsters. The Godfather was made before the crisis burst but could now be seen in its full significance. All of Marlon Brando’s old fame plus a slice more returned when he played Don Corleone. Brando as the all-seeing, all-wise head mobster was a fantasy that the worldwide audience wished was real: an American President who knew what was going on and did not screw up. Off-screen, however, Brando was not the man in charge, he was just a famous actor, and he was more trouble than he was worth. Nobody much minded the way he used his fame to make a fuss about the American Indians. After all, it wasn’t as bad as Jane Fonda making a fuss about the North Vietnamese. But Brando didn’t just use his power to fight the government. He used it to fight Hollywood. It had got to the point where nobody would bankroll a movie with him as the star. There was a nagging fear that he might eat the budget.
As Brando’s girth grew huge, he left a vacuum into which a new generation of screen stars was eager to expand. They didn’t let the system run them. They ran it. The press called them superstars. In the trade they were called gorillas. The most engaging gorilla was Jack Nicholson. After a long apprenticeship in obscurity he had become famous in the late sixties in Easy Rider, playing the sceptical lawyer who was too smart for the system. In the seventies he played the same part on screen and off. Even in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, when he was supposed to be a madman, he was a sane madman. It was the system that was insane. The only hope was to live by your own rules. Nicholson did this off-screen as well as on. He said and did what he felt like. He also ate what he felt like and did nothing about his thinning hair except sketch in a bit of extra darkness with eyebrow pencil. Nicholson’s core audience was the original youth culture growing older along with him. He was their proof that a first generation Rolling Stone reader could make millions of dollars and not lose touch with his Grateful Dead albums.
Warren Beatty was another gorilla who made his own rules. On screen his appeal consisted mainly of an improbably handsome face and a touching conviction that if he spent a long time searching for a word it added up to drama. But off-screen he built up a reputation rivalling Errol Flynn’s for his prowess as a seducer. He did this mainly by spending a long time searching for a word while current, ex- and would-be girlfriends revealed all to the press. He also took a long time searching for the right films, which were hardly ever as successful as his publicity. No star talked less and no star was more talked about. It was uncannily good career management and it was all his idea. Warren was in business for himself.
Clint Eastwood was an industry by himself. Of all the gorillas, he did the most thorough job of starting his own branch of the film business and running it on corporate lines. Before Watergate he starred in a string of westerns playing a mysterious bounty hunter who said virtually nothing while the music did all the talking. After Watergate Eastwood continued with the westerns but shifted his main marketing emphasis to an alternative line of product featuring himself as a cop fighting a lone battle against crime, his own police department, and the strange reluctance of soft-bellied liberals to put the bad guys away for good. His co-star was the biggest gun not mounted on a battleship. Eastwood had Magnum Force — his fame. Hollywood was a den of thieves but he had it beaten. He set up his own movies, took his cut up front, owned a percentage of the gross, and employed all the people who would once had been employing him.
Robert De Niro had even more guns than Clint Eastwood. In Taxi Driver he was a one-man arsenal and as mad as a hatter. De Niro studied taxi driving and madness in order to play the role. When he had to play Jake La Motta, a boxer who got fat, De Niro put on fifty pounds, something not even Marlon Brando had done deliberately. De Niro changed himself so completely for each role that the public had trouble remembering what he looked like. But everyone knew his name. He was Hollywood’s first choice of star for any role meant to portray the psychosis, squalor and generally irredeemable sleaze of life in America.
The most unlikely gorilla was Robert Redford because he was boyishly clean-cut and innocent in the old teen-movie manner. But now that almost every starring role was about a man alone against corruption and hypocrisy, not even Redford could get away with being a conventional hero on the side of the law. Reprising the sixties’ hit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the story of a couple of lovable outlaws, Redford and Paul Newman had a huge seventies’ hit with The Sting, the story of a couple of lovable con-men. Redford was so famous that any movie he wanted to make got made. He and the other gorillas had the movie business tied up. It was pure power. In Redford’s case power never looked more pure — his teeth were so friendly — but power was what it was: the power of fame.
The new famous film stars knew all the rules of being famous film stars, andm the new famous TV stars knew all the rules of being famous TV stars. There had been a time when a star stuck in a TV series dreamed only of graduating into the movies, like Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen. But now TV stardom had its own sky for a limit. Every film star except Redford was playing criminals and psychos. The small screen was wide open for the maverick crimefighter. He worked outside the system, with the implication that the system could not be trusted to deliver justice. Starring in Ironside, Raymond Burr was a crippled President like FDR with the mind of Sherlock Holmes. He also had a dedicated team of assistants who called him ‘Chief’. But essentially he was a law unto himself. The man of integrity within was unhampered by his injuries. The only downside of being Ironside was that the popular press called him Ironside far more often than they called him Raymond Burr.
William Conrad was Cannon, another maverick crimefighter with a physical problem. Cannon’s handicap was an acute food dependency. But the man of integrity within was untouched. William Conrad had been a feature-list actor in movies. In TV he was an international star. Once again, the only drawback was that the popular press hardly ever remembered the name William Conrad. Yet people all over the world remembered the name Cannon. The expression ‘William Conrad is Cannon’ meant what it said.
Peter Falk was Columbo, yet another maverick crimefighter for a country which had come to believe that only a maverick crimefighter could get results. The man of integrity within was untouched by his dirty raincoat. Like all the other maverick crimefighters, Columbo could be easily exported to other countries. The initial costs were covered in the huge American domestic market, so the sell-on cost for export was low. But since the canny Falk had staved off over-exposure by restricting the supply of product to six episodes a year, the Bulgarian public panicked, thinking they were being deprived of Columbo by state censorship. Falk broadcast to Bulgaria to reassure that country’s desperate population that he would be back — or rather that Columbo would.
The most normal-looking of the maverick crimefighters was James Garner in The Rockford Files. His movie career had been interesting but chancy. As Rockford he was working all the time, although he didn’t know that the production company had an accounting system which would result in his share of the net profit disappearing into production expenses even though the gross profit was astronomical. Garner’s trusting nature fitted the character. Rockford was an honest poor man fighting the corrupt rich. His house was a trailer and he was the man of integrity within. Garner was Rockford, Rockford took Garner over, and Garner was never quite as famous as Rockford again.
The most maverick of the maverick crimefighters was Kojak, played by Telly Savalas. Savalas was a prominent name in the feature list of some big movies. But Kojak was a big television name all over the world. Kojak’s catchphrase was translated into most of the languages on Earth: ‘Who loves ya, baby?’ American television software was taking over the global market like Japanese television hardware, and the star got world-famous along with it. But international television fame was a kind of half fame, like the moon. The dark side was the actor’s name. The bright side was the character’s name. Kojak. Anyone could say that.
International television had become a highly efficient way of making almost anything world-famous, but an act that appealed to the whole family got most famous. And if a whole family was the act, then the result was the Osmonds, the most effective weapon of cultural aggression America had developed since flavoured chewing gum. The Osmonds were a multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicle which went off in the world’s households and injected every member of the family with a lethal dose of neat sugar. There was someone in the Osmond family for everyone to love. Teenage girls loved Donny, whose teeth were so dazzling, and so numerous, that it was difficult to count them. It was an open question who loved little Jimmy. The appeal of the nubile Marie was more easily explained, although there was a Julie Andrews-type wholesomeness factor which tended to set limits to illicit lust.
As they died off, older members of the family could presumably always be replaced from an apparently infinite supply of younger ones. So there seemed, on the face of it, no reason why the Osmonds should not go on for ever. The Osmonds themselves were less disposed to put faith in the extended life of a fad. As good Mormons they turned over a tenth of their enormous earnings to the tabernacle, invested the rest, lived clean and counted their blessings.
For older and spiritually less focused entertainers in search of a version of eternal life that had twenty-four-hour room service, Las Vegas turned into a place where they could grow old gracelessly. It was a kind of elephants’ graveyard where they sold their own ivory before crashing to their knees for the last time. F. Scott Fitzgerald had once famously said that there were no second acts in American lives. Elvis Presley proved that his life did have a second act, and it was a farce. He performed as a parody of himself, kept in motion by the memory of his old mannerisms and chemical assistance administered by various means. Projected from Las Vegas to the waiting world, his image was of an historical figure raking through his own filing cabinets in search of raw material. There was nothing new. His only triumph was still to be there. He was a man in his prime reminiscing like an old-age pensioner, practicing to be a memory.
Liberace’s later phase was undignified too, but in a less degrading way because he had never been dignified in the first place. Glitz had always been his thing and in Vegas he took it to the point of apocalypse. To the millions of blue-rinsed mothers who had always loved him he was beginning to look like one of them. To observers out there in the civilized world, the American celebrity register had begun to look like a graveyard of the living dead. It was as if bodysnatchers from space had turned famous people into zombies programmed to be themselves for ever, with an endless supply of wigs and a permanently renewable annual appointment with the plastic surgeon.
Frank Sinatra started an alarming cycle of saying goodbye and then returning. His first return happened before anyone realized he had been away. It was announced with the slogan: ‘Ol’ Blue-Eyes is back’. No one had ever called him Ol’ Blue-Eyes. The slogan was thought up by an ad man. The way the press swallowed it for worldwide regurgitation tipped off everyone in the celebrity business that there was now so much media attention available that no story could fail. At Sinatra’s forty-years-in-showbiz concert all his famous acquaintances turned out to compete with each other on worldwide television in proving how well they knew him. His friend Sammy Davis Junior was only the runner-up. The winner was Orson Welles, whose gustatory habits had given the bodysnatchers a lot to work on. Welles rose hugely to the challenge of extolling Sinatra’s virtues, calling him a pirate and a pussycat. ‘And ultimately and forever,’ growled Welles fondly, ‘he is undefeated.’ He made Sinatra sound like London in the Blitz.
Welles still dreamed of making movies and from time to time actually did so, but what he mainly did was make commercials. Trading on his fame as a genius, he recommended upmarket goods for financial reward. A brand of booze heard itself being plugged as ‘probably’ the finest in existence. It paid the hotel bills. Finally he was not even a body, just a voice. Welles the voice-over graced enough commercials to keep him alive. When he died, mimics continued the work, convincing the listener that Welles was in some sense still active, searching out ‘probably’ peerless products to satisfy his discriminating taste. The fame he had earned as a boy genius had lasted him a lifetime, and beyond.
Fame had become a branch of eternity where what you did might be forgotten but your name would live always, because even if you buried yourself the media would dig you up again. Las Vegas was the last refuge of the billionaire eccentric Howard Hughes. In a guarded hotel suite, doing nothing except grow his hair and fingernails until they threatened to fill the bedroom, he sought oblivion. His punishment was to be remembered. The media remembered his pre-war record-breaking feats with aeroplanes. They remembered his record-breaking feats with women. They remembered the huge flying boat he designed that never flew more than a hundred yards. They remembered the bra he designed to lift Jane Russell’s bosom into the firing position. They remembered everything about him, but still couldn’t figure out that the real reason why he had run and hid was because he remembered them.
Hughes, as rich as any monarch and with more freedom of action, had chosen not to live with his fame. It raised the question of whether those other famous old people would go on riding the bandwagon if they knew how to get off. Few of them had enough power to choose, and certainly not the film stars. Prisoners of an expensive way of life, most of them kept working even when they wee no longer in a position to choose their work. The disaster movie was a typical post-Watergate exercise in absolute cynicism. Its appeal depended on a plentiful supply of famous names to get killed off by the disaster. In Earthquake, Los Angeles was destroyed by a special effect. Ava Gardner, an ex-star, fell down a lift shaft. Charlton Heston lasted longer because he was still good for a few more leading roles, although only just. In Towering Inferno, a skyscraper was set alight by corrupt wiring installed by unscrupulous big business. Robert Wagner died in the flames. So did Richard Chamberlain. But Paul Newman and Steve McQueen both survived, because they were still bankable enough to insist. The disaster movie was the exact expression of what fame had become: the survival of the fittest. Management was everything.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were a disaster movie all by themselves. They got married for the second time, seemingly for no other purpose except to stage a repeat performance of their well-established round of extravagance, ill-judged would-be artistic projects, well-publicized affection, better-publicized disaffection, disintegration and divorce. It was Towering Earthquake II. Together they were equal: two halves of a complete nightmare. But apart, Taylor knew how to live with her fame, because there was no real discrepancy between it and what she was capable of. She didn’t get in its way. For Burton, nagged if not haunted by a sense that he might have done better things if his fame had not taken over his life, the prognosis was not so good.
A one-man disaster movie was President Gerald Ford, of whom ex-President Johnson cruelly said that he had played too much football without his helmet. The second famous Ford of the century was no relation to Henry and no comparison either. The press picked up on his physical clumsiness and ruled him out of contention for heroic status. America’s new and unprecedented fear that it might no longer be in control of events was reflected in the behaviour of its heroes, who, even if they did well, seemed to be representing themselves rather than their country.
The swimmer Mark Spitz won more Olympic gold medals than Johnny Weissmuller. But his chief aim in life was to translate his fame as a sportsman into a career as a pop singer. As a pop singer he was a swimmer who breathed in at the wrong moment, and drowned. America had a world chess champion, Bobby Fischer. The whole world knew his name, but not because he was America’s great chess player. It was because he was America’s great maniac. The Russian champion Boris Spassky was sane by comparison, since he was merely inclined to suspect electronic surveillance by the CIA and walk in fear of poisoned yogurt. He was right to be paranoid about Fischer, who kicked him under the table. Fischer beat Spassky at chess, but the Soviets came out of the contest looking more like a world power. America was turning out screwballs.
The Soviets had a huge PR success with their pre-pubescent champion gymnast Olga Korbut. Little Olga could do everything Americans had ever done. She was as precocious as Shirley Temple, no bigger than Mickey Mouse, she flew through the air like Superman and she could dance to pop music. The Russians were turning out prodigies. They turned out Solzhenitsyn altogether. Expelled by the KGB, he carried the message of his great book The Gulag Archipelago to an astonished world. The book was an exposé of the Soviet Union’s long-standing reign of terror against its own people and the world should not have been astonished. But Stalin’s fame died hard and Lenin’s remained unscathed. Solzhenitsyn’s other message, the one about the West’s shameful weakness in the face of the totalitarian threat, got a bigger response. Solzhenitsyn had heroic stature. He was telling the free world that it didn’t.
Out of the newly discovered Third World came the kind of hero America was no longer supplying. Honest, modest, good-looking, supernaturally skilful, the Brazilian footballer Pelé personified soccer for all the countries in the world that played the game. That meant practically every country except America, and even America got the point about Pelé. Despite the unexciting results of his one-man match against President Ford, for a while soccer looked like becoming a boom sport there, just because Pelé was playing it.
Even more unknown than the Third World, Sweden produced Bjorn Borg. Sweden had been heard of because Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman had both left it. Some intellectuals had heard of it because the film director Ingmar Bergman had stayed there. But Borg dominated an international sport as his country’s national idol. With ice-water for blood he came out of the North to carve his way through a corrupt civilization. The American champions played to the gallery. Borg just played, and won. Wise voices said what a relief it was to watch a young man hit the top and stay there without being distracted by fame or the lure of easy money. You couldn’t imagine Borg turning himself into a T-shirt. The idea that the austere, herring-fed champion might have a future in fancy goods never crossed anyone’s mind.
Tennis was the right-shaped sport for television, so the whole world could tune in to what was essentially as display of character. The American woman champion Billie Jean King occasionally shouted at herself, but never at anyone else. She had discipline. Chris Evert never shouted even at herself. She was so disciplined she was practically Borg-like. The American male champion Jimmy Connors, on the other hand, behaved badly when things went against him, and the supreme American male champion John McEnroe behaved badly all the time. Tennis players became measures of character in every household. Children were told: Don’t be like McEnroe. Be like Borg.
Another Swedish world hit was Abba, a pop quartet who turned themselves into Sweden’s second biggest export money-earner after Volvo. Four people with unpronounceable names were doing what the Beatles once did: churn out hit singles you couldn’t help singing along with while you danced to them, and vice versa. Abba didn’t sing their songs in Swedish, but on the other hand their English didn’t sound American. It was a new style of Euro-English, the first sign that the Common Market might have a say in the world’s common culture. The four faces of Abba were famous everywhere in the world, even though the number of people who could pronounce the name Agnetha Faltskog never increased beyond her immediate family.
Even more outlandish than Sweden was Hong Kong, whence arose the significant figure of Bruce Lee, kick-boxing star of the kung-fu movies that swept first the cinemas of the Far East, then the Chinatowns of all the world’s big cities, and finally everywhere that powerless people dreamed of paralysing their oppressors with a sudden outburst of uncanny martial arts. Before Bruce Lee, the typical kung-fu movie had been just an endless succession of fight sequences featuring the hero kicking the heavies while the soundtrack matched even the most fleeting blow with the sound of a sledgehammer hitting a crate of eggs. Bruce revolutionized the form. With him as the star, the typical kung-fu movie remained exactly the same but with an added ingredient: Bruce’s spiritual sensitivity. As the first truly idealistic kung-fu star, he gave the audience something Charles Bronson couldn’t, even with the most thoughtfully arranged wig. Bruce Lee was a philosopher. He fought crime out of his unshakeable conviction that a pure life was possible. In a world that had come to be ruled by fear, he dared to dream.
Even more outlandish than Hong Kong, in fact unearthly, was outer space, whence came the sexually ambiguous pop superstar David Bowie. In his earthly existence he had been an Englishman whose real name was David Jones, but after a tour of the outer galaxies he had returned to this planet as some kind of extraterrestrial transsexual. Parents in the sixties had been worried that their children would have their minds bent by drugs. Parents in the seventies, some of whom had been the children of the sixties, were worried that their children would have their genders bent by Bowie. Though bisexuality was just sex twice and nothing could be safer than sex, fear was hard to quell. It was in the air.
The first terrorists to make it as media stars were the Germans Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. They killed innocent people deemed by them to be guilty of compliance with the ruthless capitalist system. They were famously hard to catch. After they did get caught they had no one left to kill except themselves. Ulrike was the one who did it first. She got famous all over again. Terror was a path to glory.
In America Patty Hearst was known only as the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, the man whose mass circulation newspapers had given twentieth-century fame its initial boost. Kidnapped by a tiny group of home-grown terrorists calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, she showed up alongside them pulling a bank raid. Some said she had been brainwashed. Others said that she had simply found running around with guns and getting famous for it more fun than being anonymously rich. Few said, but all felt, that the veneer of civilization must be awfully thin if a few head-cases could stage their own revolution and grab world headlines.
In Uganda, Idi Amin had been just a sergeant when the British were still running the country. Now he was the man in charge and running the country into the ground, killing thousands while doing so. He was a head-hunter, but the world couldn’t see that, even though some of the heads were in his refrigerator. What the world saw was a brilliantly successful stand-up comedian. Idi presented himself as a political genius equipped to solve the world’s problems. When Britain went on a three-day week Idi proclaimed a Save Britain campaign, in his new capacity as King of Scotland. When terrorists hijacked a plane full of Israelis and landed in Entebbe, Amin detained the hostages to please his allies among the Arab nations. Israel raided Entebbe to get their people out, and Idi was famous all over again. He was never out of the headlines. When the Entebbe movies came out, his name was on the posters. The civilized world was uneasily aware that there wasn’t a lot it could do except wait for his embarrassed neighbours to chase him away. He ended up in the Sands Hotel, Jeddah, giving interviews about his readiness to return to his grieving country. It was another stand-up routine. The Sands, Jeddah, was Idi’s Las Vegas.
Even in its own eyes, America was a wimp in a world gone wild. The feeling of powerlessness was powerfully embodied by Woody Allen. He was an anti-hero, devoid of strength, his only dominance over words, an intellectual who understood everything but couldn’t change it — a Nebbish. In real life Woody Allen was a superstar in the strict sense, a pint-sized gorilla whose sure-fire art-house appeal earned him the power to set up his own movies on a unique contract which gave him complete control over every detail of their manufacture. He used Hollywood as a means of artistic expression and didn’t let Hollywood use him for anything. Instead of attending the Oscar ceremony he stayed in New York playing jazz. He had a succession of movie star girlfriends, and when the affair failed he made a successful movie about it. For everyone in the business he was the model of how fame could be managed. For everyone outside the business, he was the most famous example of what America had become — nervous.
Dustin Hoffman became famous in the sixties in The Graduate, playing a nervous young man who suspected that life in America was stacked against him. In the seventies he became more famous still as an even more nervous, slightly less young man who knew that life in America was stacked against him. He was small, put-upon and worried, like Woody Allen minus the wise-cracks. In Kramer v. Kramer he was given a very bad time by the new female superstar Meryl Streep.
Hoffman looked as if he would be given a very bad time by anyone. The only American who looked and sounded as if he was still on top of it all was Muhammad Ali. This was the period of his greatest fame. The worldwide satellite-linked television network meant that he could fight in exotic places like Zaire or Manila and be watched by everyone. If the fight itself proved dull, or even if he lost it, he still came out ahead because he was unbeatable in the pre- and post-fight interviews. Faster with his mouth than any other boxer even though his feet were slowing up, Ali transferred his highly polished technique as an interviewee to the talk show circuit, where he made it clear that he was representing himself, not his country. He was a world champion, not an American champion. Fame was a storm and he knew how to ride it. He could manage.
So could Barbra Streisand. She was a new kind of American world heavyweight champion. She was the first female gorilla. Get her and you had a movie. Hear her and you had an earache, some said. But they were shouting into a hurricane. Streisand was Hollywood’s first Jewish Princess who didn’t have to play it Christian. She was so powerful she could play it as she pleased. Her albums sold in millions. She could open any Broadway show she felt like. Her television specials reached the world. She didn’t need Hollywood, and Hollywood had always been impressed by that. It handed her the moon. She set up her own blockbuster movies. She didn’t have to care what she wore to the Oscar ceremonies, even if, shot from the back in her black transparent pants-suit, she looked as if she was mooning in mourning. She didn’t have to care what her co-stars thought about her prima donna behaviour. Walter Matthau said he’d love to work with her again, perhaps in Macbeth. She even dared not to show up for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Johnny fumed, but Barbra forged on. Feminists were a rising force and they admired Streisand for being herself, for not trying to get her funny looks fixed, for putting all those fat male Hollywood moguls in their place. She could manage.
From the same England as the Beatles but from a younger youth culture came the Sex Pistols, their five-minute mission to be so repulsive that they would never be assimilated. They accomplished it triumphantly. Everyone heard of them and almost no one knew who they were. Two of them were called Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, but unless you were a sixteen-year-old fan with a bolt through your neck and an earring in your nose it was hard to tell which was which. Eventually Vicious solved the problem by checking into a New York hotel and killing himself. So the one left over had to be Rotten. He sank back into the obscurity from which had had never really emerged, leaving the world with a suggestive example of what fame could do if it was cleverly enough manipulated: operate without people.
The last throes of Elvis Presley were like another group breaking up, since he had grown so bloated in decline. Death came as a merciful release from long-term drug and hamburger abuse. It came as a shock but no surprise. It was revealed that at the very moment when President Nixon had been enlisting his aid in the war on drugs, Elvis had been so high that his knees trembled even when he wasn’t singing. Now, with his corpulent presence finally out of the way, his image was free from interference and fit to be resurrected. His Southern mansion, Graceland, where the architectural traditions of Walt Disney, Hugh Hefner and Liberace all came together in one transcendentally tasteless apotheosis, was incorporated as a cash-generating shrine. The field was free for Elvis Presley look-alikes to emerge, who with the aid of plastic surgery at least looked more like his image than he had ended up doing.
His career was easier to manage without him. The man was gone and his fame lived on. When his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, said that Elvis’s death didn’t change a thing he was understating the case. Elvis was a bigger hit dead than alive. He made more money in the three years after his death than in the whole of his previous career. Crucified by his first fame, he came back on the third day, to be resurrected into his second, eternal fame, a shining spirit in the electronic universe.
President Carter moved on too, but his destination was oblivion. Thoughtful and decent as a man, as a celebrity he had made all the wrong moves. The Southern Boys behind Carter had no idea of how to manage his fame. When he went running they let him try to finish the course instead of just jogging along for fifty yards and holding a press conference. The result was another disaster movie, with Carter sobbing for air in the arms of his embarrassed Secret Service men. Giving an interview to Playboy was merely ill-advised. Telling the truth in the interview was a disaster. He had said that he had committed adultery in his heart. For the sake of a few votes from the kind of men who could commit adultery with a fold-out photograph, Carter had sacrificed millions of votes from plain folks who wanted a President they could count on to be less worried about the world than they were. Carter capped it in the decisive pre-election debate when he revealed that his consultant on the subject of thermonuclear war was his daughter Amy.
With a wimp in the White House, there was a dangerous tendency to admire the devil in Dallas. The soap opera of the same name was dominated by a womanizing, wheeler-dealing oil tycoon whose name became one of the most famous on Earth. J.R. Ewing was the character’s name. The actor’s name was Larry Hagman and he was never as famous as the role he played. A one-time film actor who had been through the mill and come out ground small, Hagman knew exactly what he was doing in Dallas. While other characters were written out when the actors died or vainly tried to launch film careers, Hagman built his whole career around J.R. For journalists who wanted to write about the actor, Hagman kept a collection of funny hats to provide an easy talking point. But Hagman knew that the real fame was J.R.’s. On talk shows the actor matched his manner to the character’s wicked grin. Somewhere behind the man pretending to be the real man pretending to be the character, the real real man was protecting his private existence. Letting your image get famous for you was a way of keeping control. But the image was out of control. It had a life of its own. The bad guy was in command.
America was up against it. The good guys were wimps and the bad guys had all the glamour. A good guy was needed who had glamour too, someone who knew how to seem like a hero, someone who knew hot to handle fame, or at least had some back-up from people how knew how to handle him. The management of fame had become its essence. And fame management was so much easier if the man who was famous didn’t interfere, and never said ‘Where’s the rest of me’ except in jest.