Helen Chappell - March 2007

It’s the Pictures That Got Small
Helen Chappell

     If you stand in the longest checkout line at the supermarket so you can linger over People, US, The Star and The National Enquirer, you’re one of us. If your housekeeper does all the grocery shopping, you may have secret subscription to any or all of these fine purveyors of gossip, glitz and gowns.
      Let’s face it, folks, we’re addicted to that delirious combination of thrills, disgust and Scadenfreude that surrounds what passes today for the rich and famous. Prying into the lives of people with more fame and money and better looks than we have is, frankly, fun. It’s also a billion dollar-a-year industry here and abroad. So even if you say you never touch the stuff, know that someone, somewhere, possibly very, very close to you is eating this stuff up like a pint of Ben and Jerry’s on the night of the party everyone was invited to but you.
      My problem is the current crop of celebrities we’re asked to examine. It seems to me that there are four or five interchangeable bottle blondes who seem to spend their working hours passing out in nightclubs. All of them are such clones of each other, you can’t tell which one has the heroin addiction, which one has the eating disorder, or which one is using the world as her ob/gyn.
      And unless you are a very impressionable 14-year-old in some far-flung town, you probably don’t much care.
      I’m here to tell you that celebs aren’t what they used to be. In my day, we had celebrities of such magnificent trashiness and scandal that backwater members of the House regularly stood up and got a paragraph in the Congressional Record by denouncing the immoral antics of movie stars.
      Oh, we had it tough when I was a kid. We had to walk two miles into town through eight-foot drifts of snow to get our movie magazines and our glamour fixes. We didn’t have cable then, oh, no. We had three black and white channels, and someone had to stand on the roof holding the antennae so we could get a clear picture when the wind was out of the east. All we had for a celebrity fix was about six seconds at the end of the evening news, whatever we could cull from the papers that was fit to print around the McCarthy hearings, and our pulpy movie magazines. Photoplay. Screen Stories. Movieworld.
      Back in my day, we didn’t have blogs and the net. We had to catch our gossip on the fly.
      And in secret, too. Pulp movie magazines with their studio head shot covers, Frederick’s of Hollywood ads and shrieking headlines – “Why Jackie O Wants to Have Tony Curtis’ Baby!” – were considered very déclassé by our mothers, something to be read by trailer trash and girls who worked in five-and-tens, people of low aspirations, you know. So we had to hide them away under our copies of Seventeen and Glamour.
      And yes, in those days, Jackie O’s face sold as many magazines as Princess Di would. I personally stashed mine in the boathouse, under some ancient life preservers. I would waste a lot of nice summer days rowing an old wooden skift out to an isolated cove and reading my fill of lurid overblown, completely made-up stories about Tab Hunter and other relatively mild famous people of the time.
      Still, I look at all these skeletal blonde celebutantes of today and I think, not one of you could hold a candle to Liz Taylor in her heyday.
      These days you look at Dame Elizabeth, M.B.E., and you see this fragile, yet still lovely 70-something grand dame who’s known for her lush, knock-you-over perfumes and her work combating AIDS. With age comes a certain respectability. Sometimes, like Keith Richard, you just get points for still being able to stand up straight.
      It was said that she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and perhaps she was, with those enormous violet eyes, those perfect features, that huge, fluffy bouffant of raven black hair. Sometimes it was hard to tell, because she wore about a pound of makeup on each violet eye, in the fashion of the day. Teetering around in her stiletto heels and enormous fur coats, laden down with 17-carat stones of this and that, she was a fabulous sight, and she made the most of every moment of it. You just knew she was enjoying herself, and that she loved shocking people. She wasn’t a great actress, but she was a great movie star, and her greatest role was Liz Taylor.
      Now, Liz knew how to create a scandal, and she did it in a big, bosomy style filled with huge jewels, expensive hotel rooms, steamer trunks full of décolleté clothes, a passel of kids and an entourage that went around the world with her, leaving devastation and gossip in her wake like the Queen Mary run aground through a soybean field.
      If Elvis was the God of Excess, Liz Taylor, in her day, was the consummate Diva of Too Much. She ran through husbands the way most women run through Kleenex, and of course, the most famous was the Welsh actor, Richard Burton.
      In true scandal style, they began a very public affair while still married to other people. That this affair took place on the set of a bloated, cost-overrunning version of Cleopatra, being filmed in Rome, just added horror and tsk-ing.
      It was the early ‘60s, and the country still hadn’t awakened from it’s prudish ‘50s slumber, so Liz and Dick’s public passion made news. Of course, these days, there’d be barely a yawn, but what fun it was to watch through the potboiler scribbles of the pulp mags and the glossier environs of Life, which sat on our coffee table. The public hue and cry, the moral condemnation was enormous.
      As I recall, even the Vatican chimed in with it’s opinion of the Battling Burtons.
      And battle they did. The classically trained Burton was a notorious boozer who could pub crawl with his buddies Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris until dawn, then stagger on the stage at the Old Vic, fall over, rise up on one knee and say to the audience, “If you think I’m drunk, wait until you see O’Toole!” And if it didn’t happen, it probably should have.
      Their scandal had everything a good scandal should have. Wounded spouses, money, well-managed public relations teams and such legendary marital battles that they divorced and remarried again in a hail of small pets, children and even more booze and baubles. It gave people something to get outraged about other than the sewer and electric bills. It was fun, something today’s celebrities don’t seem to be having much of. Or anyone else for that matter.
      And yet, like many another grand and scandalous lady, Liz somehow always managed to maintain a sense of ladylike decorum.
      Remember when she was married to Senator John Warner and they did a fundraiser at the old Tidewater Inn?
      You’d never catch Liz Taylor crawling out of a limo without the finest Parisian silk underthings.