by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - February 26, 2007) There is a certain disturbing affinity between the madcap circus that followed Anna Nicole Smith's death on February 7th and the prominence of the highly popular television phenomenon, "American Idol." In the case of both spectacles there is a certain overriding vulgarity, which over the past few years has enveloped the American psyche, bringing out its voyeurism, sadism, and insensitivity.
We dote on fakery and are cajoled when it is broad, cruel, caustic, and over-the-top. In "American Idol" for instance, we adore to see talentless gits, some of whom are either retards (or only a step or two away from retardation), callously humiliated or subtly ridiculed. On "The Apprentice," we quietly relish the harsh dismissal of struggling contestants as we did the summary removal of "Survivors" in that, and other so-called, "reality" shows. Our pitilessness knows no bounds. The more repellent the spectacle, the more it amuses us, the more we are riveted. Singers devoid of vocal talent, dancers who cannot dance, comedians who are pathetically unfunny, entertainers unconscious of the repulsion with which they delight the eager mob of gapers who savor their failure -- all grist for our ever-grinding mills.
It is not a new phenomenon but one deeply rooted in the circuses and sideshows of early America. On talent nights during the early days of vaudeville, gross and fatuous acts were deliberately put on the bill so they could be "hooked off" before a side-splitting audience which was regaled by their discomfiture. In the early 1900s, one of the most popular vaudeville acts was "The Cherry Sisters," a talentless duo who could neither sing, dance, nor amuse -- although they vainly attempted all three. On occasions (like at the Olympia Theatre Roof Garden in New York), a net was especially rigged up in front of the proscenium to catch the fish and vegetables which were energetically tossed at the women by frolicsome members of the audience. And we all remember the wretched satisfaction we derived in the 1950s and '60s from the "The Gong Show." Ridicule of squirmingly untalented people is one of our long-standing sacrifice-rituals whose roots go back to those witch burnings, flagellations, and beheadings that were so popular in the middle ages; not to mention the enthralling spectacle of quivering criminals being hung, drawn, and quartered, a custom bequeathed to us by the British. Extreme schadenfreude, it would seem, is a fundamental part of our American history.
Anna Nicole Smith made no secret of cloning Marilyn Monroe, who was herself a pathetic and vulnerable ingénue who had been taken advantage of by photographers, producers, and horny young bucks with the smarmy gift of seduction. Marilyn's life was a pathetic search for a security which, no sooner was it found, would be shredded by her own inherent insecurity. Like a Christmas tree bauble, she was glitteringly vacant, but it was her glitter rather than her vacancy that transfixed her public. However, in Marilyn's case, there was a modicum of talent secreted within that voluptuous body and behind that come-hither smile. Marilyn's running gag was her sexual availability, and she played it to the hilt. Beyond granting heavy-breathing Lotharios her seductive body -- some for a night, others for months, sometimes even years -- what else was there to bestow? The truest thing about her was the vulnerability that ran like a silent spring beneath her sex appeal. Incapable of being truly fulfilled, the next best thing was to subsume male desire and routinely satisfy the cravings of all those men who passed, like shadows, through her life.
Anna Nicole Smith appropriated Marilyn's externals but, without the vulnerability, she remained merely a parody of something which was itself only a caricature. In Anna Nicole's case, there were no compensatory qualities, there was only the vacancy, surgically enhanced and puffed-up with all the vulgar trappings and naked ambition that traditionally characterized the indigenous slut.
Each woman's attitude toward money differed significantly. Marilyn was born poor and retained a consciousness of the misery of poverty which endowed her with empathy for those who were similarly impoverished. Anna Nicole also clawed her way up from working-class stock, but her hunger to acquire wealth existed to obliterate the memory of her origins once and for all. Wealth, in her subconscious, erased the shame of poverty, and the more wealth that could be accumulated, the taller the edifice she could build on that meager foundation which was her non-descript Texan upbringing.
In 1994, when she was twenty-six, she felt no shame in marrying the eighty-nine-year-old oil billionaire J. Howard Marshall. She never viewed the union objectively or considered how, to the outside world, it might appear to be an avaricious act of a scheming adventuress. She recognized no disparity between herself and her superannuated hubby, for the union provided a panoply which, in her mind, enabled her to annihilate Vickie Lynn Hogan from Mexia, Texas, once and for all. Nor did she display any qualms about energetically going to court to sue for the millions that she felt were coming to her. To many of her onlookers, this was a classical act of American bravado: "Go to it, baby! Get as much as you can out of it! You're a winner, we admire your pluck. We should be so lucky!" The appropriation of a frail, somewhat addled old man was viewed by her public, as it was by herself, as "fair game."
Unlike Marilyn, there was barely a smidgen of acting talent in the whole of her entire five-foot eleven, surgically reconstructed, frame. Since she inhabited a comic-book world, being a cartoon character suited her perfectly. Not only did she not mind it, she gloried in the notion that she had finally entered what she mistakenly took to be Marilyn's world. Ironic that she died in Hollywood, Florida -- merely a nomenclature Hollywood, but the closest she could get to the "real thing." Marilyn, fragile and transparent as she was, inhabited the Real Hollywood -- a world in which her fictive self found refuge. Unable to penetrate that "real world," Anna Nicole was obliged to build a fantasy world where her fabrications were so painfully obvious they made people either laugh or smirk. No, I stand corrected: They also tantalized a large segment of the public because anything on a grand scale, even when it lacks all utility -- like the Eiffel Tower or the Seattle Space Needle, arouses a certain fascination.
Anna Nicole's idol was Ostentation and she worshipped at that altar ever since she was a teenager in Texas. The idea of Andy Warhol's "fifteen minutes of fame" was an insult to her avaricious appetite for celebrity, for clearly, if her image could not be continually reflected back in tabloids and magazines, she felt she didn't exist. If she was not blindingly conspicuous, she was invisible. Notoriety was not simply a weakness in her makeup, it was the oxygen that sustained her life. She virtually wrote her own epitaph when she said: "I love the paparazzi. They take pictures, and I just smile away. I've always liked attention. I didn't get it very much growing up, and I always wanted to be, you know, noticed."
Our obsession with her own obsessiveness with celebrity says more about a flaw in our national psyche than it does about the ex-waitress-cum-model and would-be actress who tried to compensate for ego deprivation by wanting to be a Somebody. We, with our built-in empathy for desperate questors, feed on the gauche, desperate, pathetic people who try to compensate for their nullity by elaborately disguising themselves as their favorite pinups. On a lower scale, there are millions of Anna Nicoles who are desperate to divert the flashbulbs in their direction; who hunger for a reality they do not possess and seek fulfillment by channeling themselves into idealized others either by snipping off a piece of their admired idol's clothing or sometimes, assassinating them. It is an impulse that can be traced back to someone like Mark David Chapman who offed John Lennon as much as it can to Anna Nicole Smith who ultimately, and in a supreme act of irony (no matter what the autopsy reveals), offed herself.
In whatever necromantic shade she now wanders, she cannot but be delighted by the fact that in death she achieved a notoriety which transcended anything she ever weaseled out of the media when alive.
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