"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, November 21, 2014

Acting, Reality, And Bill Cosby–What You See Is Not What You Get

Bill Cosby has been accused of rape and repeated sexual abuse, and everyone who has watched The Cosby Show is shocked and surprised. Cosby’s character was that of a perfect father and a gentle, accommodating husband.  He was funny, loving, and engagingly bumbling.  He had no edges, no sharp elbows.  He was all about consideration, humor, encouragement, and the kind of Norman Rockwell happy-face family life that most Americans have come to idealize.

So what happened? Nothing happened. Cosby was a good actor, and good actors fill the roles created for them with subtlety, character, and  insight. Dr. Huxtable was a fictional character, created by writers, directors, producers, and Cosby himself. When a creative team gets it right, senses the tenor of the times, and hits all the right socio-cultural buttons, the show will be a hit.  We may know nothing about Jerry Seinfeld, Ted Danson, or Lucille Ball, but Seinfeld, Cheers, and I Love Lucy are American TV icons.

Lucille Ball_thumb

The same is true for actors and entertainers in any other profession. We are shocked and surprised that public figures like JFK was an indiscriminate lover who compromised national security, cheated on his wife every chance he could get, and got himself into a lot of trouble with some of the seamiest characters in America. We believed the myth of Camelot and chose never to look behind the smoke and mirrors.  The Kennedys created a world of majesty, fashion, music, and art; and even though most Americans had no idea who Pablo Casals was, the fact that he brought high culture to the White House was enough.

Jack Kennedy was a prince, and his charm and allure covered all of his indiscretions, his political naïveté, his impetuous decisions, and his egotism.  We should never have been surprised that this prince was by no means royal or anointed.

Priests put on a very good show.  Dressed in raiment and finery, gold-embroidered cassocks, and silk slippers, accessorized with gold chains, crosses, and rings; and celebrating the Mass before the Holy Tabernacle and Jesus on the Cross, these vicars of Christ were admired, feared, and respected.  Who would have suspected that many were buggers, child abusers, and betrayers of everything good in the Church. Good Catholics made the assumption that the public persona and the private one were indistinguishable.

Athletes are strong and graceful, Olympian gods. They perform feats that the rest of us can only imagine. There will be only one Air Jordan, Babe Ruth, or Jim Brown. Far lesser athletes in college or professional sports are idolized.  Over 100,000 fans fill Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa every home game and watch the Crimson Tide and their heroes.  Attendance at professional football and basketball games has never been higher.

Yet we are surprised and shocked to read of the delinquencies of popular players. Spousal abuse, gun violence, infidelity, and running with the wrong crowd are endemic.  We should not be surprised, however, when we look at the background of top athletes. Many come from dysfunctional communities where crime, drugs, and violent behavior are the rule, not the exception.  It is no surprise than so many professional football and basketball players come from these inner city neighborhoods.  It takes a lot just to survive the experience let alone succeed at the highest level in sports.  The very aggression, hostility, and violent ambition that make it out of the ‘hood made them gridiron and court champions.

Professional athletes are performers and entertainers.  What they give us publically has nothing whatever to do with who they are privately.  So why are we surprised at their off-the-field derelictions?

Americans seem particularly prone to hero-worship and fantasy.  It is no coincidence that Hollywood is our creation.  The movie moguls of the 30s and 40s understood that the public wants fantasy, and they created worlds beyond reach – beautiful, romantic visions of the way life should be not what it was.  

In Robert Altman’s movie, The Player, the head of the studio is pitched a story about a woman who is to be wrongfully executed.  The writer insists on no stars, no Hollywood ending.  Just reality. “Do they screw?”, asks the executive.  “If I have to sit through two hours of prison cells and gas chambers, I want someone to screw”.  Of course, says the producer.  Despite the protest of the writer, the producers change the ending. The woman is not gassed but saved by the hero who breaks through the glass walls of the gas chamber and carries her to safety and freedom. An ‘up’ finale, says the producer, is the only way to sell movies.

The best example of our conflation of public and private personae is advertising. Sports superheroes and movie stars sell things, and we are expected to trust their judgment even though their athletic or acting ability has nothing whatever to do with the products they endorse.. Here is an ad featuring Lance Armstrong who recently and finally was exposed as a cheater, liar, and intimidator.

How did we know that what drove Lance was every PED known to man.  What did we care? We chose not to ask what the man was like and to focus only on what he did in the Tour de France.

O.J. Simpson was one of the most popular Americans before he was accused of murdering his wife and her boyfriend.  He was a Hollywood actor, public figure, and salesman par excellence, and we loved him.

No one cared who O.J. really was or what he was capable of doing to others.  He was simply an attractive, athletic man of superhuman powers on the football field, and that was enough.

Europeans, while not immune to hero-worship and fantasy, always seem to have their feet on the ground. The fact that Nicolas Sarkozy had a seamy and stormy sex life did nothing to either enhance or tarnish his political image.  Of course men behave this way, said the French public, especially powerful men.  Francois Hollande, the current French President has turned the Élysée into a revolving door of extra-marital affairs. Francois Mitterrand, a former President of the Republic, appeared in public with his mistress, his illegitimate daughter and his wife. Government plots and intrigues are always interesting and not surprising when a European looks back at the court of Henry VI, Louis XVI, or Pope Boniface VIII.  Europeans expect men to behave badly because they always have and always will.  Public persona means nothing.

‘Image is everything’ has always been the most apt descriptor of American culture, and as the line between reality and virtual reality continues to blur, it will only become more so.  For most of us real life is indeed ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’, so who wouldn’t prefer a fantasy world where the image of happiness replaces an ugly reality?

It is not surprising that Hollywood and Madison Avenue have become such American icons.  Both sell us a bill of goods and we fall for it. We love falling for it. The interesting thing is that we will always fall for it.  For every exposé  of a movie star or athlete, retraction of endorsements and previous trophies, we go on to the next with exactly the same expectations.  We will go on buying cars, watches, insurance, and vacation homes thanks to the endorsement of public figures – whether or not they know anything about the product they are selling.

Bill Cosby may or not be guilty of the transgressions for which he has been accused.  Guilt or innocence doesn’t matter in the least.  Here today, gone tomorrow is another adage right up there with ‘image is everything’.  Bill Cosby’s career is finished, and no one will notice.  We will simply move on to the next superhero.

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