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J. Edgar Hoover had long been presumed gay before Clint Eastwood’s film came out, yet it was last year’s cinematic depiction that spawned another media blitz of speculation, with everyone from the actors to director being questioned on the matter. The logic that Eastwood could possess some intimate knowledge beyond what historians have already uncovered is nonsensical, however Hollywood continues to be seen as a voice of truth despite its inherently contradictory purpose. Furthermore, public fascination with stories – and more specifically, stories about the rich and famous – has a legacy stretching back to the beginning of time. From spreading rumors at the town circle to the 21st century onslaught of bloggers and paparazzi, undoubtedly, gossip spreads faster than any disease.
Hollywood, the “business” however, differs remarkably from Hollywood, the locality, and similarly, celebrities can be a stark contrast to the human beings behind them. The film, J. Edgar, was as much about a man ashamed of his inner self as it was a mercenary gaining his ranks. The media drew their attention to his dual lifestyle, his difficulty reconciling the man he should be with the man he was. Immediately, everyone begged to know the truth of his homosexual tendencies despite the fact they had little impact in his role with the FBI. The tragedy, then, of living in the public eye is that while it takes great lengths to reach favor, it all can dissipate in a moment, as people are far more concerned with the frivolous. Celebrities often compromise validity for caricature in order to receive approval and maintain their status.
Hoover, of course, is one of many. For years, actors such as Tom Cruise, Hugh Jackman, and Will Smith, as well as politicians and businessmen have adamantly fielded gay rumors, women receiving a less sizable share of the banter. Beyond sexuality, drug use and crime are also hot feeds on the gossip trail, and have been documented as long as the entertainment business existed. Look at the fallout over Hollywood Babylon in the ‘60s.
Joshua Gamson, professor of Sociology of Popular Culture, Sex and Sexualities at the University of San Francisco, has done extensive research on the subject. Among his literary repertoire, he is the author of Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America, Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity, and The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The Seventies in San Francisco. This latter work is his most famed, a biographical take on the life of one of disco’s most flaming sexual innuendos. From Gamson’s point of view, celebrity culture functions on the public’s intrinsic love for gossip balanced by a reduced fear of subsequent ramifications.
“We love to have conversations about morality, and right and wrong behavior,” Gamson observes. “For celebrities, it’s particularly fun because it’s not going to get back to them, thus there are no consequences… Their decisions don’t matter in your life, unlike a boss or coworker.”
Interest in the high profile and ultra-glam stems from a variety of internal motivations, in Gamson’s opinion. From superficial curiosity to the emphatically obsessed, those who fancy the famous are ultimately aware there is a difference in the image and the man, and it is that dissonance which becomes subject of their captivation.
Explains Gamson, “People are quite aware they are living in a mediated environment where they are getting a lot of things sold to them, including people.”
Gamson’s chronicle of Sylvester’s life was sparked by his own inclination towards “people who transgress and either get away with it or get rewarded.” The breakout disco star and cross-dressing superdiva had a short-lived, yet highly influential career, his contribution to music less significant perhaps than the cultural revolution he ignited coming out as a gay avant-garde. To this day, Sylvester, who died due to complications from AIDS, remains a notable icon for the liberation movement. Yet the stigma he fought to abolish persists even four decades after his sexual emancipation.
“It’s less so in the music industry, where things were and continue to be a lot more liberated,” Gamson explains. “There are rewards in music for being outrageous, but that’s different than television and film where the risks are greater… Sylvester was a different kind of person who was not ever going to let other people tell him who to be, but that’s not the logic of most Hollywood. It’s all about being who you need to be in order to beat out competition for a job and so on. It’s a risk averse environment, but I think there will be change in the next generation of actors and actresses.”
Gamson also believes the incessant talk of celebrity has some retaining value in that it encourages us to keep a watchful eye on erroneous truths being thrown in our face to secure votes, sell tickets and reap the rewards of eternal infatuation. Gossip, in a sense, is discussion then, scrutiny and review.
And of course, as they say, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.