Magazine article The American Prospect

Elvis Is Dead. (the Critics Tabloids)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Elvis Is Dead. (the Critics Tabloids)

Article excerpt

ONE DEPENDS UPON A tabloid like The National Enquirer, whether surreptitiously in the supermarket checkout line, or luxuriantly and unapologetically over a nice bowl of soup, to be sleazy in its journalistic style, juicy in its revelations, skewering in its attitudes toward celebrities' privileges, and worshipful toward their diets, addictions, recoveries, charitable activities, and alien visitations. It is therefore disappointing to find that The National Enquirer: Thirty Years of Unforgettable Images, the photograph collection recently published by Disney-owned Talk Miramax books, has been considerably sanitized for its appearance on coffee tables.

Aside from the book's inside covers, the screaming, lovable headlines of the Enquirer ("Miss America in Weird Cult--Brainwashed Members Even `Baa' Like Sheep," "Dolly's Breasts Are Killing Her," "Madonna Stole My Lesbian Lover") have been banished, replaced by straightforward, fact-riddled captions and congratulatory, curatorial prose by former editor in chief Steve Coz ("The Enquirer fills the needy psyche of an American society caught in a tortured love affair with celebrity") and Jonathan Mahler, a founding editor of the recently deceased Talk (the Enquirer is "a creature of a disillusioned nation"). Instead of the demotion of smudgy newsprint, the subjects of these photos are given a glossy promotion. The resulting book is, sadly, quite beautiful.

Historically, the tabloids' role has been to topple public figures from the pedestals built by PR machines, to humanize stars by showing their flaws and everyday habits, and to suggest that celebrities are a kooky, spoiled class. There is some of that good stuff in this book. We see TV star Kelsey Grammer after a DUI conviction, a drunken Rock Hudson, Margaux Hemingway's exposed breast, Julia Roberts's unshaven armpit, Liza Minnelli without her false eyelashes and dyed hair, and Mel Gibson with a piece of lettuce on his teeth. We get famous people's police-station mug shots. We get sarcastic juxtapositions of images: on one page, Prince Charles and Princess Di and children, and next to it JonBenet Ramsey and family in a Christmas photo; Michelle Phillips holding a gruesome mummy from a monster flick, and on the opposite page a leukemia patient held by a post-plastic-surgery Michael Jackson. These are the Enquirer at its meanest and best.

But what's really striking about the book is how much clean laundry it airs. More than anything else, it is a lavish, bland, Disneyfied tribute to American celebrity. Most of the shots are indistinguishable from publicity photos; many simply are publicity photos. Thin Oprah runs a marathon, Tammy Faye Bakker wipes her eyes, Rosie O'Donnell waves from a crowd of kids, Tina Turner plays rugby, Tiny Tim plays the ukulele. Brad Pitt poses in a tank top, Jane Seymour in a ball gown, Liberace in an endless fur coat, and George Clooney with a potbellied pig. There are famous moments memorialized: Geraldo Rivera with a broken nose after a fight with neo-Nazis, Elvis in his coffin, Ted Danson in blackface. There are celebrities as kids, celebrities in wedding gowns, dead celebrities. It's all very People.

WITH PRIDE, THE ENquirer book points out that the non-tabloid press has come to look and act more like the tabloids over the past 30 years. And indeed, the establishment media have become yellower, running after the same crime, celebrity, and scandal stories, and often being scooped by the Enquirer, which, after all, is willing to pay its sources. …

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