The secure cat in the maverick genius hat

ONCE YOU GET A REPUTATION in Hollywood, it’s hard to shake it.

In its review of PBS’ current series “American Family,” Entertainment Weekly called Raquel Welch “the ‘One Million Years B.C.’ babe” — referring to a movie she made 36 years ago.

Sometimes the past is conjured up as a way of cutting a star down to size. But often old events are evoked as a way to enhance a star’s image.

Even though Sean Penn made the rounds to publicize New Line’s “I Am Sam,” his brooding, press-phobic reputation persists.

The L.A. Times interviewed him but confided, “This is the kind of task he usually detests.” As if Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise actually enjoy sitting down with the press. But it’s a way of saying, “Hey, this guy came to my party, and usually he hates parties!”

Last week, in the same newspaper, writer John Ridley praised Penn and Woody Allen as “cats a little too secure to need other people’s approval.” Talk magazine labeled Penn “uncompromising.”

Calling him a “maverick genius,” Entertainment Weekly quoted Penn as saying, “It’s good to pay as little attention as possible to what’s going on with mainstream Hollywood.” But when you appear on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” and “Oprah” and give interviews to the L.A. Daily News, aren’t you part of mainstream Hollywood? When an actor shows up for tributes at the American Cinematheque and the Santa Barbara Film Festival — two events that occurred in the middle of Oscar season — is he still a trouble-making rebel?

Penn was helping to sell his film, so he’s either a trouper or a self-promoter, depending on your thinking. Whichever he is, it seems time to retire the “here is the man who swung at photographers 10 years ago” image. I mean, he’s playing a mentally challenged man in “Sam.” How lovable can ya get?

SPEAKING OF OSCAR: The ballots are in, the results will be known soon, but everybody’s still talking about mudslinging, because everybody else is talking about it.

Journalists love Hollywood scandals, particularly Oscar scandals. (The Academy represents the establishment, and its voting is kept secret, so it’s an irresistible target for the media.)

On the Internet, Matt Drudge carried a damaging report about John Nash, subject of “A Beautiful Mind.” And the cautionary tale here is not only the negative campaigning: It’s the power of the Internet. In the last two weeks, Oscar mudslinging has been covered by CBS’ “60 Minutes,” NBC Nightly News, “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning, America,” the front page of the New York Times, the front page of the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Time. And they’re all shocked, shocked!

There were similar slurs against David Helfgott (the subject of “Shine”), Jeffrey Wigand (“The Insider”) and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (“The Hurricane”) in past campaigns. The differences this year: The insults are a little lower, and everyone is more animated in their finger-pointing.

This is like “The Crucible,” but instead of Puritans and witches, we get studio execs and publicists. Not the same thing at all.

But it taints everybody — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the nominees, the studio workers. Most Oscar campaigning is vigorous, but not nasty. The Internet rumors about “Mind” again raise questions about “news” disseminated in a forum that has zero supervision or accountability.

The Academy’s constant secrecy always leads to conspiracy theories: Since no Oscar tallies are available, and since everyone applauds the winner, people assume every member of the Academy voted for the champ. Since “they” often pick surprising choices, this leads to conclusions of “They must be crazy!” or “They must be wicked!”

In truth, since there are five choices, a nominee needs only 21% of the vote.

Still, journalists love a juicy story. Everybody’s writing about this because everybody else is writing about it. Come to think of it, that’s the reason I’m writing about it. Oh, no! I was trying to point fingers at overexcited journalists, and now I discover I am one!

Does that mean I have no hope of ever being called “uncompromising,” a “maverick genius” or even a secure cat?

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