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Everybody’s in on the act

Industry facts, figures and players serve as sport for the general public

Where is an old maxim that everybody has two businesses: your own business and show business. What that acknowledges is that just about everybody loves show business, consumes show business, expatiates about show business and professes to some expertise about show business.

Indeed, even more than sports, show business might be the main topic of the national conversation. But as true as it might have been when the maxim first circulated, it has never been truer than it is now. News of show business, which largely had been segregated to trade papers like Variety, has, over the last 10 years or so, crept into the general media, so that nearly everyone’s local news on Sunday night features a list of the weekend movie grosses. In effect, we are no longer just entertainment connoisseurs. We have become showbiz mavens.

Variety certainly cannot take any credit for this phenomenon, but the paper has become a kind of metaphor for a change in the national consciousness. When Variety began 100 years ago, it was intended for a specific readership: those in show business. They were the only ones who had a stake in knowing who was playing what vaudeville circuit or what was on the schedule for legitimate theater. The general public had no need to know or much interest in knowing. But that was then, this is now. Today the level of interest has soared, and what was once arcane has become conventional. Something obviously has happened to effect this change. What was it?

Won’t get fooled again

One answer has less to do with show business per se than with a deep current in the culture generally that has come to regard knowledge as liberation. At least since Edward L. Bernays invented modern public relations in the 1920s, the relationship between the ordinary consumer and business has been problematic. The object of public relations was to influence the consumer in the interest of having him or her buy particular products, and the idea behind public relations was that the consumer was essentially passive — a patsy.

If the PR practitioner or advertiser pushed the right buttons — and Bernays investigated everything from the effect of the color of packaging to the use of certain words in the ads — the consumer would respond properly. Embedded in this was not only a fairly cynical attitude toward human nature, but a cynical attitude toward democracy itself. If people were patsies and stooges, you could push them anywhere you liked.

So long as the public was ignorant of these processes, which it was for nearly 50 years, the system purred on — in advertising, politics, self-improvement. Everyone was ensnared in a giant web of deception and mendacity. Then, suddenly, the jig was up.

The turnabout had begun in the 1960s with books such as “The Selling of the President,” which revealed how the manipulations worked. But it didn’t take hold until Vietnam, and the government’s constant misinformation about it, and Watergate, and its tangle of lies. The country found itself awash in disillusionment, seized by a sense of betrayal and anger. Its new anthem might have been the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

Deconstructing the biz

Admittedly, all of this might seem rather far afield from entertainment, but the sense of disillusionment didn’t stop with government. As the public became aware of the ongoing manipulation and cynicism, all aspects of American life were suspect. Because show business was popular, ubiquitous and predicated on purveying illusion — because, in effect, it was society writ large — it was an especially ripe target for deconstruction.

One can see the impetus toward willful disappointment if one traces the arc from behind-the-scenes Hollywood books like Lillian Ross’ “Picture” in the early 1950s to John Gregory Dunne’s “The Studio” in the 1960s to David McClintick’s “Indecent Exposure” and Stephen Bach’s “Final Cut” in the 1980s to the literally dozens of more recent books from Charles Fleming’s “High Concept” to Peter Biskind’s “Down and Dirty Pictures” to James Stewart’s “Disney Wars” that routinely examine and expose the innards of the film industry.

It is an arc of increasing revelation and evisceration, but it is also an arc of increasing sophistication about how the industry really works. If once Americans suspended disbelief to enjoy their entertainment, they have come to suspend belief to understand their entertainment industry. Or put another way, knowledge is the perceived antidote to exploitation, which might be why so many Americans go through the ritual of collecting little nuggets of information.

But if one is comforted by knowing how the mechanisms of entertainment operate upon us and how we may disenchant ourselves from them, there is another powerful spur that prompts one to accumulate as much knowledge as one can about show business — a spur that provides not so much comfort as gratification. Reading Variety in the days before we had become inundated with show business news had always provided a kind of frisson to nonshow business civilians. It was exciting to know what movies were being shot, what casting decisions were being made, what films were profitable and which had bombed. More, it gave one status. Knowing these things put one “in the know,” as if flipping through Variety made one an instant insider.

Trivial pursuit

On first blush this might seem a rather frivolous exercise, a kind of faux insidership, but it is, in fact, symptomatic of a cultural transformation that might be every bit as large and important as disillusionment and one that might go even further toward explaining why there is such a hunger for entertainment tidbits now. It is the elevation of knowingness to an end in itself greater than the object about which one knows.

To explain: When you consider that this is a nation of roughly 300 million people, relatively few Americans watch the most popular TV shows (less than 30 million), buy the most popular CDs (less than 10 million), read the most popular books (less than 3 million) or even go to the most popular movies. Yet nearly every American knows about the stars behind the most highly rated television programs, the biggest movies, the bestselling CDs. Many of them might be able to name the most popular authors. They even know about less public things like various backstage clashes and rivalries.

How do they know these things? They know about them because there are magazines like People, Us and Vanity Fair; supermarket tabloids and show business columns in traditional newspapers; television shows such as “Entertainment Tonight,” “Extra” and “Access Hollywood”; and whole networks like E!, not to mention dozens of sites on the Internet that are dedicated to informing them. Since more people know about entertainment than ingest it, one might reasonably conclude that information about entertainment has superseded the entertainment itself.

One reason this is so is that the information about entertainers and entertainment is often more entertaining than the television show, the movie or the CD in which the entertainer appears or on which he or she performs. Surely the reports about Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have more voyeuristic entertainment value than most of the movies they’ll make. Their story has the added virtue of having really happened or at least purporting to have happened.

But this is no less true of backstage accounts of trouble on various film sets or of boardroom machinations about television scheduling or of record companies pressuring artists, as Sony allegedly pressured Fiona Apple regarding her latest CD, or even of the grosses, ratings and sales figures. This is good, dramatic material with real stakes and genuine suspense since we don’t know how it will turn out. Thus show business information not only supersedes entertainment, it has become a new form of entertainment — a kind of ongoing soap opera.

Vicarious players

There’s more. Just as a civilian flipping through Variety once enjoyed a certain satisfaction because it meant being privy to special knowledge, many Americans enjoy a certain satisfaction now in knowing all these things about show business — especially young people who pride themselves on their knowingness. Today, one can seem to know it all, with the psychological gratification that goes with being a show business denizen, even if it is only vicariously so.

Of course, to average people it doesn’t make any difference which picture has the highest gross that week, and it certainly won’t have any impact on their lives. But knowing this information, like knowing who is dating whom or whom is cast in what TV program or film or what executive is about to walk the plank, does make one feel special, empowered in some strange way, just as knowing sports trivia does.

So the information is disseminated by the media, and the public eats it up. What that means is that after 100 years, we are all, figuratively speaking, Variety readers. We are all part of show business. We are all insiders.

Neal Gabler is the author of “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” “Life — The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality” and is currently wrapping a biography of Walt Disney.

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