STUDENTS OF THE CELEBRITY PROFILE couldn’t ask for a sharper compare-and-contrast juxtaposition than two recent opuses: MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, portrayed as a tone-deaf buffoon in a New York Times Sunday magazine cover story; and George Clooney, whose New Yorker interview lacked only armor and a white steed.
Both pieces captured their subjects quite well. Perusing these profiles in verbiage together, though, exposed the fragile relationship between stars — whether big-time actors or high-priced news talent — and the media and public, which simultaneously clamor for access but aren’t above punishing them for being too readily available.
Matthews’ obliviousness regarding how he’s perceived — which included steering the interviewer to third parties with nothing nice to say about him — represents an extreme version of a common disease within the pundit class. By contrast, Clooney clearly understands the requirements, perks, and limitations of the celebrity/activist role better than most of his peers.
TWO PERSONAL ANECDOTES neatly illustrate these points. In Matthews’ case, it was a meet-and-greet breakfast when the “Hardball” host made a West Coast swing a few years ago. Matthews sat down, said hello, and talked for 20 uninterrupted minutes. Every response or attempt to pose a question yielded a similar filibuster before I finally gave up, accepted the inevitable, ate my French toast and politely waited for the check or death, whichever came first.
The indelible impression was that of a man passionately in love with the sound of his own voice. Then again, that’s a near-epidemic among cable’s raging bulls, where Bill O’Reilly, Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity and (at his most indignant) Keith Olbermann all flirt at times with self-parody.
The irony is that these millionaire anchors cast themselves as populists while engaging in what amounts to a daily monologue. Increasingly, they employ inhouse analysts like Pat Buchanan and Dick Morris as convenient if predictable props for intramural chats.
Sealed in these echo chambers, it’s no wonder Matthews appeared genuinely shell-shocked when Jon Stewart ridiculed the premise of his book, “Life’s a Campaign.” “The Daily Show” host labeled it a “self-hurt book,” only half-jokingly telling Matthews, “You don’t listen to anybody.”
CLOONEY, ON THE OTHER HAND, is keenly aware of his image but somehow manages to shape it without appearing calculating or manipulative. Beyond being the life of the party, as the New Yorker noted, he regularly acknowledges that people resent receiving lectures from wealthy stars, yet he nevertheless garners attention for various progressive causes.
Again, the story conveys what I witnessed first-hand at a screening of “Good Night, and Good Luck,” where Clooney patiently fielded every question and artfully delivered a barbed message about broadcast news’ sorry state. As the crowd pushed toward the stage, standing alongside him as the evening’s moderator I even experienced what it’s like to possess a superpower: Invisibility.
At first glance, Clooney’s shrewd sensibilities might not seem remarkable. Yet compare him with those stars that clumsily step out of their more familiar roles in order to preach politics.
Discovery Networks, for example, recently previewed its new environmental channel Discovery Green, which launches in June and will showcase celebrities advocating green living. It’s the kind of approach that will have global-warming skeptics on the right cackling, having a field day as they mock privileged stars for dispensing lifestyle advice from lofty perches on private jets, solar-paneled compounds and hillside mansions.
GIVEN THE FLATTERING LOOK at Clooney and the Times’ delicious train wreck devoted to Matthews, these profiles could easily provide the basis for a Publicity 101 course. Those counseling celebrity clients on granting journalists extensive access in the future should make them read both, then remind them of the simplest question that interview subjects often forget — namely, why exactly am I doing this?
For Clooney, the answer is obvious: OK, so “Leatherheads” didn’t open, but the piece still burnishes his credentials as the thinking-man’s movie star. As for Matthews, he joins the ranks of those in the amusingly thin-skinned TV news elite that have opened up believing they’ll win over a reporter, only to learn the hard way that they’re not the only ones that know how to play hardball.