There was something hilarious in the recent controversy over the Angelina Jolie press-coverage contract. You know, the stern, legally enforceable "contract" her reps tried to get celebrity journalists to sign as a precondition to interviewing the star during her PR blitz for A Mighty Heart, the film in which she plays the wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl.
The contract demanded that "the interview may only be used to promote the Picture. ... The interview will not be used in a manner that is disparaging, demeaning or derogatory to Ms. Jolie."
Now, I found it admirable that several media organizations rebelled against this pre-censorship and the demeaning assumption that their job is merely to "promote the picture." Especially considering that the producers of A Mighty Heart announced that its premiere is to be a tribute to Reporters Without Borders, a group that fights restrictions on the press. (The contract was withdrawn after its embarrassing exposure, and Jolie's lawyer took the blame for being "boneheaded" and "overzealous" in drawing it up; Jolie asserted that she "wouldn't have put it out there.")
But the joke of it all—the Angelina Jolie contract and the revolt against the contract—was that anyone was foolish enough to think a written contract was really necessary. When was the last time you read a celebrity profile that was "disparaging, demeaning or derogatory"?
The rules of the game, as established by the glossy magazines and the stars' PR reps, ensure that "access" (well, a half-hour chat in a restaurant that enables the magazine to proclaim it has an "exclusive" interview) and the all-important exclusive cover shot are granted only to those magazines and journalists who will refrain from anything but fawning prose. It works out well for everybody. Celebrity journalists who play along get a good payday, magazines get newsstand sales bumps, and the rest of us are inculcated into the received myths of Celebland, the legends that sustain the illusion that it is somehow truly important.
Sure, it's possible to publish a rant on the Web (as U.K. journalist Brendan O'Neill did in a devastating piece calling Brad and Angelina "celebrity colonialists"), but such critiques are largely irrelevant to the vast, well-oiled, pap-dispensing Publicity-Industrial Complex (a phrase I believe I was the first to use, in an essay arguing that J.D. Salinger's rejection of this apparatus is a reticence to be admired rather than ridiculed).
The fact is, celebrities don't need a signed contract—celebrity profilers know that the power lies in the hands of PR people, who in many cases demand writer approval before committing one of their stars to a cover story. And no profiler who makes a lucrative living off elaborate fawning wants to do anything that might jeopardize his pre-approval status.
But when it comes to fawning, there is nothing quite like the elaborate, elevated, wannabe-highbrow fawning that "gentlemen's magazines" (mainly Esquire and GQ) do when they produce a cover story on a hot actress. And in the history of fawning gentlemen's-magazine profiles, there is unlikely to be a more ludicrous example than the profile in the July Esquire of—yes—Angelina Jolie, which spends many thousands of words and invokes grave national tragedies to prove to us that Angelina Jolie is not just a good woman, not just an enlightened humanitarian, not just a suffering victim of celebrity, not just strong and brave, but, we are told, "the best woman in the world."
To understand the peculiarly cringe-inducing prose of the gentlemen's-magazine actress profile, one has to realize its conceptual fig leaf function. The main thing is that the magazine wants to publish an alluring cover photo of, say, an unclothed Angelina Jolie clutching a wispy sheet over her nakedness. But the magazine wants you to understand that it's not running some Maxim-type lowbrow lingerie spread featuring an actress who used to be on the WB.
No, the piece is a serious profile, and there are serious reasons for running it. There are serious issues raised, there are profound questions about The Way We Live Now to be discussed. The result is a meretricious prose whose pretense at arch sophistication has become a schlock art form, the written equivalent of a Leroy Neiman nude.