Be a man.

Be a man.

Be a man.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Feb. 12 2004 6:01 PM

Be a Man, David

Gender bending in the Minnelli-Gest divorce.

Who's the diva?
Who's the diva?

Last week I wrote about eight women attempting to set the women's movement back 70 years through the strategic deployment of their bellybuttons. It would be unfair if I didn't give equal time this week to a man attempting to set the men's movement back several millennia by doing the same. David Gest—beleaguered soon-to-be ex-husband of Liza Minnelli—is everywhere. He has taken his $10 million assault suit against Minnelli to the tabloids and the airwaves, appearing last week in an NBC Dateline interview with Stone Phillips so disturbing that it, too, ought to have launched an FCC investigation.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus.

After disclosing that Minnelli's drunken batterings have resulted in migraines so severe that he cannot get on a plane and must thus live in pampered seclusion in Hawaii, requiring 80 painkilling botox injections every four to six weeks, Gest stated that he will also require plastic surgery to repair the damage she has wrought. Phillips asked to see any permanent scars. The 50-year-old Gest promptly and delightedly unbuttoned his shirt, hauling forth a paunchy pale belly that practically shouted "second trimester," then tried to manipulate the flesh so that the scars would show up under the lights.

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If there has been a sadder moment in television history, I can't recall it.

Don't get me wrong—if tiny Liza really did knock her husband around as brutally as he alleges, he's due some compensation. I am not for battering your life partner, even if he does look like Martin Short might leap out of him and yell "surprise" at any second. But Gest's divorce attorney, Raoul Felder, is making a terrific mistake if he believes the American public is so gender-bent as to sympathize with a grown man playing a cocktail-lounge diva on national television.

Gest's assault suit and Liza's $2 million countersuit are distinct from their actual divorce proceedings. But they are both animated by the same petulance and orchestrated with the same disregard for how much silliness Americans and the legal system can tolerate (the former entity can generally tolerate much more).

Divorce law is a strange business, and, as is the case with so much of the law, there is a terrific premium placed on the greatest accretion of victimhood. The impulse to share the details of your suffering with the world is nearly irresistible, and in the case of celebrities—even celebrity weirdos—that tragedy is exacerbated by the world's willingness to listen. Good divorce lawyers spend literally hours listening to the indignities heaped upon their clients by vicious ex-spouses, then explaining patiently that these insults and injuries are either irrelevant or ancillary to their case. Divorce proceedings should, except in very extraordinary cases, deal with the orderly division of a marital estate.

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Divorce cases go off the rails because clients mistakenly believe that they will find some kind of catharsis from getting on a stand and telling a judge about their partner's insults and tantrums and infidelities. In my experience, no judge has ever been much impressed with these tales. With few variations, the same nine or 10 stories are recounted to them every day. More importantly, no client ever experiences a catharsis from this process. Never. Catharsis comes with therapy, with time, with running into your ex-spouse at the gym when you have lost 30 pounds and are sleeping with the tennis pro.

The problem in celebrity divorces is that celebrity clients are less inclined than the average angry, bitter, and humiliated ex-spouse to accept guidance and advice from counsel. And celebrity lawyers are less willing to fire clients worth millions of dollars. Also, celebrities routinely find catharsis in acting out—this is, after all, what they are paid to do. So they are perhaps inclined to believe in the therapeutic model of litigation more than the rest of us. But celebrity divorce lawyers have an even bigger problem: They know that often their client ultimately wants the publicity even more than the divorce, be it good, bad, or profoundly shaming. And in the case of some high-profile lawyers, they want that publicity for themselves.

The result can be celebrity divorce cases that end up looking like parodies—with every motion and hearing so over-the-top that the whole profession starts to look like it was drafted for a Saturday Night Live skit rather than for judicial review. Maybe Gest's lawyers don't fully appreciate the fact that their client presents like a pathetic cross between Blanche DuBois and, well, Liza Minnelli. Maybe they can't control his publicity antics, or maybe they just don't want to. Maybe they think Americans are finally as ready for men who act like small girls as we are for small girls who act like men. The truth is that we are not ready to feel $10 million worth of sorry for David Gest, and—if there is any justice—we never will be.