Last night's edition of Prime Time Live (or, as the faux-momentous ABC tagline put it, "Diane Sawyer. Brad Pitt. The interview.") was a triumph of bad faith, shifting from unadorned movie plug to Bono-scored "Feed the World" video to psychotherapy session and back again without a blink. The exchange took the form of a naked quid pro quo, with Sawyer dutifully eating the Brussels sprouts of Pitt's pet cause—ending poverty in Africa—in order to earn herself another helping of the tiramisu of celebrity breakups and paparazzi-snapped dalliances. From time to time, they'd shift to a third topic that neither one seemed to care about, though it was the studio-driven raison d'etre of their entire encounter: the promotion of Pitt's new movie, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which opens Friday.
Throughout the hour-long interview, there wasn't even a pretense of graceful segue from one mode to the next. Sawyer would simply pay her dues with a 10-minute segment filmed in Africa (in which she and Pitt were shown presiding over a gaggle of smiling schoolchildren or comforting a young woman dying of AIDS) and then turn to Pitt with a bald demand for payback: "OK, let me give it a try." Even in the remotest corners of Ethiopia, poor Brad couldn't escape the vapid chatter of the celebrity-interview junket; one little boy, after confessing that the first thing he thought about every morning was "food," shyly asked the actor this Billy Bush-worthy question: "In Ocean's Eleven, how do you feel like, acting with those people?"
Among other things, the hour was a study in how deeply uncomfortable—how humiliating, really—it must be to be that famous. Despite his protestations that he had had "a shake-up year … a blossoming year," Pitt seemed resigned, even depressed, as he sipped ice water and squirmed in visible dread at Sawyer's invasive and demeaning questions about his breakup with Jennifer Aniston ("It's reported everywhere that you wanted babies and she did not"). Every so often, he took a moment to point out, in essence, that anyone tuning in to the show to learn about his personal life was one sick puppy: "It's a strange focus, isn't it? That my relationships or relationship mishaps takes precedent over something like that [the situation in Africa] … I understand it's about entertainment, but man, it's misguided a bit, isn't it?"
Vox clamantis in deserto, dude. It would be hard to find anyone who would openly disagree with Pitt's assertion that the mass suffering of a continent should rank higher on the list of global priorities than the love triangles of movie stars; certainly Diane Sawyer, nodding with her usual expression of chocolaty compassion, seemed convinced of the rightness of Brad's path. But what was most interesting was the way in which last night's broadcast co-opted that very sentiment—the deep-down knowledge that we should feel guilty for caring about this crap—and made it partof the publicity machine accompanying the rollout of Pitt's new film.
In its particularly stark association between gossip and guilt—watch these dying kids for a while, and we'll throw you a Pitt/Aniston tidbit for your trouble—the Prime Time encounter exemplified the kind of sadomasochistic push-pull that's constantly at work between the celebrity media and its consumers. For weeks, ABC has been dangling snippets of the upcoming interview that promise some kind of revelation or intimacy; when, as instructed, we tune in to watch, we're upbraided for having been interested, then offered a drop of Jolie juice, then scolded again. How can we even think about such things when children are starving in Africa? But look: Brad and Angelina are so hot together! The dialectic carousel goes round and round, all the way to the bank: Brad Pitt is above all of this media frenzy. Brad Pitt has his priorities in order. Therefore, go see Brad Pitt's new movie.
"I've been in these tabloids for 14 years now, and at some point you just become a Zen master of it all," Pitt sighed at one point. To his credit, he did manage to refrain from milking the position of the martyr for too long, and his comments on the women in his life were studiedly anodyne (Aniston, he insisted, was an "extraordinary person," while Angelina Jolie was "a good egg"). But cannily, Pitt did leave open the possibility of the cosmic supernova that would be a Pitt/Jolie pairing by steering just clear of a flat denial: "It's more that there's not so much to talk about at this time."
The inner lives of celebrities have become our Torah, our Quran, our Book of Revelations (or maybe our Dianetics), to be scrutinized and deciphered as if performing exegesis on some cryptic sacred text. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes leap on talk-show sofas, snog openly in front of hordes of paparazzi and hysterically declaim their passion to the press ("I miss him right now," Katie told one reporter, "And it's been like an hour!")—but we know, we just know, they are lying—their fake affair must conceal some far more perverse reality. Conversely, Brad Pitt wearily denies the existence of the mutant couple-creature that Access Hollywood has already dubbed "Brangelina" (that 60-page photo spread in the July issue of W, featuring Pitt and Jolie as a fictional suburban married couple, should be a big help in quelling the rumors), but we know he's lying too. Is our suspicion a healthy sign of resistance to celebrity bullshit, or just another trick to keep us buying magazines?
Memo to the celebrity-industrial complex, for whenever you hold your next top-secret cabal in a secure bunker beneath the "Hollywood" sign: It isn't fair. You can't brainwash us with the culture of celebrity, only to scold us for wanting the myth. You can't have your publicity-machine cake—a tasty confection made entirely of money—and eat your moral righteousness too. If the studio wants to use every means necessary to hawk tickets to Mr. and Mrs. Smith, so be it. But I'll take mine without the guilt, and worry about Africa on my own time.