Sex, lies and celebrity

18 Aug

Mark Borkowski (2008) The Fame Formula: How Hollywood’s Fixers, Fakers and Star Makers Created the Celebrity Industry, Sidgwick & Jackson

The_fame_formulaMark Borkowski writes that ‘in the media world, very few genuflect to the past – the zeitgeist is all.’ Yet he’s rather different (‘I fell into publicity because I failed to get into university to read history’ he says) and has written this history of the Hollywood publicity machine in follow-up to his previous book, Improperganda: The Art of the Publicity Stunt.

It’s full of stories: Barnum’s elephants, a Tarzan publicity stunt involving a tame lion, and the hilarious tale of how a publicist protected the reputation of actress Tara Tiplady and her co-star after an incident involving oral sex and a hot frying pan required medical intervention. Tiplady was starring as the Virgin Mary in a film about the birth of Christ at the time, so publicity would have been a bad thing.

But what does it tell us? ‘The great skill of the publicist in this era [ie 1930s Hollywood] was making journalists think they had the measure of power they craved when in fact they were simply desperate for access to be granted.’ Not perhaps so different then from the world of sport, entertainment, politics and even big business today.

There is a special case to be made for Hollywood, of course. Since show business manufactures make-believe, why should its publicity be held to higher standards of veracity? Is it such a bad thing to tell white lies to conceal the sexuality or height of a leading man? Note how this ‘entertainment industry exemption’ is the defence used by Max Clifford to this day – the ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’ school of entertainment PR. It’s all about the stories; if you want to keep something out of the media, feed them a better story.

These ethical questions are not Borkowski’s main concern; he’s also interested in the stories. He quotes a newspaper report on two celebrated publicists, Harry Brand and Russell Birdwell: ‘Lots of people can run a publicity department, but it takes a peculiar man to think up ideas… Harry and Russell are primarily idea men – each with a different approach’.

This is revealing: to succeed in publicity, you need to come up with big, bright ideas. What’s the word for people who deal in ideas? Intellectuals. Students will find this surprising; they sometimes complain that their lecturers over-complicate things and seek to take the moral high-ground. But the implication is that celebrity PR is itself an intellectual activity: let’s call it ‘cerebrity PR’.

The topic was also rehabilitated recently by one of the UK’s best known public relations academics. Jacquie L’Etang’s latest textbook considers celebrity PR worthy of academic study.

Borkowski’s isn’t an academic study, but it’s a lively account of some large characters written in an appropriately Chanderlesque style. ‘Jim Moran was a large man with a penchant for wearing a big beard – unonventional in clean-cut mid-century America – and a fez. He was one of the biggest personalities in an industry rife with larger-than-life personalities, so much so that his personality wound its way inextricably into many of his stunts.’

Some of these large characters gained positions of power over matters of life and death. Referring to Howard Strickling, MGM would advise its stars: ‘If you get into trouble, don’t call the police. Don’t call the hospital. Don’t call your lawyer. Call Howard.’ The murder of ‘platinum blonde’ Jean Harlow’s film director husband by a former lover became a much more convenient suicide at the hands of the publicists in order to protect her reputation.

In a less troubling example of the publicist’s art, Jack Tirman invented a non-existent exotic dance duo in order to promote a Manhattan nightclub. He gained plenty of publicity for the dancers but was surprised to read a stinking press review of these performers, ‘who for obvious reasons hadn’t put a foot wrong’. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Yet publicity had started a slow journey towards becoming a respectable business. Henry Rogers played a part in this: ‘He hosted parties for his clients, put himself into the social whirl of Hollywood and made sure he was well read enough to be able to talk anything but shop when he was out on the town.’ He focused on relationships with the studios and thus offered his clients more than press agentry. His business, Rogers & Cowan (formed in 1945 and later acquired by Shandwick) became a recognisably modern public relations consultancy, able to adapt to changes in business and the media. ‘Dog food and movie stars are much alike because they are both products in need of exposure’, as Rogers said.

We’re now into the short-attention-span television age in which anyone can seek their ’15 minutes of fame’.  But we’re given a useful distinction: ‘Publicity is about noise and the excitement of the moment, whereas public relations is more about planning and carefully structuring a series of events that build to a bigger picture. The successful public relations merchants…are as much media strategists as press agents.’

One such strategist, Pat Kingsley – a useful counterpoise to all the male publicists featured in the book – realised the value of less publicity in a media-saturated age and rewrote the rules. ‘If you can’t stop celebrities making mischief, she reasoned, then at least you should try and stop the journalists from making mischief.’

The formula of the book’s title may be an awkward addendum; the book may be more concerned with answering ‘how?’ than addressing ‘why?’ – but this is an entertaining read and a valuable contribution to the history of public relations.

If this review is brought to the author’s attention, he may enjoy this. In the same year as Borkowski began his career in theatrical publicity, your reviewer was accepted to read history at an ancient university. Perhaps as a result, his career has never reached the same heights as Borkowski’s.

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