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TODAY

Friday, October 20

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Airbags

When does celebrity involvement in public issues go from supporting a cause to aggressively pushing an agenda to emphasizing the "correct" standards and values?

Take Chicago's own Oprah Winfrey. Her main web page trumpets that ithe site is "your leading source for information about love, life, self, relationships, food, home, spirit and health." Whew. That's a lot! She recommends a tome for her book club, and her choice immediately skyrockets to the tops of best seller lists. She likes a product or believes in a certain organization, and her devoted masses follow willingly, dutifully dedicating time or money as requested. I'm not discounting Winfrey's contributions over the years to various charitable causes, to say nothing of getting Americans to pick up books and actually read them. But not everything out of her mouth is golden and surrounded with diamonds. She's human; she makes mistakes. And whatever one thinks about her, I will never forgive her for unleashing Dr. Phil on the masses and giving him legitimacy. Never. Get real, my ass.

Winfrey recently defanged David Letterman in their recent "lovefest," orchestrated after a years-long feud between the talk show hosts. The sarcastic late-nighter all but drooled over the queen of daytime television, who was there to promote the play The Color Purple — I mean, end the nonfeud. She claimed that she never had a problem with Letterman, even though Winfrey has gone on the record in both Time magazine and on her show about how he made her uncomfortable in the past. I'm not saying that Dave should have attacked Winfrey or made her the butt of mean jokes, but her power and influence is now so large that whispers of her garnering a Nobel Peace Prize or running for president are now becoming much louder. No one dare criticize the woman or her actions for fear of being labeled anti-Oprah. She's at the George Lucas level of fame now, although I hope that Winfrey is smart enough to not surround herself exclusively with yes-women.

Another celebrity who capitalized on his power was Mel Gibson. His controversial movie The Passion of the Christ promoted his version of the last 12 hours of Jesus' life. He co-wrote, co-produced and directed the violent film, which has many bloody scenes of Christ being beaten and tortured before he finally dies via crucifixion. Historians immediately picked apart the film, noting several innaccuracies. Some critics panned The Passion as nothing more than a glorified snuff film. Gibson labeled negative press about the film as "anti-Christian sentiment," regardless of the reviewers' beliefs or religious background. And he was accused by many of anti-Semitism for his negative portrayal of Jews. However, several religious leaders praised the movie — some even called watching it an religious experience in itself — and encouraged Christians to go to the theater. The picture ended up as the third highest-grossing movie of 2004, earning $370 million domestically. It made Gibson, who financed the film with his own money, even more wealthy.

Faith is an extremely personal subject for almost everyone, no matter what one believes (or doesn't believe). By offering his interpretation of his savior's last days on earth, is Gibson merely showing us what Jesus sacrificed for humankind or he is telling us the "truth"? It might be his truth, but does that mean it has to be ours as well?

Tom Cruise's crusade this year — when he wasn't pushing a summer blockbuster or knocking up an actress young enough to be his daughter — was against the evils of psychiatry. The hard-core Scientologist became increasingly vocal this year under the management guidance of his sister Lee Anne DeVette, also a member of the "church" founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. [Cruise recently replaced his sister as his PR mouthpiece.] During the push for his movie War of the Worlds, Cruise decided to use the opportunity to promote his personal viewpoints rather than the science fiction thriller. He equated physicians prescribing antidepressants with drug dealers on the streets. "Here's the thing you have to understand with psychiatry," he said intently during the half-hour special "Tom Cruise: Man on a Mission." There is no science behind it. And to pretend that there is a science behind it is criminal." Cruise blasted Brooke Shields for choosing to take a prescribed drug to help her get through a crushing case of postpartum depression. Yet Cruise saw nothing odd about publicly declaring his love for a woman young enough to be his daughter, and whom he had known for less than two months, by jumping on couches, giggling and pumping his fist (to an adoring, screaming crowd on the Oprah< show, natch).

However, it was the infamous interview with Today's Matt Lauer that finally brought Cruise's beliefs under intense national scrutiny.

Lauer: I'm only asking, isn't there a possibility that — do you examine the possibility that these things do work for some people? That yes, there are abuses. And yes, maybe they've gone too far in certain areas. Maybe there are too many kids on Ritalin. Maybe electric shock —

Cruise: Too many kids on Ritalin? Matt.

Lauer: I'm just saying. But aren't there examples where it works?

Cruise: Matt, Matt, Matt, you don't even — you're glib. You don't even know what Ritalin is.

The National Mental Health Association issued a statement blasting Cruise for perpetuating "fear and misinformation." The actor's approval ratings dropped sharply over the summer and for the rest of the year. The Lauer/Cruise confrontation inspired Brooke Shields to break her public silence and write an op-ed piece for the New York Times. War of the Worlds opened big, but the aftermath of Cruise's statements and behavior could definitely have an impact on his future movies — ones that aren't directed by Steven Spielberg and based on books by H.G. Wells.

During their tête-à-tête, Lauer said, "But a little bit of what you're saying, Tom, is you say you want people to do well. But you want them do to well by taking the road that you approve of, as opposed to a road that may work for them." And that's how the cult of personality becomes dangerous. Oprah's choices for great modern literature, Mel's interpretation of the Bible, Tom's insistence that psychiatry is the root of all evil: to each his or her own, free will and all that. But when celebrities use their power to insist that people think that their way is the "right" way — or worse, the only way — it's scary. Scarier still is how many people buy into it without a twitch or blink.

"I exploit you, still you love me."

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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