Fitzgerald was wrong: there are second acts in American lives. Especially if the lives happen to be those of celebrities. Thanks to the runaway success of "The Osbournes", producers have realized that the most pressing question Americans want answered is not "Is there a God?" or "How can I lead the best possible life?" but "Whatever happened to that kid who played Webster?" And so we're deluged with TV shows providing us with glimpses of the names we had consigned to the far reaches of our cerebral cortex.
But producers, insightful folks that they are, have realized that we're not just simply intrigued by a glimpse into the real life of celebrities. "Cribs" and "Behind the Music" notwithstanding, these producers have realized that these ex-celebrities have transgressed against the American people in the worst way the famous can: they have ceased to be hot. And in order to be forgiven of their sins, to be welcomed as the prodigals back into the bosoms of television watchers everywhere, they must do their penitence.
This penitence consists of being placed into ignominious and absurd situations for the delectation of those very same viewers. When an ex-"Survivor" is strapped into a harness and made to undertake all means of strange physical exertions, or MC Hammer is forced to hand out flyers on the street to a upcoming party, you can almost see them thinking: Jack Nicholson would never have to do this.
"The Surreal Life" and "Celebrity Mole" are our ways of feeling superior, the schadenfreude of the nobody: "Page Six" may not know our names, but at least we're not so desperate to regain what we've lost that we'll go on "Fear Factor" and eat wriggling things. With the general hankering to be famous that lurks in many breasts, though, these C-listers hope that we'll recognize their hunger and admire them for their drive. We'll see how badly they want what we've taken away from them, and so we'll give it back to them.
But Nicholson is right about this - need is off-putting. It's a short distance from driven to pathetic, from demanding to craven, and most of these celebrities are tap dancing all over that line. One of the reasons Ozzy Osbourne is so genuinely popular is because the audience knows that he has been so addled by his prodigious pharmaceutical intake that he genuinely doesn't care whether the cameras are there or not. In fact, he may not even know that they're there.
But there's a town that's learned these lessons better than I ever could, and that town, of course, is "Chicago." In the fantastic Rob Marshall-directed version of the Kander and Ebb musical, you can't help thinking that Chicago is just another name for Hollywood, and that the leads are banking on the movie to claw themselves back up to the A-list once more (or, in Zellweger's case, to claw herself up to that Olympian height where Julia Roberts resides); that in the smoky hall where there's a nightly brawl, that Catherine Zeta Jones and Renee Zellweger see the next ingÈnues over their shoulders, gaining on them, and that the shine in their eyes is a little like desperation.
Both Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, in the movie, make the mistake, at one time or another, of thinking that they're too famous for the crowd to throw them over for the next big thing. The fact that they're wrong is a lesson that Emmanuel Lewis, Vince Neil, and MC Hammer have learned to their dismay. At the end of the movie, Hart and Kelly, once bitter enemies, have joined forces to put on a vaudeville show that'll knock the audience dead. And they do. But vaudeville is dead. Any attempts to revive it would be like attempts to bring back celebrities whose time has passed: ghoulish.
And so, watching the "Surreal Life" or "Celebrity Mole", our first excitement turns into mockery. And that, in turn, becomes, for want of a better word, melancholy: the realization that some part of your past, a minor part, of course, but one you enjoyed, has now become irretrievably changed, and not for the better.
We began with Fitzgerald, and end with Wolfe: you can't go home again. Even if the home is stocked with hidden cameras.
Jeremy Dauber is a playwright, theater director, and screenwriter.