Thursday, April 29, 2010

Night Table Reading

Deep within its perfumed pages, Vanity Fair magazine has a monthly feature that asks celebrities and various people of note what book currently resides on their night stand. You can believe, if you wish, that Renee Zellwegger slumbers in her oxygen chamber while verses by Rimbaud run through her squinty little brain, but I prefer to imagine the frantic poolside call to her publicist to find a volume weighty enough to lay claim to.

I usually have a few books going at a time, but lately I've been so busy with my job, various plans with friends, and a recent family crisis that it seems to have taken me forever just to get through Francine Prose's A Changed Man. It's a very engaging novel that examines subjects as wide-ranging as single parenthood, the Holocaust, and the Aryan supremecy movement. I'd stumbled across and really enjoyed an earlier book of Prose's, The Blue Angel, and read it on vacation in Maine last summer. It's a really captivating story about a dipsomaniac (dipsomaniacal?) Vermont college professor who hurtles into a very misguided affair with a student. Prose has the ability to tease out a story in a way that's both entertaining and relatable, and though you can see the sexual harrassment lawyers converging from nearly the start of the tale, as a reader you just need to see how she sketches in the awful culmination, like a tsunami breaking on a beach.

Determined to stock up on books to see me through the next few weeks, I made some notes when reading reviews in The New York Book Review, Atlantic, and some other magazines, and ordered a bunch through Amazon. These are what are now on my night table (or, actually, the coffee table in my den), and I hope to get started on them immediately. In no particular order:

Digging Up the Dead, by Michael Kammen. A person's reputation goes through many changes throughout the course of his life. But that's true after death, too. Historian Michael Kammen examines how personages throughout history, such as John Paul Jones, Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Boone, Jefferson Davis, and Abraham Lincoln, have all been subjected to exhumations and reburials based on shifting assessments of their reputations, changing burial practices, and political upheavals. Sounds fascinating and macabre. 

When I ordered Steven Spielberg's America, by Frederick Wasser, I expected it to focus on his uniquely American filmmaking perspective, particularly his introspective and questioning approach to middle-class complacency. The jacket notes promise me a "...fresh and provocative take on Spielberg in the context of globalization, rampant market capitalism, and the hardening socio-political landscape of the United States...." Okay, well, I'll read it anyway. Or maybe I'll skim it.

Pictures from an Institution, A Comedy, by Randall Jarell. I've been hearing about this book for many years. People whose opinion I value have told me it's a hilarious satire of campus politics and political correctness. The fact that it was first published over 50 years ago makes it all the more intriguing

Animals Make Us Human, by Temple Grandin. Several years ago I enjoyed Grandin's bestseller Animals in Translation. Grandin is an autistic woman who compensated for her inability to bond with other humans by focusing solely on the minds and comforts of animals, even designing slaughterhouse mechanisms that reduce fear and anxiety among cattle about to get the axe. Her new book focuses on how we can better understand animals -- in this case, pets -- so that we can provide them the best and happiest lives "on their terms, not ours."

Survival City (adventures among the ruins of atomic America), by Tom Vanderbilt. Having lived under the shadow of nuclear annihilation my entire life, I'm eager to read Vanderbilt's book, which examines the legacies of the Cold War and the blueprints put into place to manage and perhaps even withstand the apocalypse we all once thought was inevitable.

One Nation Underground. The Fallout shelter in American Culture, by Kenneth D. Rose. Are you seeing a theme here? Apparently this book traces the ways in which the fallout shelter became an icon of popular culture, and even a symbol of plucky American adaptability.

Irving Thalberg. Boy Wonder To Producer Prince, by Mark A. Vieira. I love Hollywood lore, so I can't wait to dive into this thick tome. I know quite a lot about Thalberg already, particularly that he was instrumental in creating pioneering film masterpieces like Ben-Hur, Grand Hotel, and The Good Earth, and that he made stars of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Norma Shearer, whom he married. I also know that he accomplished all that before dying at 37. I'm really looking forward to delving into the details of this man's life, and am fascinated that someone is able to piece it all together more than 70 years after the fact. 

Renee, would you like to share?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Notes From the Grassy Knoll

Take a look some time at the craigslist ads under "Marketing." If there are any jobs at all, the ones for creative positions now combine disciplines that once were mutually exclusive. They call for a copywriter who can design, or a designer who can write copy -- which, as anyone who has really worked in a creative environment knows, are opposing skill sets. While I've known one or two designers who can write copy I've encountered even fewer copywriters who can design -- they're simply different capabilities within the same realm, like a cake decorator and a butcher who work in the same kitchen. Sometimes the ads bundle in additional demands -- I've seen ads with copywriting requirements stipulating that applicants must be able to hoist 45 pounds. Perhaps that's so they can shoulder their bruised egos and broken dreams.

And because of the state of the economy -- advertising is the first to be hit when things go south, and the last to recover -- today's ads for copywriters tend to skew toward lower levels of qualification. Sure, there are lots of places where a junior copywriter is all that's needed, and giving up-and-coming creatives a chance to prove themselves is how the field has always replenished its ranks. But there's a lot to be said about applying the right level of talent to a task. I'll even give you an example.

For months I heard a radio commercial that seemed to get constant airplay, and yet I could never get past the first obstacle in the script to pay attention to the product pitch. I think it was about banking services, and as the narrator warbled something about better ways you could spend your time than worrying about your money, he mentioned "tumbling down grassy knolls." This is a great example of the importance of cultural and historical perspective. For anyone over the age of 45, the words "grassy" and "knoll" when joined reference only one thing: the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963. The Warren Commission's report included endless mentions of spectators on the grassy knoll at Dealy Plaza in Dallas, the passing of the presidential convoy by the grassy knoll, the possibility of a second shooter behind the grassy knoll. There was even a Seinfeld episode that parodied this examination of trajectories and suspects. "Grassy knoll" is a culturally embedded phrase that's imprinted itself on the public consciousness, like "the second plane" and "the two towers." My guess is that some copywriter had a vague sense that those two words went together somehow, and the creative director, the account people, and the client all lacked that same ability to identify a cultural signifier of epic proportions. Talk about a tragically undeveloped sense of shared history.

It may sound like a small mistake, but it's emblematic of a field thrown out of whack by economic circumstances and the overwhelming influence of the online marketing channel, without the perspective to assess its creative output and no longer able to even match the right skills with the right job. It's definitely become incapable of projecting how its contribution fits into the culture on a grander scale, one that goes beyond the marketing objective. My feeling is that when everyone is so focused on whether a headline fits within the tiny frame of the computer screen, the message is likely to be obscured or impeded because nascent talents are no longer nurtured or mentored. That ripple effect erodes not only the creative product, but the effectiveness and accountability and impact of all the advertising channels for years to come -- along with the quality and satisfaction of working in a once-great industry.

Monday, April 26, 2010

They Loved It In Pomona

I've written before about the curious experience of seeing a film you've watched dozens of times and suddenly coming away with a different impression. Last night Turner Classic Movies ran Sunset Boulevard, and though it's one of those films every movie lover knows by heart -- it would have been easy to title this blog entry something like "It's the Pictures That Got Small" -- I watched most of it again and was impressed by Gloria Swanson's performance as the faded film legend Norma Desmond, and by the structure of the film itself, which really is one of the first to attempt to provide a commentary on Hollywood's own history, which really, at that point, was not very long.

It must have been difficult for Swanson to play a role that so closely mirrored her own life as a once-beloved silent film actress, but by all reports she had a great sense of humor and a keen intelligence; she knew by embracing the role of a Hollywood icon who would never manage a comeback she was ensuring her own. Older actresses like Mae West and Pola Negri were approached for the part but their vanity about portraying a delusional recluse like Desmond ended up handing the role to Swanson. Mary Pickford was considered as well, but by that time she was Norma Desmond, and the script hit a bit too close to home. It's also important to remember that in 1950, when the film was released, a fifty-year-old woman was old; now actresses that age bare their bikini bodies on magazine covers (hello, Julia Louis-Dreyfus) but sixty years ago it was nearly impossible for a star to maintain the illusion of eternal youth.

What came across so clearly in this viewing is how trapped the protagonist of this film is -- even after his demise, since he's narrating it from his prone position face-down in a swimming pool. Broke, unemployed, and behind on his rent and car payments, William Holden's character agrees to rewrite Desmond's treatment of Salome -- a part she's decades too old for -- because he needs the money. Any writer can identify with that, and I can think of dozens of odious projects I took on for exactly that reason. But he's a virtual prisoner in Desmond's creaky old mansion, and the film makes it obvious, without being too indelicate, that sexually servicing the aging actress is part of the arrangement. Holden was about 31 when the movie was filmed, a little mature to be playing the part of the boy toy, but the casting is still far more appropriate than the role of the handsome drifter he would play five years later in William Inge's Picnic. In one scene following Desmond's suicide attempt his distaste is palpable as she enfolds him in her embrace like a very theatrical vampire. Anyone who has ever slept with someone they didn't really want to, because the relationship was over or for social, financial, or survival reasons, will relate to Holden's predicament. There's a great moment in a clothing boutique, when Desmond is selecting an entire wardrobe of suits and formal wear her lover can only don for her in the seclusion of her mansion. Holden is asked to choose between camel hair (pronounced "camel's hair" in this era for some reason) and another fiber. He says the camel hair will be fine, but the oily salesman, recognizing a gigolo when he sees one, whispers, "Why not get the better material if the old broad is paying for it?"

Director William Wilder also understood that to underscore the suffocating entrapment of the mansion he had to contrast it with dips into the real world. That's why it's so jarring when Holden's Joe Gillis escapes to the sock-hop antics of his young friends, who seem so fresh and innocent in comparison to the sordid shadow world of Norma Desmond's bridge games attended by a wax works of former silent screen stars. It's also always a jolt to see a young Jack Webb cavorting among all the others -- I seem to remember him even playing a saxophone, or am I projecting? For most people he's inseparable from the humorless detective Joe Friday, delivering his flat little wrap-ups on Dragnet to show the criminal element how stupid it is to tangle with the law.

The real question is why Swanson never took advantage of the momentum Sunset Boulevard provided her career. Apparently the roles she was offered after that were pale imitations of the Desmond character, and she'd already hit that mark. Perhaps she was smart enough to leave well enough alone, and be remembered best for that one defining part.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"Why, I Oughtta...."

Comedy has its epochs. What was funny to audiences in, say, 1920 might bore us to death today. That's probably because humor is so reflective of the current events and circumstances that generated it and provide its backdrop. But some comedic pairings will always endure. Laurel and Hardy, for example, are still funny 80 years later because they established such indelible comedic archetypes: the put-upon straight man and the imbecilic man-child (a template revised by comedy teams like Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, and even Rowan and Martin). The physical comedy of their routines is flawlessly executed, and the pair is inherently likable whatever the context. Likewise, the Marx Brothers are still hilarious, though they're grounded in a world of ocean liners and dowagers that's so long-lost it seems like you're looking through a wormhole to an era centuries ago. The Three Stooges are literally hit and miss; you have to think seltzer bottles and eye pokes are amusing to get to the brief enjoyable bits, and there were enough third-Stooge replacements that you're bound to like one. Of course Lucille Ball's brand of physical comedy will always be funny; it's something about the willingness of a truly beautiful actress to immerse herself in awkward situations and gags, melded with the universality of domestic situations the audience can relate to easily.

But then we come to the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, so popular in the '40s and '50s. Were they ever funny? Their "Who's On First?" routine still endures, and it's the wordplay that's sustained it all this time. But their comedic dynamic was so dependent on Abbott relentlessly bullying the chubby, marginally more likable Costello that it's hard to watch. You can't imagine these two men being friends, the way you might convince yourself that other comedy teams were, or why they would have cast their lots together. In fact whatever chemistry held their act together was so tenuous they spent their entire career replaying the same few dependable routines, starting in radio in the 1930s right up through the end of their film and television careers in the mid-'50s. They didn't trust audiences to accept them with fresh material, and in the end the public tired of them, though they had a substantial run. Ironically, they were replaced by Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, a far more talented team they supposedly discovered who could each branch off and enjoy successful solo careers.

Abbott and Costello made just one good film, though, and when I was a little kid I was completely enchanted by it. It's called The Time of Their Lives, from 1946, and it's one of only two films they made together where they're not actually a team. Costello plays a New England tinker during the Revolutionary War who, along with a woman played by a pretty brunette actress named Elizabeth Reynolds, is branded a traitor. Their ghosts are cursed to remain near the well where their bodies were thrown after they were shot (a heavy premise for a comedy of the day) for supposedly being in league with Benedict Arnold, and when a group of people in the 20th century take over the adjacent farmhouse, they attempt to clear their names from beyond the ectoplasm. I think the premise fascinated me -- the fact that these two people were bound together for nearly 200 years in a strangely benign, asexual limbo. Best of all, it's the one film where Abbott is on the receiving end of the punishment for a change, as the ghostly and invisible Costello pulls gags on him from the great beyond. It's wonderfully satisfying when the two manage to clear their names and are released from their curse; they advance at last on the pearly gates of Heaven, which flash with electric light bulbs like a broadway theatre marquee.

Like many comedic teams, the two feuded constantly, and weren't even speaking during the making of this film. That only served to enhance the story of a wronged ghost harassing a bully, something enjoyable to watch after all those years of shouting and harranging. Costello died in his early 50s, and though Abbott lived for many more years, he simply performed the same routines with a series of comedic partners for the rest of his life, as if who was on first really didn't matter after all.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Worst Case Scenario (Not On My Watch)

Like everyone else, actors have bills to pay. Which would have to explain why once-hot performers like Kelly McGillis and Eric Roberts turn up in the most god-awful made-for-television productions on the Syfy network. But why am I also seeing still-successful stage and film actors there, actors with the stature of Brian Dennehy and Dianne Wiest?

There are basically four genres of films on Syfy: the doomsday scenario (an asteroid hits the moon and chaos ensues on earth, solar flares threaten life on earth, an earthquake of 10 on the Richter scale threatens California), the mega monster flick (giant sharks, giant pirranhas, giant crocodiles, giant aardvarks), the almost doomsday scenario (a mega-cyclone is heading for Boston, seriously jeopardizing opening day at Fenway Park). The fourth is the pseudo-mythological monster film, where some amalgam of historic cultures (feudal England mixed with the Byzantine empire mixed with Octoberfest) struggles to overcome some colicky, CGI-engineered beast (Kraken, dragon, Cyclops).

This last type is where someone like Eric Roberts is most likely to turn up, playing a Roman general or perhaps even an emperor (meaning that instead of a horse he's issued a sedan chair so he can be carried into the action by slaves). You can tell by the way he slinks through each scene that it's not the Cyclops that's eating him alive, it's the realization that he once had a viable career and that his estranged sister Julia will never have to stoop as low for a pay check. The battles and confrontations with whatever monster is at hand are always the same: they result in a comical display of severed limbs pumping gallons of blood, like a Monty Python film without the self-awareness or the self-effacing humor. 

You have to ask who Roberts offended to be cast into this filmatic purgatory, but actors like Kelly McGillis don't fare much better. An A-list star in the '80s with such credits to her name as Top Gun, Witness, and The Accused, I recently spotted her piloting a boat through a swamp with Supergator in hot pursuit. She performed the scene like a soccer mom who'd made a wrong turn on the expressway after band practice, mildly annoyed that jaws the size of a drawbridge had seized her boat by the stern.

So failure engenders necessity, and that might explain those two actors and their presence on Syfy. But last night I came home from a party and turned on the TV to see Brian Dennehy slumming in something called Category 6: Day of Destruction. In the first scene I saw, someone is explaining to him that the unthinkable has occurred, and two major hurricanes are about to converge over downtown Chicago (of course you have to forget that there's never been one hurricane in the midwest, let alone two, but this is the rare realm where facts will only weigh you down). This award-winning actor, who's received accolades for his performance in Death of a Salesman, manages not to snicker as he looks meaningfully off into the middle distance and utters, "It's the worst-case scenario we've been dreading." Now that's acting.

Later on, Wiest gets a chance to demonstrate that she's as much of a trouper as her esteemed colleague, bringing her unique brand of sturdy, matronly common sense to the situation, possibly as mayor, or was it the head of the weather bureau? It doesn't matter. One of her underlings (there are many underlings in these disaster films, as they serve to supply plot exposition and, at the same time, can be dispensed with in showy, graphic ways) lays out the situation for her, and reassures her that there wasn't any way she could have known in time to protect the public. "Yes," Wiest says, looking wistfully away in the same manner as Dennehy, "but they'll remember that it happened on my watch."

The reward for sitting through all this is a few seconds of second-tier special effects where Chicago is besieged by a veritable confetti storm of loose paper so it's obvious the characters are running around in a wind storm (wind being, after all, invisible). I've experienced several hurricanes and while I remember lots of traffic signs and shingles hurtling about I don't recall anyone emptying the contents of a Staples into the air. By the time three tornadoes sheared through the Miracle Mile I'd seriously lost interest and was ready for bed.

So my conclusion is that perhaps actors -- even the really employable, high-calibre ones -- are just like freelance writers: unable to turn down work of any kind, because you just never know when (or, in the case of Eric Roberts, if) the phone is going to ring again.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Ad Roundup

When crafting an advertising message, there are three things you can do (entertain, inform, and amuse) but one thing you must never do (distract). That's why the current 30-second spots for Panda Express really bother me. They're entirely dependent on the assumption that we the viewers are unanimously agreed that pandas are cute under any circumstances. Personally I don't see it, but maybe I'm too fully aware of the fact that they're actually vicious little bears that will tear you apart. Give me a koala bear any day, and has anyone ever noticed how much those look like the late San Francisco columnist Herb Caen?

Anyway, the commercial starts with two pandas sitting together on the ocean floor. One is wearing one of those diving bell-type suits with a metal helmet -- no air hose in evidence, by the way -- and the other has a mask and snorkel. Yes, they're talking pandas, but that's not what rubs me the wrong way. You simply can't breathe if the top of the snorkle is below the surface of the water. How hard would it have been to put him in a scuba outfit? 

Okay, so as a viewer I've been asked to suspend my disbelief right from the get-go. Then we find out that the pandas are in the ocean to catch shrimp. I sometimes feel like a compendium of loose bits of useless data, but I was pretty sure that, like my friend the koala bear, pandas subsist mainly on eucalyptus leaves. So I looked it up, and yes, literally 99% of their diet is nothing more than those leaves. The rest -- 1 %, mind you -- is comprised of eggs, honey, insects and fish. So while it may be plausible that pandas would endanger themselves in the pursuit of shrimp, it's pretty unlikely, even in the fluid universe of television advertising. So I've been asked to suspend my disbelief a second time. You've lost me, Panda Express. Although to be honest I've never been in one of your restaurants.

Panda Express aside, fast food commercials can be very entertaining, even if, like me, you almost never venture into a McDonald's, Taco Bell, or KFC. But getting the viewer's attention is what it's all about, and I have to give Jack in the Box credit for not being afraid of taking a little bit of a risk, even if it serves to perpetuate the myth that heterosexual males are aroused by lesbian activity. Two of Jack's employees are describing their favorite sandwich, and he breaks the fourth wall and turns to the viewer to remark that this is the worst commercial he's ever been in. "Well," one of the women says, glancing at her coworker, "we could kiss." Good job, Jack in the Box. 

Then we come to the current spate of Volkswagen commercials, which are more than just annoying; I fear they'll actually ignite suburban violence. The idea is based on the childhood game of punching the person next to you every time you spot a particular object. In my long ago youth we played a game called "cemetery," which meant someone would get hammered for as long as your dad's car passed a graveyard. In New England, where monuments to death festoon every corner, that could be several minutes. But the sound effects of the blows being delivered as various people spot different colored VWs sound like the sickening, penetrating thuds of Jake LaMotta being pummeled in Raging Bull, or the scene in Cabaret when Michael York is nearly beaten to death by a gang of Nazis. It's just not funny, and there's already quite enough violence in the world for my taste. They even managed to drag Stevie Wonder into this mess to make blind jokes at his expense. I might have looked at Volkswagens the next time I was shopping for cars but now I'm not going to. So there.

Finally, here's a really bad concept from a bank, usually one of the most cautious of advertisers (I can't tell you how many hours I've spent in my career arguing that Christmas trees that appear in Bank of America and Wells Fargo ads -- at Christmas -- weren't likely to offend Jewish customers, or skewing billboard images so that the models weren't too lily white, too Hispanic, or too black. I even had a client complain that the dad playing with his kids in a swimming pool, part of a home equity loan campaign, was "too hairy.") Chase is currently running radio spots that feature a Rod Serling sound-alike voice over, welcoming potential business banking customers to something called "The Chase Zone." I get that they're trying to say Chase's point of differentiation is to offer customers services other banks can't or don't. It's just that it's incredibly ill-conceived to portray their banking offerings as a weird, alternative universe where reality is suspended and anything can happen. I already get that type of service from Comcast, thanks. It sounds like my savings balance will suddenly disappear or turn into drachmas, or I'll open my checkbook and discover that the tree frogs printed on my checks have become murderous clowns. Fire your agency, Chase.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Why Words Matter

I remarked in an earlier entry in this blog -- or maybe it's just something I whine about so continuously I've lost track -- that modern copywriting has been reduced to a bunch of people standing around a designer's computer screen complaining, "Why are there so many words? Do there have to be so many words? Nobody reads."

Well, if no one reads any more, it's precisely because of that disregard for the importance of the written word in communicating everything from traffic signage to online diaper discounts. In fact, the lack of usable real estate -- the frame within the screen -- available in online communication means that each word the copywriter has selected has been chosen for its precision of meaning in the context of the other words. 

That's why it's nice to still encounter words that strobe with vibrant meaning. You plough into their substantial forms and savor the distinct flavors of their definitions, and before you realize it they've deposited their unique history and cultural evolution right in your lap.
Sure, there are words that, removed from their era, lose all relevancy. You only have to read an Edith Wharton novel to know that a brougham was a sort of horse-drawn carriage often used as a cab in the Manhattan of the late 19th century. Sources describe it as a four-wheeled, boxlike, closed carriage for two or four persons, having a driver's perch outside. To me that describes a stage coach as well, but I never heard anyone on Gunsmoke shout "The brougham's been held up!" 

But there are some lovely, incredibly colorful and descriptive words that apply when simply nothing else will do. They need to be revived like ailing dowagers and sent back out onto the dance floor.  

Popinjay: There's no better way to describe that attention-seeking slacker in your office, since it means a person given to vain, pretentious displays of importance and empty chatter. As in, "That popinjay Bob in Marketing took credit for our entire presentation."

Manque: My good friend Jean loves this word, and rightly so, as it means a sort of failed or inauthentic version of something real. As in, "Heidi is a creative director manque; she's never been remotely creative or managed to direct anything."

Martinet: There's a brittle, puppet-like quality to this word, which is perfect, since it describes unreasonable rigidness: someone who stubbornly adheres to methods or rules despite circumstances that may indicate a different course of action. As in, "That little martinet in HR insists I take Excel training in order to get my promotion."

Scuttlebutt: This wonderful word has archaic roots that are nautical in origin. While originally it had something to do with bailing water out of a ship's hold, it's somehow come to mean gossip...which seems an odd coincidence, since it's often used to convey office water cooler talk. As in, "What's the scuttlebutt on Security suddenly cleaning out Claudia's office?"

Bully pulpit: In a way a blog is a bully pulpit, because it provides a voice for someone in a context that isn't hugely impacted by others. Usually it's applied to politicians who take advantage of their position in office to force their agenda, but I tend to think of it as anyone who uses a position or ranking to steer discourse. As in, "Just because he's CMO, William doesn't have to use the annual meeting as a bully pulpit on how we should all switch to Priuses."

Scaramouche: If you're like me and sing Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody at top volume in the car, then you've at least encountered this word. Basically, it refers to a lazy, posturing coward or theatrical buffoon. As in, "That scaramouche Johnson made a complete ass of himself at the All Hands meeting today."

It hasn't escaped my notice that I've applied all these words as workplace pejoratives. Maybe I'm still thinking about all those people constantly crowded around the computer, plugging at my carefully chosen words like ducks in a shooting gallery.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Forget It, Sweetheart

Is there a worse fate than being America's sweetheart?

Putting any woman on a pedestal either isolates her there or, more likely, sets her up to be knocked down from it. The first American sweetheart was the silent film actress Mary Pickford, known for her golden curls and sweet public demeanor; the public that adored her never realized she was an incredibly astute business woman who commanded $10,000 a week before the Jazz Age even got flapping. In charge of her career from the start, she learned the mechanics of filmmaking and co-founded United Artists with Charlie Chaplin. Pickford was so idolized that on a trip to London a mob pulled her from her car and trampled her in an attempt to touch her fabled tresses. Her marriage to the dashing screen legend Douglas Fairbacks (her second) was touted as the perfect fairy tale romance but it soon fizzled for all the usual reasons -- alcoholism, adultry, the waning career of one of the partners -- and she spent the rest of her long life (she died in 1979) living in the shadow of the public persona she had sculpted and the ingenue she had been.

Debbie Reynolds met the same fate when Elizabeth Taylor decided to involve Eddie Fisher in one of her many brief dalliances. The fan magazines published endless photos of a pigtailed Reynolds -- a press agent's suggestion for sure -- with her two infant children (one of whom would grow up to be the devastatingly funny Carrie Fisher), and for the rest of her career Reynolds has worn the mark of the wronged woman, even though she and Taylor have supposedly long ago buried the hatchet. A more recent example is Jennifer Aniston, and though it's been at least five years since her husband Brad Pitt unceremoniously dumped her for the hard-to-compete-with Angelina Jolie, she's still portrayed as an unwitting victim of the capriciousness of high-profile love, a sort of glamorous cat lady who can do nothing more than vacation with her married friends and date wildly inappropriate co-stars.

Our latest wronged American Sweetheart is, of course, Oscar-winner Sandra Bullock. She's an easy celebrity to side with, likeable and down-to-earth, still stunning at an age when most actresses have to take on "mother" roles, placed in a situation that's all the more tragic because it leaves her unable to savor her recent triumph thanks to revelations from multiple skanky sources that her husband cheated on her. There are daily rumors that Bullock is "lawyering up," that she has canceled plans to adopt her husband's children (the spawn of a porn star), that she has moved out of their home. And, like the Tiger Woods debacle, there's the husband's inevitable rehab check-in for sexual compulsion. You have to ask yourself, though, when a person's partner is involved with not one but at least four other women of dubious virtue, how oblivious or self-involved were you to miss all the clues? Sure, she works a lot and has often been on location during their marriage. But didn't poor Sandy have a sense of Jesse James' past, and his fundamental make-up -- the porn star ex-wife, the obsession with tattoos, the Nazi memorabilia, his tendency to Heil Hitler salute the press? Isn't his name, after all, Jesse James?

It will be interesting to see this familiar scenario play out with someone like Bullock, who seems smart and demonstrative and, until now, in control of her image. In a world where it's easy to let celebrities fall from their pedestals and shatter in very public ways, she's one actress you'd like to see recover her balance and claim a victory.