Celebrities are smaller than they used to be

People are getting smaller.

Not physically, of course. Many Americans are fattening themselves up like a calf before slaughter. Every time you go to a movie or a sporting event or get on an airplane, you see folks wedging their 40-inch butts into 24-inch seats. Thereís a waiting list for condos at Fat City.

Seven-footers are commonplace in the NBA as are 300 pound-plus linemen on the gridiron.

No, I mean famous people. The kind of people the public used to look at and say they were "larger than life." They seem smaller.

A friend and I were recently talking about the recent death of Johnny Unitas and then trying to come up with more recent athletes who compared in stature.

Not just people who were big in their fields, but people who had exemplary, moral, value-laden lives. The kind of people you would want your kid to grow up like. Walter Payton was the closest we could come.

In all arenas of public life: sports, politics, music, acting, the stars donít seem to shine as brightly as they once did.

Maybe the United States Senate has always been a zoo of sorts, but it least it had its lions. Now itís mostly gophers, possums and weasels. Of the senators who have been in office during my lifetime, I have an easier time remembering the former ones than naming the new ones.

Dirkson, Fulbright, Goldwater, Jackson and Russell are just a few of the names that come to mind when one thinks of the Senate. Folks may remember George McGovern as a peace candidate, but he also flew a B-24 Liberator in World War II.

Itís tough to name any of its current members who will someday have a building named after them. Or have accomplished much other than longevity.

Ted Kennedy keeps getting bigger, but itís that other kind of big. He may already qualify as a building.

Maybe the need to raise so much money diminishes many legislators. Itís hard to be distinguished when you are begging for alms, though John McCain, the late Paul Wellstone and our own Chris Shays maintain a recherche dignity in their field.

Thereís a new movie out called "The Truth about Charlie." It is a remake of the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock film "Charade," starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. The current version is directed by Jonathan Demme with the Grant and Hepburn roles being played by Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton. Thandie.

Hollywood passes out stars like a teacher in self-esteem class. To be sure, there are actors out there with talent, but only Johnny Cochrane could make the case that Russell Crowe, Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson deserve to be on the same plane as John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda.

Name a great actress making movies today. Okay, name one other than Meryl Streep.

Elvis died in 1977 and The Beatles broke up in 1970. Kids today not only know who they are, they even know some of their music. Whatever you think of them, they were historical figures who changed the world. In the year 2033, will anyone say that about Madonna, Britney Spears or the Backstreet Boys?

Now, one explanation for these incredible shrinking people may be the times in which we live. Famous lives are magnified more than they used to be. Magnifying lives makes them smaller. It enlarges their flaws.

The notion of our obligations as citizens was more closely held than it is today. Tom Hanks made a movie about World War II and everyone hailed it as a great act of patriotism. Jimmy Stewart flew bombers over Germany. Ted Williams piloted a jet fighter in Korea.

Elvis did his time in olive drab as a soldier, albeit a drafted one. And even Jane Fonda, rightly or wrongly, made her biggest mark not on celluloid, but as a figure in the antiwar movement. Well, there was a time when I had a Barbarella poster in my room, too.

To be sure, there are still young people enlisting in the Marines and signing up for the Peace Corps, but if famous people are the statistical sampling it sure seems like there are a lot fewer of them bucking for role model.

Another thing is that we know more about these people than we should. Celebrity needs an aura of mystery. There are scores of television shows and countless magazines, newspaper sections and web sites devoted to examining every bit of their lives.

We know whose marriage is failing and why. Whoís in and out of alcohol or drug rehab. How much money they make. Heck, we not only know what kind of underwear ex-President Clinton favors, we know what kind he likes his women to wear.

We know too much. Way too much.

And we know too many; celebrity status is diluted by the myriad ways in which to attain it. Once you had a dozen real movie stars, a few bright lights in television and a handful of extraordinary athletes in sport. With scores of television stations, everyone is a celebrity Ė from the bozo on the reality game show to the bimbo hosting a local access program. Every time an athlete makes a good play, you can see it again and again and again.

Maybe these people have the potential to be more than they are, but the times just donít demand it of them. In spite of recent events, these are still among the more unchallenging times in American history. Most of the hard work and sacrifice is still being done by the few.

Winston Churchill once said, "the Americans will always do the right thing... after they've exhausted all the alternatives."

Its one of lifeís oddities that the bigger the range of choices in front of us, the smaller our lives seem.

November 1, 2002