Archive for Thursday, September 6, 2001

Debunking media myths

Critic Richard Roeper takes aim at popular urban legends of film, TV and music

September 6, 2001


As one half of the television team responsible for "Ebert and Roeper and the Movies," film writer Richard Roeper is often overlooked due to his pairing with power critic Roger Ebert. But fans of movies and other media-related tidbits may appreciate the fact that Roeper, and not his tubby companion, is the one authoring "Hollywood Urban Legends."

It's not that Ebert isn't a good writer; he'll be the first to mention his Pulitzer Prize in any discussion. It's just that he can be a real windbag. And after all, how seriously can you take the opinion of a writer who's responsible for creating one of the all-time lousiest films, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls?"

Roeper is cut from a different cloth entirely. The man comes across as a real movie fan, and is fairly low-key about it. Of course, maybe that's because he works for Ebert as a junior columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, where Ebert is revered as a minor deity. So it's nice to see a project about the media written by the quintessential common guy, without any employer influences haunting his prose. And that's what the reader gets with Roeper's "Hollywood Urban Legends," which debunks many of the favorite entertainment myths that seem to perpetually crop up.

Being an entertainment junkie, Roeper knows that fans tend to memorize and repeat all sorts of minutia about their favorite performers. When a story gets told and retold, but is without merit, it becomes an urban legend, and Hollywood is rife with them. Enough so that Roeper undoubtedly has a sequel in the works.

As a journalist, he writes in tight prose that moves the storytelling briskly along. It's a breezy, easy read. Roeper doesn't needlessly pad his material, so some chapters are only a page or two in length. His journalism also shines through in his meticulous research in hunting down the characters involved, and getting to the roots of how such stories began.

Some of the bon mots that he tosses to his readers include urban legends of TV, movies, music and celebrity status. For example: Rumor had it that "Sesame Street" characters Bert and Ernie practice a homosexual lifestyle as part of plan to subtly teach children a lesson about tolerance. The rumor got so out of hand that in 1993 the Children's Television Workshop was forced to issue a press release that said, in part: "Bert and Ernie ... do not portray a gay couple, and there are no plans for them to do so in the future. They are puppets, not humans."

OK, so it should be a given that the little furry creatures are celibate, but others get a bit more tricky to prove and take more detective work on Roeper's part. For example, "Joanie Loves Chachi" was never translated "Joanie Loves Penis" on Korean TV. (It only aired on Armed Forces Korean Network, and that was in English.) The cast of "Green Acres" did not have a final wrap party where they roasted Arnold the Pig on a spit as part of a malicious barbecue. And no matter how smart producer Sherwood Schwartz is, he did not pick the seven characters for "Gilligan's Island" to convey a deeper message (each one representing the seven deadly sins, and the island serving as a metaphor for hell).

Mel Gibson did not have reconstructive facial surgery. For Humphrey Bogart to have been the model for the famous Gerber baby food photo means that he would have been 30 years old at the time of the sketch and that's one ugly baby. John Wayne was not a draft dodger he took a 3-A deferment during World War II so that he could support his growing family.

And no matter what women choose to believe, Marilyn Monroe was no size 16. She wore 6-to-8 for most of her career, never advancing beyond a size 12. Roeper writes, "All I know is, far too many women spend more time obsessing about dress size than they do almost any other number in their lives, from IQ to checking account balance."

Of course, not all of the urban legends are so light-hearted. Lucille Ball was not a member of the Communist party, and had to fight to prove it. (Roeper shows that she only signed up as a Socialist as a young girl to please her dying, Socialist-leaning grandfather.) And despite her foolhardy North Vietnamese tour in 1972, Jane Fonda's actions did not result in the deaths of American POWs.

And speaking of death, Eminem, Paul McCartney, Scott Baio, Adam Rich and Kirk Cameron are all very much alive, despite the fact that some of them are in career purgatory.

Roeper also writes about the quick-access mentality of society, and how the spread of Internet usage has facilitated rapid growth of entertainment-industry urban legends. But mostly he's telling true tales about fake stories just for the joy of the writing, and that comes across on every page.

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