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Jewish World Review March 20, 2002/7 Nisan, 5762

Mark Steyn

Mark Steyn
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Consumer Reports

Grand convocation
of the weird |
On Friday, Shirley Temple Black, the beloved former child star of On The Good Ship Lollipop and Animal Crackers In My Soup fame and more recently U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, pulled out of Liza Minnelli's wedding. Her reason for cancelling at 24 hours' notice was that she was "weirded out" by Liza's fiance's vast collection of Shirley Temple memorabilia.

That's all I can tell you, I'm afraid. What a tantalizing item, one of thousands of bewildering details swept along in a torrent of verbiage from the New York and Fleet Street tabs, who collectively seem to have decided that, if we don't pull out the stops for "Liza's Nutty Nuptials" (the New York Post), then the terrorists will have won!

Liza, for her part, was happy to oblige them, inviting gossip columnist Cindy Adams, the duchess of dish, to be one of her bridesmaids, along with Mia Farrow, Petula Clark, Chaka Khan, Gina Lollobrigida, an actress from the BBC soap opera EastEnders and some nine other stars in various degrees of eclipse. Everyone who was anyone was there, no matter how long ago it was they were anyone: Donna Summer, Mickey Rooney, the Doobie Brothers, Joan Collins, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Jill St. John ... Even the hotter guests had been on ice for a good quarter-century. But, if you were an MGM contract player in the Forties, had a couple of doowop hits in the Fifties, did some Bob Hope USO tours in 'Nam in the Sixties, were a gay disco diva for 18 months in the Seventies, wore shoulder-pads on an Eighties soap, chances are you had a premium pew to see Liza walk down the aisle on Saturday. The fourth-time bride wore white (low-cut, off the shoulder), the bridesmaids wore black.

I first heard about the wedding some time before Christmas, when it was announced that Liza would be married in St. Patrick's Cathedral, with Michael Jackson as best man, Elizabeth Taylor as matron of honour and Whitney Houston doing Here Comes The Bride, or, as Whitney would say, "He-e-e-e-e-ere Co-o-o-o-o-omes The-e-e Bri-i-i-i-i-ide." In the end, as is traditional, Whitney didn't show, telling a tearful, distraught Liza that she was tied up in the studio remixing. Sources say that, privately, she was concerned that she would look ridiculously out of place among a collection of oddballs and has-beens. Hmm. A spokesman for the couple released the following statement: "David and Liza hope Whitney is well."

But Jacko was there. He and Tito Jackson served as David Gest's co-best men, with the remainder of the Jackson Five (Marlon, Randy, Jermaine) as groomsmen. Liz Taylor also showed, though the ceremony was postponed because she turned up in her slippers so someone had to go back to the hotel to get her shoes. It wasn't St. Pat's, but another Fifth Avenue church, less fussy about Liza and David's variations on the traditional ceremony: After walking down the aisle, the bride was serenaded at the altar by Natalie Cole singing Unforgettable. It was obvious to all that the groom preferred his betrothed to the three Liza drag queens who had serenaded him with a medley of her hits at his bachelor party the night before.

Mr. Gest was said to have been subdued at his farewell to bachelorhood, and left early. He had various last-minute problems: The security team quit in a dispute over remuneration, and several stellar invitees backed out after hearing that he'd sold exclusive picture rights for the occasion to the British gossip magazine OK! Nonetheless, nothing could dim the luster of what the New York Post described as "the grandest wedding since Charles and Diana." "The interest in this wedding has been incomparable," observed Cindy Adams. "Mrs. Anthony Quinn came specially from Rhode Island."

To be honest, I was a bit disappointed not to get an invite. I believe I'm the only living Canadian to have met all three of Liza's ex-husbands: the gay one; the one whose dad was the Tin Man in The Wizard Of Oz; and the one who was big in the art world and so unshowbizzy that he stayed in the kitchen and slipped out the service door the last time I was at Liza's pad. But a mutual friend says this wedding was the groom's production. She'd met him a few days before September 11th at Michael Jackson's 30th anniversary celebrations, which he produced. A Jacko spectacular is probably not the best place to meet a husband, but, having said yes, Liza seemed to feel she owed it both to him and to her public to turn her wedding into a performance. As the Sunday Mirror headline put it, "Wife Is A Cabaret."

The broadsheets fretted about the significance of the event: "Didn't someone say that America had moved on from its celebrity-culture days after last September?" scoffed The Independent. It's increasingly fashionable in Europe to bemoan American pop culture as a good example of the "emptiness" of Western materialism. Say what you like about these Taliban chappies but maybe there's something to be said for beheading anyone caught listening to Herman's Hermits on Kandahar Supergold. As far as one can tell, there are no Saudi Doobie Brothers or Afghan Jill St. Johns.

Tempting as it is to regard this as evidence of their superior culture, we should resist. David and Liza's nuptials were not Charles and Diana, but a karaoke Royal wedding. Jacko and Liz Taylor are the American equivalents of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria or those 19th century Ottoman Sultans who were too crazy to be left on their own. The modern celebrity travels with a bigger retinue than your old-time Sultan or Grand Duke. The average rock star is now more hung up on protocol than any Count or Marquess: A couple of years back, after hosting a grand dinner at his stately home, Sting was forced to issue a public apology for committing a ghastly error in placement and accidentally seating Jools Holland of the band Squeeze next to some no-name session player.

But the crucial difference is that, though Richard Gere may issue tiresome statements on world peace and Bono turns up Zelig-like in the company of a new world leader every other day, in the end, unlike Mad King Ludwig, they have no power over us. It is the genius of America to have disestablished not just the church but the aristocracy. Instead of the latter, we have pop peers and movie marquesses and video viscounts moving through the ersatz rituals of their class purely for the amusement of the masses. What an inspired notion. And, by turning her wedding into a grand convocation of the weird, washed-up and wrinkled, Liza only emphasized the benefits: For one day even the hippest hip-hopper will be no more than Little Anthony, with or without his Imperials.

One of the great advantages of a celebrity culture is the way it siphons off so many of the narcissistic and dysfunctional into areas where they can do the least societal damage. Occasionally, the system goes awry and one of them winds up in a serious job (William Jefferson Clinton), but generally things work pretty well. One cannot say the same of Saudi Arabia, whose 7,000 princes are en masse at least as risible and in many cases more tastelessly accessorized than Liza's guests. But the crucial difference is that their subjects are obliged to pretend they're useful and intelligent: If they laugh at them, they'll wind up laughing their heads off. Likewise, Iraq, where the only celebrity author and musical-comedy star is Saddam himself: his romantic allegorical novel, Zabibah and the King, got great reviews -- there's a surprise -- and has been turned into a lavish stage production, which is doing sell-out business -- there's another surprise. The tragedy of Iraq is that in order to make it big in showbiz Saddam had to make it big in mass murder first. Under the American system, his book would have been picked by Oprah, he'd have sold the Broadway rights to Liza's husband, and they'd have signed Petula Clark and Mickey Rooney for the title roles. No matter how you look at it, that's a massively superior system.

New York will forget Liza's latest wedding soon enough, so will Liza. But we should remember to savour this ersatz Royal wedding precisely becau se it's ersatz; and those who defend America needn't do it despite its "celebrity culture" but because of it.

Better a fan than a vassal.

JWR contributor Mark Steyn is Senior Contributing Editor of The National Post. Comment by clicking here.

© 2002, Mark Steyn