Sunday evening’s 86th Academy Awards show, better known as “the Oscars,” was announced as a “celebration of movie heroes,” with plans to honor “big-screen real-life heroes, super heroes, popular heroes and animated heroes, both past and present, as well as the bold filmmakers who bring them to life.”
But the man who covered Hollywood’s heroes like no other for more than 20 years says the Oscars only illustrate that America has replaced its reverence of true heroes with the empty worship of celebrity.
Landon Y. Jones joined the staff of People magazine only a few weeks after its inaugural issue on March 4, 1974 – 40 years ago this week. He eventually became its managing editor from 1989 to 1997.
In a recent Washington Post column titled “Too many celebrities, not enough heroes,” Jones chronicled his first-hand experience watching America’s culture discard its men and women of valor in favor of its stars and starlets.
“There was a time when we didn’t have to choose, when our celebrities and our heroes tended to be one and the same,” Jones writes. “People became famous for great deeds. Think George Washington, Thomas Edison, Amelia Earhart, Neil Armstrong. But celebrity and heroism went their separate ways some time ago. It’s easier to obtain celebrity status, harder to be a hero. And when celebrity worship goes up against hero worship, the celebrities usually win.
“That will be true at Sunday’s Oscars,” he continues. “The theme of the show is ‘a celebration of movie heroes,’ the producers say. Yet even as our movie stars honor worthy heroes, the spotlight inevitably shines on the celebrities themselves.”
Jones details in the column how People magazine began with the hopes of honoring everyday heroes, but found its audience hungered more for the lowdown on actors and actresses. And after First Lady Betty Ford spoke frankly about breast cancer in 1974, Jones contends, and after she talked about sleeping in the same bed as the president, the possibility her daughter was having premarital sex, and alcohol addiction, the public demanded more and more of the “inside scoop” on the private lives of its favorite celebrities.
“As editor of People, I struggled to balance the magazine’s dual mission: telling the stories of extraordinary people and the stories of ordinary people who did extraordinary things,” Jones writes. “Covers showcasing bona fide heroes – say, the first responders to the 1989 San Francisco earthquake or young mothers in the military who were mobilized during the Persian Gulf War – languished on newsstands. We had to rely on celebrity covers to make our circulation goals.”
Jones suggests a simple search through Google’s Ngram Viewer, which catalogues words or phrases used in over 5.2 million published books on a year-by-year basis, reveals after 1970 a precipitous drop in the use of the word “hero,” while the word “celebrity” has seen a steady climb.
Jones’ observations, however, suggest the rise of celebrity culture has actually had a detrimental effect on how Americans view their heroes.
“The tell-all era has been harder on heroes than on celebrities,” Jones writes. “We have less tolerance for flaws in our heroes. It is as if we measure them by entertainment values. The story lines we assign to them want excitement and triumph, but do not allow for the inconsistencies and failings the Greeks knew we all have.
“You can also see the result of this trend on the landing page of People’s online archive of its covers,” he continues. “The category ‘real people’ is dominated by crime victims and reality-show stars. Finding more stirringly heroic real people, such as Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot of the U.S. Airways flight that safely crash-landed in the Hudson River, requires searching the database.”
Jones even explained that People’s focus-group moderators have stopped asking readers who their heroes are because, one moderator reportedly told Jones of the respondents, “They can’t think of any.”
Indeed, national news headlines frequently feature the smallest foibles of the celebrities du jour, but heroes seem to make more news when they fall than when they succeed. And tales of a bank clerk who saves a life from an oncoming train or a grandson who takes over the wheel when his grandmother suffers a heart attack while driving are often relegated to local TV broadcasts.
But stories of the everyday heroic can still be found – if you know where to look. Links to several of them can be found in the right-hand column on this page, stories WND gleaned from those local TV broadcasts to be shared with the world.
WND-TV is also producing the groundbreaking, Internet TV program, “Zero to Superhero,” featuring Jeeves Urquhart, an everyday guy with an uncommon dream – to become in real life the kind of superhero he’s seen on the silver screen.
“We could all do more to identify the heroes living among us,” Jones asserts in his column. “They are our founders and builders. They lead us forward. They encourage us to stop thinking only about ourselves and our narrow interests and to think about a larger purpose.
“So as we settle in to watch the Academy Awards on Sunday night,” he continues, “we can admire the parade of celebrities on the red carpet with a shiver of guilty pleasure. But it’s also worth remembering that, as John Milton wrote about Lycidas, ‘Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil.’ We’ll need to look elsewhere for people who help us bridge the gap between who we are and who we want to be.”