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In the Eye of the Camera

David Kronke, senior writer for TV Guide Canada's L.A. bureau, contributes occasionally to Calendar

Even the media don’t know what to make of themselves these days. The walls between reality and TV keep collapsing, and even ordinary people find themselves in the spotlight. Some shows bare uncomfortably intimate details about otherwise unremarkable or even repugnant people most of us wouldn’t have lunch with, let alone invite into our homes.

What is it about these private lives that can be so compelling? What merits “celebrity”? And to what does celebrity entitle one, anyway?

Director Ron Howard’s comedy “EDtv” will tackle these questions and more when it hits theaters March 26.

During filming, after-hours on the set of “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” commandeered by Howard and his cast and crew for the evening, life was imitating art imitating life.

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For even though these crew folks have been working weeks alongside people like Matthew McConaughey, Jenna Elfman, Elizabeth Hurley, Woody Harrelson, Ellen DeGeneres and Martin Landau, it is apparent that they can still be star-struck--by, of all things, Leno’s set.

Between takes, an endless parade of crew members test-drive Leno’s chair, shuffles his note cards, poses for snapshots--even Howard joins in.

The premise of “EDtv” is sort of “The Truman Show” in reverse--an amiable white-trash schlub named Ed (McConaughey) wins a “talent” search and becomes the star of his own, round-the-clock TV show, thrust before cameras his every waking hour. After initially embracing the rewards of fame, he discovers the brutal downside: fair-weather fans, friends who ride his coattails for profit and the creeping, creepy realization that he’s given so much of himself away to his audience that there’s nothing left for--or of--him.

At one point, Ed sulks, “They’re gonna cancel me,” as if he’s developed a tumor; fame and life itself have become the same thing.

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It’s a canny piece of one-stop shopping: “EDtv” comments on the smorgasbord of mass-media concoctions about truth, refracted through a camera lens, insistently intruding on our nation’s inner life. These range from PBS’ 1970s documentary on the Loud family, to Albert Brooks’ hilarious 1979 film “Real Life,” to MTV’s “Real World” and the spiteful spate of reality and trash-TV series that spring--a la Jerry Springer--onto the airwaves today.

“The producers [of Ed’s tele-existence] are more interested in the circus that swirls around Ed than they are, really, in Ed,” Howard explains. “There’s a line, ‘People can’t look away from a traffic accident. For somebody, this is a traffic accident--we just don’t have to tell them.’ That’s where they think the fun is.”

“There’s definitely the mentality where no intrusion is too much. It doesn’t matter who just died or what happened, it’s not about feelings, it’s just ‘Get the shot, get it,’ ” adds McConaughey. “They say, ‘We need screw-ups, give us soap opera, embarrass yourself.’ So then Ed’s a laughingstock.”

Screenwriter (with longtime collaborator Babaloo Mandel) Lowell Ganz says, “At what point does it switch from an observation of a person’s supposedly normal life into an observation of how being on TV changes your life? People who are responsible for the show don’t care. They’re not in this for the science. They’re not behaviorists. They’re TV people. They don’t care for what reason it becomes popular or remains popular, only that it does.

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“America gets sucked into it, gets enraptured,” says Elfman, who plays Shari, Ed’s earthy, blue-collar girlfriend, the lone voice of reason amid the media madness. “If a guy down the street had problems with his girlfriend or his brother’s a jerk, no one would care. She disagrees with this phenomenon when everyone else is in full acceptance. Shari cannot take the phenomenon.”

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Certainly, several in the cast have been caught in the wake of Stupid Media Tricks. McConaughey was trumpeted from the cover of Vanity Fair no less as the Next Hot Thing before anyone had even seen him carry a movie. Harrelson, who plays Ed’s scheming, scattered brother, has inspired profiles portraying him as a kook because of his earnest pro-hemp activism and individualistic lifestyle.

Hurley famously weathered a little tumult sparked by boyfriend Hugh Grant’s extracurricular activities (and was chided by tabloids for wearing a revealing dress to a wedding).

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And no doubt you’ve heard of DeGeneres, whom the media transformed in the course of one TV season from a courageous gay-issues advocate to a sorehead detecting homophobia in every network executive’s power suit--in the film she plays a network executive. (DeGeneres declined to comment for this article; Harrelson was unavailable.)

As Howard’s producer-partner Brian Grazer explains, “In our casting, we were sensitive to what was going on in their lives beyond their skills as artists. We were aware of it, we were sensitive to it, and we sort of enjoyed playing to it.”

“It’s clearly an asset,” Howard says. “One thing we all agreed on early was that this was not some sort of opportunity to vent or rail on the dark side of celebrity or the evils of the media or any of that, because it’s just not what the movie’s about.

“I mean, celebrity’s a double-edged sword, and something that many people aspire to--so, what happens if you actually gain it? There’s something kind of Capra-esque about the central idea.”

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“I think it’s quite amusing, actually; I think most of the actors in this have also had similar experiences,” Hurley says. “There’s me, Matthew, Ellen; so yeah, I think we’re all finding it quite close to home.”

Despite the media’s ability to make any awkward situation exponentially more humiliating, Hurley says, “Unfortunately, in real life for most of us, our income is tied up with the monster you’ve started, so it’s difficult to extricate yourself. . . . I’ve never wanted to give up my job.”

“There’s definitely parallels of Ed’s life and my life,” McConaughey says. “How much is too much, man? When it starts running you, manipulating you and you’re not controlling it. What happens to Ed can happen to anybody.” But fame, he points out, “doesn’t only affect the person who’s famous, it gets everybody around them. The comedy of this thing comes from how his family and friends react,” he says.

Elfman’s take on life in the public eye seems positively subversive in an era of celebs trivializing victimhood and using paparazzi as punching bags. “I’m responsible for my own condition,” she says. “I don’t blame anyone else. If people do things to you, you made it OK for them to do it. The more you try to protect, the more people get to you. . . . Whatever you resist will slap you in the face.”

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In one scene, Ed exits the “Tonight Show” greenroom after a taping and encounters Jill (Hurley), an aspiring actress who senses that a relationship with the star of his own never-ending TV show might be a good career move.

First, Ed, decked out in a slick “EDtv” crew jacket--he’s product placement for himself--sizes up Jill from afar with a pal.

Howard next spends 40 minutes shooting Hurley walking down a hallway. One crew member jokingly grouses, “If this was a drama, we’d have done it in two takes.”

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Sitting in Leno’s chair, McConaughey cops to being a TV fan, yet is wary of the overheated realities it relishes. “It’s human nature. It’s been going on since the beginning of time--look at the gladiators, the Christians and the lions. If the lion didn’t kill him, it’s a little less exciting.”

McConaughey said he felt burned after doing an on-set interview alongside Elfman for an infotainment show. “Later, at home, I’m sitting, watching a game, and all of a sudden they say, ‘Matthew McConaughey and Jenna Elfman caught in a compromising position--tonight at 9!’

“I’m like, ‘What the . . . ?’ If you weren’t there, what does that sound like? I’d probably watch it too; I’d probably want to see what they’re talking about, as opposed to if they just said, ‘Matthew McConaughey on the set of “EDtv,” tonight at 9.’ ”

Despite feeling a kinship with his character, the main reason McConaughey signed on for “EDtv” is because “I’ve been wanting to do comedy for a while,” he says. “I did two pretty heavy-duty dramas, and I just wanted to do something where I didn’t have that responsibility on my shoulders--I wanted to play somebody who wasn’t the white knight, you know? I’m not nearly as exhausted at the end of the day.”

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Director Howard, likewise, has been AWOL from comedy after a protracted tour of duty making dramas. It’s been a while--the 1994 comedy-drama “The Paper” doesn’t quite count--since he has made one of his trademark souffle-light concoctions like “Splash,” “Night Shift” or “Parenthood” in the ‘80s. “There’s nothing I like better than a movie that moves back and forth between genuine laughs and honest moments that indeed can be painful, and this is rich in that regard,” Howard says. “This was a chance to do a character comedy, which I haven’t done since ‘Parenthood.’ ”

As a public figure himself, to which character does Howard relate--the manipulative network executive portrayed by DeGeneres, or poor, hapless Ed?

“That’s really interesting--I relate very easily to both,” he answers. “Because I understand someone trying to concoct something that the public will care about and take interest in. I don’t think of myself as a coldly exploitative person, but I also don’t think of it as my business to necessarily protect the psychological well-being of all the people that I cast in my movies.

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“I probably relate best to Ed,” he continues. “Ed is going through what I went through during junior high and high school when I was first aware of how complicated it is. I was aware of being known as a child--I had to learn to write in order to do autographs [at age 4]. But I didn’t really come to understand it until I was a bit older. The good and bad of it comes into play in your relationships with people. You begin to see that people may have hidden agendas. You realize you have access to people you might not otherwise have access to. It opens doors and isolates at the same time. It’s a strange paradox.

“Celebrity’s a thrill ride,” he says. “It can turn your stomach, but there’s also a hell of a rush.”


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