'Sorry' seems to be the easiest word

IN show business, the highest form of art these days is the apology. It's become a performance in itself -- call it obligatory method acting -- whenever a celebrity misbehaves and needs to get back into the public's good graces. It works so well it can be boiled down a formula: Confession + Contrition = Comeback.

It was the Year of the Apology. Most famously, Mel Gibson had to do a full-court media grovel after spewing drunken Jew-hating remarks after being pulled over for speeding in July on the Pacific Coast Highway. After verbally abusing the arresting officers, he said, "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world."

Then he turned to a sheriff's deputy and asked, "Are you a Jew?"

An abject apology was issued two days later, with Gibson explaining, "I am deeply ashamed of everything I said and I apologize to anyone who I have offended.... I disgraced myself and my family with my behavior and for that I am truly sorry."

Following in Gibson's footsteps was "Seinfeld" costar Michael Richards, who found himself in trouble for a crude racist tirade at a comedy club here where he repeatedly used the N-word and told a black heckler, "Fifty years ago we'd have you upside down with a ... fork up your.... "

Richards went on "Late Show With David Letterman" to apologize, saying, "I'm not a racist, that's what so insane about this."

There were more, so many more, from "Grey's Anatomy" costar Isaiah Washington apologizing for insulting a fellow cast member with a gay slur ("I sincerely regret my use of words ...") to Christina Ricci, who after landing on PETA's Worst Dressed List apologized for wearing reindeer fur on the cover of W magazine, saying, "I will not be wearing fur in the future."

For my money, the best apology came from actress Sienna Miller, who while filming a movie in Pittsburgh flippantly referred to the city by substituting for the syllable "Pitt" a rhyming word not fit for a family newspaper. This prompted a squishy apology where she described Pittsburghers as "warm and gracious," adding that "conversations can be easily manipulated in print."

Of course, manipulation is a two-way street. When celebrities get in trouble, they can turn to a growing legion of high-paid crisis-management consultants who help stage-manage the transition from culpability to confession. With Gibson, it was a matter of laying low, a stint in rehab and offering the appearance of thoughtful penance before finally giving an interview to Diane Sawyer, the go-to gal for showbiz bad boys.

For Richards, going on Letterman was a shrewd choice, says Paul Slansky, author (with Arleen Sorkin) of a wonderfully witty compendium of apologies called "My Bad: 25 Years of Public Apologies and the Appalling Behavior That Inspired Them."

"Going on the late-night talk show, as Hugh Grant proved with Jay Leno years ago, is a fantastic stage for making an apology," says Slansky. "The late-night talk show is almost by definition a safe, friendly environment. They're thrilled to have you and they're not going to ask you any hard questions, then everybody talks about it the next day and it's all over."

Unless you're Dick Cheney, it's almost impossible to escape an incident unscathed without feeding the apology machine. Just ask Judith Regan, who ended up in even more hot water by responding to the outcry over her O.J. Simpson "If I Did It" book and TV special with an outlandish justification, casting herself as a victim, not a perpetrator -- and apparently blaming her subsequent firing on a "cabal" of some sort.

So why has the apology become such an integral part of the often dicey relationship between media and celebrity? "It probably has a lot to do with America's obsession with redemption," says Slansky. "People today have a major love-hate relationship with celebrities. The relationship is so fraught with schadenfreude that people are thrilled when celebrities [mess] up and yet they're happy to see them back again. After all, most people aren't genuinely sorry. Most apologies are a way of saying, 'I'm sorry I let down my guard and let you see my inner ugliness.' "

KEEPING that in mind, here's our annual look at the bad behavior, bizarre moments and other dubious achievements from the year in show business:

And just when you thought the war in Iraq couldn't be going any worse: Saying she hoped to emulate Marilyn Monroe, who performed shows for troops stationed in Korea in 1954, Lindsay Lohan told Elle magazine that "I've been trying to go to Iraq with Hillary Clinton for so long," adding that she planned to prepare for her trip by taking shooting lessons with her security guard.

Perhaps the right answer would be "as old as Soon-Yi was when she lost hers": Scarlet Johansson told Spin magazine this year that to calm her after shooting an emotional scene, Woody Allen would often yell "Cut," then ask, "So, how old were you when you lost your virginity?"

Actually, Ms. Flockhart, we were convinced Nick Nolte had broken into your vehicle: Security guards on the set of Calista Flockhart's new TV show telephoned police to have "an intruder" removed after spotting a disheveled-looking man taking a nap in the back seat of Flockhart's car, a man who turned out to be Flockhart's boyfriend, Harrison Ford.

Funny but that's exactly what we were thinking: Promoting the film "Basic Instinct 2" after she'd made a much-publicized trip to Israel to help improve relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Sharon Stone told Jon Stewart, "People just are sitting there going, 'I don't care what she's saying, I just want to know, does she get naked in the movie? Is she naked? Nude, nude, nude, naked. Do I see her boobies?' "

Not that we're saying the movie was a bomb, mind you: After the Los Angeles Times fitted 4,500 news boxes around L.A. with a digital device as part of a promotion designed to play the "Mission: Impossible" theme song whenever anyone bought a paper, a county arson squad blew up a news rack in Santa Clarita after receiving a report that it had a red plastic box with protruding wires that looked like an explosive device.

And in a certain light she resembles Eleanor Roosevelt: Hoping to get a film about Mother Teresa off the ground, Indian film director T. Rajeevnath told an Indian magazine he hoped to persuade Paris Hilton to play the role of the do-gooder who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2003. "Her features really resemble Mother Teresa," he said, claiming a computer-generated image showed a close facial match between the notorious heiress and the prospective Catholic saint.

And when I say "they," I don't in any way mean the Jews: After Michael Richards was pummeled by critics for hurling racist epithets at a comedy club audience, Mel Gibson came to his defense, telling Entertainment Weekly: "I felt like sending him a note. I feel really badly for the guy. He was obviously in a state of stress.... They'll probably torture him for a while and then let him go."

Hot news flash! Menstrual cramps found to cause freeway disorientation in severely underweight celebrities: After being arrested by police for driving under the influence of marijuana and Vicodin after she was spotted driving the wrong way down a California freeway, Nicole Richie told friends she was using Vicodin to treat menstrual cramps, adding that she was unhappy police listed her weight at 85 pounds since she actually weighs 95 pounds.

All we can say is "Bring on Russell Crowe!": German horror filmmaker Uwe Boll met four of his harshest film-critic detractors in a boxing ring in Vancouver this past fall, pummeling all four into submission in back-to-back boxing matches, with one being taken to the hospital by ambulance. "These guys came quite unprepared to the ring and felt the consequences of it," he told Variety. "If I was the same way with my movies, I'd be out of business."

But other than all those mistakes, everything else in the item was totally true: After saying Harvey Weinstein was seen "swigging champagne straight from a bottle" at a strip joint and chatting up "a stripper dressed as a dominatrix and wielding a whip," Page Six corrected itself, explaining that Weinstein doesn't actually drink and the dominatrix was actually Italian fashion heiress Margherita Missoni in costume, who was there with Weinstein and his fashion designer girlfriend.

And from our "we knew she deserved some award" dept.: Britney Spears was named the world's worst celebrity dog owner by New York Dog magazine, whose editor said Spears never left home without one of her three Chihuahuas on her arm, "but as soon as she met K-Fed and had kids, the dogs disappeared."

"The Big Picture" runs each Tuesday in Calendar. Please send questions or criticism to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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