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Review: The year celebrities went bad

Crime and tawdriness were all too common in 2003

By Todd Leopold

The swarmy seas swept up plenty of box office dollars in 2003 as films like “Pirates of the Carribean,” “Finding Nemo,” and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” thrilled movie-goers.
The swarmy seas swept up plenty of box office dollars in 2003 as films like “Pirates of the Carribean,” “Finding Nemo,” and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” thrilled movie-goers.

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(CNN) -- Headlines: Michael Jackson. Phil Spector. Rush Limbaugh.

And let's throw in Courtney Love, Glen Campbell and R. Kelly for good measure.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Entertainment section had turned into the Police Gazette this year.

Sure, celebrities and misbehavior are not a new coupling. Movie comedian Fatty Arbuckle was the subject of a celebrated trial in the 1920s. (He was found not guilty, but his career was ruined.) Lana Turner and her daughter mixed it up with the rough Johnny Stompanato, who ended up dead at the hand of the daughter. And you could fill a book with the list of rock stars who have wrecked automobiles, been busted for drugs or fooled around with the wrong partner.

Gossip rags (and, for that matter, much of the news media) make their living off these peccadilloes. Celebrities do stupid things; the rest of us ogle the fallen famous like rubbernecking speeders.

Too often the transgressions become the butt of jokes, whether due to schadenfreude or there-but-for-the-grace-of-God.

But the crimes Jackson (sexual molestation) and Spector (murder) are accused of are no laughing matter. Indeed, given their talent and their accomplishments, if they are guilty, their fates reach the level of tragedy, sad codas to the lives of people who have given so much joy.

Losses and failure

Joy, in fact, was often in short supply in the 2003 entertainment world, which is not at all what entertainment is about.

To be sure, art reflects the times, but it's as if the anger, misery and cynicism of the world at large had overflowed its channels, leaving escapism a little less worthy of escape.

CNN Entertainment's Top 10 Stories of 2003:
1. Celebrity misbehavior: Michael Jackson, Phil Spector, Rush Limbaugh and others
2. Politics and entertainment: the Dixie Chicks and Ah-nold
3. The struggles of the record industry
4. The deaths of Bob Hope and Johnny Cash
5. "Matrix" bombs, "Nemo" enthralls
6. Big books: "Harry Potter" and "Da Vinci Code"
7. Gay TV
8. Britney/Madonna kiss: Two people desperate to hold the spotlight
9. The rise and fall of "Joe Millionaire"
10.  Unexpected success: "Pirates of the Caribbean," "School of Rock," Al Green's "I Can't Stop"
10a. Ben 'n' Jen
10b. Paris Hilton's 15 minutes

Political bitterness spilled over into entertainment in the form of the Dixie Chicks, who were pilloried for the criticisms of the Iraq war and President Bush leveled by lead singer Natalie Maines. Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor of California and won, which was as much an expression of political dissatisfaction as it was a triumph for the Terminator.

Bob Hope and Johnny Cash -- titans both -- died. So did Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Art Carney, John Ritter, Nina Simone, Barry White, Warren Zevon and Fred Rogers.

The two sequels to "The Matrix," the most eagerly awaited movies of 2003, did well at the box office, but the critics -- and many moviegoers -- were left wondering what video game was worth a $9 ticket price.

Madonna and Britney Spears shared a kiss. This gave a thrill to the prurient 14-year-olds of the world, but for two women who have built their careers on shrewd marketing, the act smacked of desperation, given that the pair's record sales are down (and Madonna's new career as a children's book author has met with generally poor reviews). Could make-out sessions on the Home Shopping Channel be far behind?

Even "Joe Millionaire," a February golden boy, lost his sheen. The November return of the Fox series hit bottom faster than an Enron stock certificate.

Big fish and dazzling 'Code'

The year wasn't all gloom and doom, of course.

The biggest-grossing movie of the year was "Finding Nemo," a delightful tale from the wizards at Pixar that proved, once and for all, that all the best writers are working in animation. (TV already knew that: "The Simpsons," "King of the Hill" and "South Park" are witty testimony to that fact.)

Two seafaring movie tales recharged the genre: Johnny Depp dazzled in "Pirates of the Caribbean" and Russell Crowe loomed large in "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World."

Those two movies may be competing for Oscar, but if they do, the competition will be stiff -- including "Mystic River," "Lost in Translation," "Seabiscuit" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," the year is looking like another excellent vintage.

Michael Jackson in a mug shot after his recent arrest.
Michael Jackson in a mug shot after his recent arrest.

Al Green came back with a secular album, a work remarkable from start to finish. The White Stripes' "Elephant" earned plaudits and airplay. OutKast's "Hey Ya!" was wonderful and catchy. "Shake it like a Polaroid picture," you bet.

The new Harry Potter -- "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" -- came out and broke publishing records, but it was "The Da Vinci Code" that dominated best-seller lists and offered food for thought in the midst of its pot-boiling machinations.

Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez didn't get married, but they kept everybody guessing. And they're probably a lot more savvy than we realize.

"Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" was an immediate hit, helped by the freshness and civility of its five leads. Indeed, the occasional catty comment aside, it may be the most humane show on television.

Perhaps a little humanity is what we need right now. The presidential election is right around the corner, and it's sure to be one of the most brutal in history. And the investigations of Jackson, Spector and Limbaugh (being investigated for his purchase of prescription painkillers) are continuing as well, and they will fill the world with ugliness and rancor.

At its best, entertainment provides joy and transcendence, a sense that humans can achieve great things and that we're all in this together. Sometimes the world isn't a pleasant place, but there's always the hope that the story can have a happy ending.

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