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Does talent show?

The price of 'Idol'-atry

By Todd Leopold

Fantasia Barrino, left, will battle Diana DeGarmo in the "American Idol" finale.
"Eye on Entertainment" talks about the weekend's happenings on CNN's "Live Today" between 10 a.m. and noon ET Thursday.
'American Idol'
William H. Macy
Tom Clancy

(CNN) -- In 1982, the cable channel Showtime set out to find the Funniest Person in America. The winner was a comedian from New Orleans, Louisiana, Ellen DeGeneres.

She was practically unknown; even people in her hometown, where I grew up, knew her best as Vance DeGeneres' little sister. (Vance was the "famous" DeGeneres, having played in New Orleans' best New Wave band, the Cold, in the early '80s.)

More than 20 years later, DeGeneres has had a sparkling stand-up career, a hit sitcom, a hit daytime show, and a terrific turn as a scatterbrained fish in "Finding Nemo." She is genuinely talented, and Showtime picked well.

On the other hand, there's plenty of talent overlooked by talent contests, and plenty of dreck that rises to the top.

For every Gladys Knight or Pat Boone who won a "Ted Mack Amateur Hour," there was a Helen Cornelius -- a short-lived success -- or many whose only taste of the big time was their Ted Mack appearance.

"Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts" -- perhaps the "American Idol" of its day in terms of popularity -- rejected Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly ... although it did honor the Tunetimers.

Whoever they are.

Which brings me to "American Idol."

On Wednesday, the show will pick its third winner. The first two, Kelly Clarkson and Ruben Studdard, have had good starts to their careers -- platinum albums and hit singles. Studdard's runner-up, Clay Aiken, may have done best of all, with a swooning fan base to go along with his own No. 1 CD, "Measure of a Man."

But whether we'll remember any of their names in two years -- much less 20 -- is an open question.

Eye on Entertainment predicts the past.


Certainly, there's nothing wrong with being Helen Cornelius. Very few of us can ever hope to be immortal in the celebrity sense, in which everybody knows your name and you cap off a successful 50-year career with a lifetime achievement award and a star on Hollywood Boulevard.

By contrast, most talented or famous people (not always the same thing) get a few years in the limelight, tops. Afterward, they don't keel over and die, or move to Burkina Faso; they simply play on a smaller stage. Or maybe they leave the theater altogether.

That's something the "American Idol" may have to deal with; it's something that some who have been voted off already are facing. Justin Guarini, the first season's runner-up, provides an object lesson: He won a record contract, but his album did poorly (as did the movie he made with Clarkson) and now he finds himself trying to get his career started -- again.

It's just the way show business works. After the career has peaked, after the record company has dropped you and 19 Entertainment has extracted its pound (sterling), you still have your talent -- or, at the very least, many years of a life to fill in one way or another.

Simon Cowell, imperious "Idol" judge, knows this. As he told The New York Times, "People might be able to get a reality check: it's not quite as easy to be famous as you think it is."

"American Idol" isn't the end of the world. It's not even the top of the world. It's just another stop on the road. Cowell: "I don't think it's culturally important, and it shouldn't be."

Incidentally, he also believes Diana DeGarmo is going to win. DeGarmo and Fantasia Barrino will compete in the "American Idol" finale, Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, on Fox.

On screen

  • "Shrek 2" is expected to be one of the summer's biggest hits; after all, the first film was one of the biggest movies of 2001. Reviews have been excellent. The movie opened Wednesday.
  • On the tube

  • "CSI" concludes another top-rated season Thursday, 9 p.m. on CBS. Its companion show, "CSI: Miami," has already paved the way for a third "CSI," which will be set in New York.
  • Scott Turow's books tend to be a cut above the standard legal thriller, willing to take on the law's gray areas. A film based on his book "Reversible Errors" -- about an allegedly innocent man facing execution, and the lawyer who represents him -- stars William H. Macy, Tom Selleck and Felicity Huffman. Part one airs 9 p.m. ET Sunday on CBS; part two follows Tuesday at 9 p.m.
  • Sound waves

  • Avril Lavigne follows up her hugely successful "Let Go" with "Under My Skin" (Arista). Early reviews indicate she's grown more ... cantankerous. Out Tuesday.
  • Paging readers

  • Tom Clancy collaborates with Gen. Tony Zinni and Tony Koltz for "Battle Ready" (Putnam), a nonfiction work that chronicles Zinni's career. Due Tuesday.
  • Ever wonder what Rodney Dangerfield's life has been like? The comedian offers his take on decades of "no respect" in "It's Not Easy Bein' Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs" (HarperEntertainment), due Tuesday.
  • Video center

  • Fire up the DVD player -- and keep it warm. "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," two discs of the Oscar-winning best picture of 2003, is released Tuesday.

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