If you're not famous, what are you doing?
Celebrity reality and the entertainment stories of the year
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- In 2002, the entertainment spotlight became a strange sort of illumination.
Stars who held the beam for years wanted the angle changed, showing them as reg'lar folks going about their daily business. Meanwhile, to unknowns from Flyover Country (as N.Y. and L.A. types term the rest of the United States), nothing was better than soaking up the heat of a 100,000-watt marquee centered with YOUR NAME HERE.
Consider Ozzy Osbourne and Kelly Clarkson. He was a faded rock 'n' roller who became famous, again, as himself -- an everyday dad -- on MTV's "reality sitcom" "The Osbournes." She was a nobody from suburban Texas who turned into America's singing sensation by winning Fox's "American Idol."
It's a new kind of reality, as several observers have noted. Let's call it "celebrity reality," where the celebrities want to be real people and the real people want to be celebrities.
America has become a country where dozens of people compete to marry a wealthy man from Missouri -- who's on television, natch -- and millions more watch ("The Bachelor"), and where Liza Minnelli and her husband, David Gest, want people to see what their mundane "real" lives are like, if real life happens to be filled with A-list parties and Fifth Avenue shopping sprees.
The latter idea was supposed to be a VH1 show, but it didn't make the air, pulled due to creative differences between the celebrities and the network. However, a show starring Anna Nicole Smith -- who became famous for marrying a very wealthy man from Texas and appearing in Playboy -- did. Perhaps Anna Nicole was ahead of her time.
Only in a palindromic year
It was that kind of year, where things were not quite what they seemed, or even what they were supposed to be.
"Spider-Man," the year's highest-grossing movie, was a comic book given three-dimensional life by director Sam Raimi and sensitive performances by stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst.
"Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones," the year's second highest-grossing movie, was a story of mythological depth given comic-book two-dimensionality by what critics described as George Lucas' ham-handed direction, tin-eared dialogue and a host of all-too-perfect digital effects.
(Perhaps the flatness of recent "Star Wars" installments is an appropriate twist, since the original "Star Wars" was considered pure pulpy 2-D fun until generations of fans started ladling "Golden Bough"-level heaviness upon it.)
Then there was "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," a low-budget independent film that no studio wanted. It was ready to go straight to cable until the distributor thought it deserved a shot in theaters. The producers -- among them actress Rita Wilson and her husband, Tom Hanks -- hoped for a $20 million gross. More than six months later, it's passed the $200 million level and a TV series is in development.
In addition, one of the most highly touted holiday films is "Adaptation," based on Susan Orlean's book, "The Orchid Thief." Writer Charlie Kaufman, the "Being John Malkovich" screenwriter, was so stymied by the process of adapting "The Orchid Thief" that he put himself in the script as a screenwriter struggling to adapt "The Orchid Thief." Nicolas Cage plays him in the movie.
An actor playing a writer in a film about a writer working at his real-life writing for actors? Only in the palindromic year of 2002.
What happened to 9/11 themes?
Not every 2002 story was so through-the-looking-glass postmodern.
Denzel Washington and Halle Berry made headlines in March for winning lead actor Oscars, him for "Training Day," her for "Monster's Ball." Washington is only the second African-American to win best actor; Berry is the first African-American to win best actress.
Whether their wins indicate anything larger has yet to be seen, but both have maintained their momentum. Berry is currently starring in the new James Bond film -- one of the most financially successful of the series -- and Washington has earned critical praise for his direction of the December release "Antwone Fisher."
In April, TLC member Lisa "Left-Eye" Lopes died in a car accident. As a singer in one of the biggest-selling pop groups of the '90s, she was mourned by the music industry. In October, the death of hip-hop innovator and Run-DMC member Jam Master Jay invoked similar waves of grief.
Other notable deaths in 2002 included The Who bassist John Entwistle, actors Richard Harris, James Coburn and Dudley Moore, film director John Frankenheimer, and cartoon legend Chuck Jones.
September 11 may have cast a shadow over 2002, but in the entertainment world the shadow tended to flicker. Instead of a new seriousness, no-brainer sequels and escapist flicks dominated the multiplex, while 9/11-inspired music was often dismissed as mawkish and 9/11 books struggled to stand out.
Only Bruce Springsteen seemed to gain both popular and critical acclaim, producing "The Rising," an album that managed to express larger truths while focusing on the individuals -- widows, soldiers, emergency personnel -- directly affected by the terrorist attacks.
Then there were the usual celebrity flameouts and cases of strange behavior.
Winona Ryder was found guilty on two counts of shoplifting from a Beverly Hills, California, department store. The news media, which had followed the case hungrily all year, had a field day with this apparently minor legal battle when the verdict was announced the day after Election Day. All three cable news networks -- in the midst of going over historic election results -- carried the decision live, indicating that celebrity news still has its cachet.
Michael Jackson earned headlines for calling his record label president a "racist," for a bizarre court appearance in a trial against a concert promoter, and for an even more bizarre appearance in which he held his 1-year-old son over a hotel balcony in Berlin, Germany.
Britney Spears decided to take six months off. Her album "Britney" performed relatively poorly on the charts compared to previous releases, and pundits declared that the era of teen-singer and boy-band pop was over.
And one wonders what to make of Jennifer Lopez, whose entertainment career was overshadowed by her love life in 2002.
In 2001, she became the first person to hold the top position on the album and movie charts at the same time. In 2002, she appeared in a world-class bomb ("Enough"); filed for divorce from her husband, Cris Judd, after just eight months of marriage; turned around and got engaged to Ben Affleck; and earned reams of coverage for all of it.
Her December movie, "Maid in Manhattan," debuted at No. 1 on the box office charts, and her single, "Jenny from the Block," is also doing well. Nevertheless, the focus on her romantic relationships may presage a future in which she's either on her way to becoming Elizabeth Taylor -- a one-time beauty whose fine acting career became overshadowed by her romantic life -- or Zsa Zsa Gabor, a one-time beauty whose mediocre acting career became overshadowed by her romantic life.
Either way, if she so desires, in the future she'll probably be able to get a reality series out of the whole thing.