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There are years of national crisis in which America worships its celebrities more lovingly than ever, hoisting them atop pedestals so that their glamour might light the way through our darkness. 2002 was not one of those years. True, it is still not entirely bad to be famous. Jennifer Lopez continued her hip-swinging march to world domination. Denzel Washington and Halle Berry enjoyed a night as Oscar royalty the evening the Academy finally recognized two actors of color. But if America took any comfort from the famous, it was mainly this: celebrities had things far, far worse than we did. Martha Stewart got pan-roasted for her suspicious stock dealings, Robert Blake and Winona Ryder had run-ins with the law. Britney Spears and Michael Jackson fell afoul of the tabloids. And none of them had the good sense to sell their indignities as cable reality series.
On TV, the prestige of celebrity was dropping like shares of WorldCom, while the has-been market was booming. It started innocuously, with Ozzy Osbourne taking out the trash, doddering around his mansion and becoming America's new favorite dad--Homer Simpson without the articulateness. Of course, there has always been p.r. value in celebrities' pretending to be jus' folks; that's why every time J. Lo has another hit movie or picks up a zillion-carat engagement ring, she releases a single that reminds us that she's still "real," that she's just "Jenny from the block." But once Ozzy came down to the audience's level, it was a short trip from there to laughing at Anna Nicole Smith (and Liza Minnelli, whose show didn't even make it on the air), watching the celebrity edition of Fear Factor and seeing Tonya Harding knock the last scrap of dignity out of Paula Jones on Celebrity Boxing. If you're wondering, "What's next--pimping out has-been celebrities on blind dates?" then you haven't got around to watching Star Dates, now playing on the E! network.
Still, at least TV's has-beens had the chance to be stars once. The biggest movies of 2002 were not necessarily even about actors: Ice Age starred endearing digital animations; The Two Towers features a soulfully CGI Gollum; and as for Attack of the Clones, no one has acted in a George Lucas film since Leia told Han she would just as soon kiss a Wookie. Who was the big human movie star of 2002? We would say Vin Diesel, but not until he lets us check the back of his neck for rivets. Instead, we must nominate Nia Vardalos.