Celebrities make a good living making fools out of us–-and themselves.
Actor Joaquin Phoenix was supposed to appear on the Late Show With David Letterman in February. Instead, the man who sat down on Letterman's couch was a disheveled character with a hobo's beard and dark glasses, mumbling incoherent answers to the host's questions.
It was the twice-Oscar nominated Phoenix, alright. He had suddenly taken on a new, bizarre identity unrelated to his role opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in his latest film, Two Lovers. A befuddled Letterman closed the 10-minute encounter with an apology. "Joaquin, I'm so sorry you couldn't be here tonight."
The interview caused an uproar in entertainment circles and enraged James Gray, Two Lovers' director, who called his star actor "a crazy person with a beard making a fool of himself." Had Letterman been "punk'd" or was Phoenix really embarking on a new career?
"From a business perspective, it doesn't matter," says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "The ambiguity of these pranks draws chatter. People want to watch them."
True enough: In the week following Phoenix's Feb. 11 appearance on Letterman, CBS.com clocked 7.5 million views, a record for any Late Show video clip. On YouTube, the interview has been watched 3.9 million times. A documentary is in the works about Phoenix's hijinks, produced by Casey Affleck, Phoenix's brother-in-law.
One of MTV's top performers is Punk'd, which ran for eight seasons beginning in 2003. Ashton Kutcher conceived the show and promised to "make superstars suffer for your pleasure." The show's cameras were there to record celebrity freak-outs, like the time Halle Berry was denied entrance to her own movie premiere or the phony IRS agents who swarmed Justin Timberlake's new home to tell him he owed $900,000 in back taxes and all of his possessions would be seized.
Sacha Baron Cohen set the gold standard for pranksterism with his on-screen persona Borat, which grossed $130 million when the movie was released in 2006. In Cohen's newest film, Bruno, coming this summer, he impersonates a gay Austrian fashion journalist. Wearing a Velcro suit, Cohen causes mayhem by sneaking onto the catwalk of a Milan fashion show, sticking to everything. In Alabama, "Bruno" and his crew enter a gun store, pretend to confuse firearms with sex toys and get a salesman to tell them they must keep weapons away from one's "poopinschaft."
To fool his victims, Cohen reportedly set up 31 dummy companies and Web sites. The movie's working title is probably a prank, too: Bruno: Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt. Hollywood is banking the movie's payday will be no hoax: Universal reportedly paid $43 million for the rights to Bruno.
Literary hoaxers haven't done as well. J.T. Leroy won instant fame after writing two novels based on a horrific childhood: Leroy claimed to be a former cross-dressing teenage prostitute from Appalachia who had worked truck stops in West Virginia. Fellow celebrity authors supported Leroy, among them Dave Eggers, Lou Reed and Suzanne Vega.
The author turned out not to be a man but the half-sister of Laura Albert, a San Francisco woman who had created "J.T. Leroy" with her boyfriend. Albert was later sued by a film distribution company to whom she had sold Leroy's movie rights.
Things worked out better in the early 1980s for comedian Andy Kaufman. A frequent guest on Saturday Night Live, Kaufman pulled off one of the biggest entertainment hoaxes in years. After his career waned, he began staging outlandish wrestling matches with women to compete for the "Intergender Wrestling Championship." He offered $1,000 to any gal who could pin him. Kaufman made a small fortune televising these smack downs until he accepted a challenge from professional wrestler Jerry Lawler. The pro gave Kaufman a broken collar bone after executing a "piledriver" on him. It was probably the only real wrestling move during Kaufman's career in the ring.
Expect more fakery from Hollywood. Wasn't it P.T. Barnum who quipped, "There's a sucker born every minute"? It turns out, no. The expression itself is something of a prank--historians say he never said it.