Defending James Lipton

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Critics who have turned on Lipton's personal appearance and professional conduct forget that almost all media interviewers of celebrities are oddball males throwing underhanded softballs and making chirp-chirp noises. Lipton is no more lascivious towards his female guests than David Letterman or Charlie Rose, and has never had a moment with a TV guest of either sex as embarrassing as Barbara Walters' famously moon-eyed interview with Clint Eastwood. Lipton's habit of telling personal anecdotes featuring celebrities of is acquaintance recalls Dick Cavett at his Groucho-namedropping Dick Cavett-iest, and his approach as a peer rather than an accredited interviewer not only recalls the genius that is Byron Allen but channels Oprah. The consistency of his doe-eyed glare makes Lipton slightly more respectable than the wrenching abdication of journalistic standards one feels as whiplash when 60 Minutes does a celebrity profile. Throw in the annoying Bernard Pivot questionnaire with which our hero ends every show as a distillation of noxious automatic interviewing techniques used by Walters and Craig Kilborn among others, and one can make the argument that a finer amalgamation of modern interviewer quirks, techniques and approaches could not have been grown in a laboratory.

Of course, there's still the ass-kissing thing. Between the TV tributes to Hope and Loretta Lynn; the grounding in soap opera culture; and his pitch-perfect contribution to the neutered, Reagan-era camp through which Barry Manilow lovingly winks at his coterie of fragile but devoted fans, one could say that Lipton's interviewing style is a natural extension of his professional life-to-date — heartfelt verbal genuflecting before the idols of stage, screen and music. But that would hardly disqualify Lipton from the major criticism that comes with any reasonable exposure to his dulcet, soft-like-canned-butterscotch voice: The man sucks up to his conversation companion too much for any single person not begging for his life in a Coen Brothers movie. And who can argue? Lipton has even made a formal technique of fawning, stating the importance of gaining his subject's trust through preparation and interviewing style.

But that approach is the key to Lipton's greatness. Most critics have been fooled by their own, relatively innocent impulses and Bravo's clever publicity into thinking that Inside the Actor's Studio is a show about art and craft from which Lipton's occasional indulgences divert attention. In actuality, Lipton has given us a show about actor worship for which insight into craft serves as an almost irrelevant bonus. Making soothing noises at a Val Kilmer or Meg Ryan and reading movie titles at them is a magnificently inefficient way to learn about acting; informing them you value their opinion on technique is a great way to make them, and everyone else in their fraternity, preen like a stroked cat. And watching actors bask in the attention paid them by an adoring interviewer and a theater filled with non-threatening, applauding worshippers speaks more directly to their value as artists than ten thousand discussions of sense-memory. As John Simon has pointed out, an undeniably great thing about actors is the integrity they bring to the most demeaning tasks. If 75 years ago, the American dream of a respectable life for self and family was exemplified by a line of newly-minted immigrants standing in line hoping for day work, the current American dream of celebrity and self-definition has no better symbol than 34 heavy-set non-ethnic actors standing in a Chicago rain for a non-speaking role in a James Caan straight-to-cable movie. The democratic impulse by which Lipton claims he could work himself into being fascinated by anyone allows us to see the actors rise to meet his perpetually-fevered interest. Ron Howard may still work too hard to be loved, but the striking thing about Lipton's guests is how quickly they tend to dispense with the formalities of self-deprecation and present themselves to the public as they undoubtedly think of themselves in private — as figures of grandeur and solemnity. In playing off Lipton's belief in them, the stars exhibit those qualities of preposession through which they keep more people than we'd like to admit from stabbing their own eyes out at the horrors of the real world. Forget Lipton the interviewer — has any actor ever played a role more evocatively, more in the moment, and with a bigger spotlight to shine on his co-star than James Lipton, the Audience of One? We never should have hated James Lipton. We should have been taking notes.

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