Camp is dead, and you’re invited to its autopsy the Monday after the Super Bowl. That’s when the new NBC series Smash premieres (though it’s already available online). The drama takes place behind the scenes of a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe, following the cast and crew through their various personal and professional travails, and it comes with a reality twist: the musical might actually come to Broadway.
If you took as gospel Susan Sontag’s credo that camp is “the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater,” then you’d presume Smash would be the campiest thing on TV, give or take a Glee. But despite its gayish trappings, Smash bears the imprimatur of executive producer Steven Spielberg, the fellow lately known for such solid, accomplished films as War Horse and Munich. Between Smash’s exuberant musical numbers, the show slogs through one grave, brow-knitting plotline after another, among them the question of whether Debra Messing will adopt a baby or not. (Historians may recall that the Debra Messing/baby plotline aggressively straightened up Will & Grace a few years back, ending in the show’s destruction.) Then there’s the question of whether the characters’ low-grade badinage will ever erupt into full-on fireworks. The final number, a sing-off/audition/dream sequence, offers a nicely over-the-top walk-off, but it concludes a surprisingly staid 43 minutes.
“I keep likening it to shows like ER,” said Megan Hilty, one of the two Marilyns manqué. “We’re not doing brain surgery—but you don’t have to be in the know in the theater world to enjoy it.” Still, what makes good sense commercially puts the show’s camp possibilities in intensive care. No scalplel is needed to untangle the layers here. Smash’s intentions are all conscious and overt; everything’s on the surface.. By going after a mainstream, Spielberg-sized audience, Smash does for camp what Schindler’s List did for the camps: It simplifies it, flattens it out, and repackages it for mass consumption.
Sontag’s contention that “Camp is esoteric—something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques” suggests one culprit for the death of camp: The mainstream acceptance of gays—a welcome development, to say the least—seems to have come with an ancillary cost.
If camp is by definition a sort of in-joke, a winking language of signs and semaphores understood by a discerning few, it melts away when a show about battling Broadway ingenues is targeted at the many. The aesthetic sensibility that converted TV’s Batman into a gay icon and “No wire hangers!” into a rallying cry has crossed irrevocably into mainstream culture. It’s available to all and therefore drained of its power.
It’s an tasty irony, but not a campy one.
To wit: We flocked to Ryan Trecartin’s marvelously twisted Day-Glo horrorshow at P.S. 1, and we gawked at Lady Gaga’s eggshell trick at the Grammys. But when camp is understood by everyone, well, what good does it do us? The thrill is gone.
“Everything now is called gay camp,” noted Michael Musto, columnist for the Village Voice, whereas before, “it was all closety and suggested.” He cited the Bette Davis Grand Guignol nightmare What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?—a prestigious-at-its-time film whose sense of gleeful mischief is signaled with winks and nods. “To this day, gays are still swiveling their arms around and saying, But ya are, Blanche.” By comparison, fast forward nearly half a century, and we’ve got a homoerotic freakout like Black Swan—based on the Sontag-certified camp fixation Swan Lake—delighting and horrifying moviegoers of all stripes on its way to the Oscars and the $100 million club.
Back in the day, the ultimate camp icon was Liza Minnelli—a mascara’d trainwreck who was beloved nonetheless for those pipes and that legacy. Today, we’ve got Christina Aguilera. Sure, she’s a diva who packs on weight, blows her live performances and is at once lovable and tragic, but she’s no Liza, alas—especially now that she’s judging vocalists on NBC’s ultrastraight The Voice. Lady Gaga? Sure, she name-checks Liberace and dresses like a drag king, but she’s more popular than just about any pop star besides the Carmen Miranda-esque Katy Perry, and she’s too controlled, too calculating, to self-aware to be camp.
Even General Hospital has lost its camp appeal—somewhere around the time James Franco decided to turn it into a piece of postmodern performance art.
The cognoscenti are opening their arms to cult art: This month, Raquel Welch will receive a career retrospective at Lincoln Center in February. Sure, fans will turn out for One Million Years B.C. and Bedazzled, but the tough ticket will be Myra Breckinridge, that camp Rosetta Stone (also starring The Observer’s own Rex Reed). On the phone, Ms. Welch recalled the film’s misbegotten ambitions. The director, Michael Sarne, “wanted it to be a Fellini thing, all wild and crazy,” she said. Instead, “It’s a curiosity.” The novel by Gore Vidal “is going to be something that people will refer back to,” she added, “and then they’ll go to the movie and say, what happened here?” That what happened here reaction, taking place at a midnight screening or around a passed-around VHS, is how the brain metabolizes camp; at Lincoln Center, it’s a historical relic.
The campiest thing on Broadway, Hugh Jackman, isn’t campy at all—though he might appear so to the out-of-town crowd. (You’d think that a movie star who rose to fame by brandishing his claws would be a little less earnest.) The great camp hope, Todd Graff, who directed queeny indie flick Camp in 2003, has now gone mainstream with this month’s Christian-choir melodrama Joyful Noise: the gay-musical-comedy equivalent of Dylan going electric. When the campiest diva out there is prestige queen Meryl Streep, whose every performance or awards-show speech feels like a thicker slice of ham, you know you’re in trouble.
And speaking of the Oscars, anyone who doesn’t get enough of Marilyn in Smash—“She certainly is having a moment, isn’t she!” noted Ms. Hilty—can see Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn or in full peroxide glory on the covers of GQ and Vogue. A world in which dressing up as a tragic dead celebrity can score you Oscar buzz instead of a gig at Lucky Cheng’s is a world in which camp has been replaced by good taste.
Camp is borne of passion, but its generally misplaced passion. The creators of camp spectacles are generally the last ones in on the joke. Camp is really a product of the audience, which grasps at these misfit entertainments, endeared by what Sontag called “a seriousness that fails.” Smash, in its pilot, never extends itself far enough to be a failure; it’s too professional to be truly passionate. So, too, are other projects on TV that look campy only when one squints.
Glee, for all its exploitation and explosion of beloved clichés, is at heart a conventional high school show studded with quotation marks. It’s too much of a moneymaker to go garish, and too square to be camp. American Horror Story, another production by gay dynamo Ryan Murphy, is a mashup of every midnight monster movie. It’s pretty liberal-minded, with a gimp-suited demon and a pair of murderous gay ghosts, but its sensibility appeals to the audience’s hyper-awareness of various cultural referents (camp being one of many) more than it does create a genuine mood of astonishment at the unexpected.
“Probably, intending to be campy is always harmful,” Sontag wrote; certain entertainments “want so badly to be campy that they’re continually losing the beat.” Sontag might as well have been talking about Jessica Lange’s dessicated-baby-doll performance on American Horror Story. Or the tightly structured reality competition RuPaul’s Drag Race. Or the in-on-every-joke female female-impersonators of The Real Housewives franchise.
All of the above are dressing themselves in the accoutrements of camp—a sort of drag routine, actually—aping the formula for a wised-up audience that has seen everything and can be counted on to “get it,” albeit without the delight of actual discovery that animates true camp. It’s camp in a can.
“The kind of stuff that I watch that’s campy is stuff that was intended to be mainstream—without a wink,” noted Frank DeCaro, the Sirius radio host and author of The Dead Celebrity Cookbook, a collection of dishes favored by various tragic icons. “I don’t want them to do the winking for me. Showgirls is campy. Glee has a big gay sensibility. I’m not sure where one ends and the other begins.”
As gay men have stormed the mainstream, their sensibility has permeated the entertainment industry—but absent the sense of secret, “just us girls” knowledge that always characterized it. RuPaul told The Observer that the Internet makes the process of discovery easier: “Everything is on YouTube,” he said (speaking out of character), recalling a favorite clip from The Carol Burnett Show that someone had copied onto on VHS—routine viewing after a night at the club. “It is completely camp—she really gets it,” he said. But the fact that the clip is now a few keystrokes away tends to reduce its samizdat appeal.
In the crowded media market of today, entertainment companies “get” camp insofar as a certain sly humor helps bring in viewers. It’s a marketing technique, the least subversive thing imaginable.
The recently installed chairman of NBC Entertainment, Robert Greenblatt, is an openly gay man, best known for developing the gleefully profane likes of Dexter and Weeds on Showtime. That’s a very big deal, but the fact that Mr. Greenblatt is betting big on Smash may say less about his personal sensibility than about how gay the culture at large has become in the post-Glee, post-Dancing with the Stars era. Rather than smuggling an outré slant onto the airwaves, Mr. Greenblatt is going where the audience is—or so he hopes.
Camp emerged as a challenge to the traditional power structure, which is one reason it’s so hard to find now that openly gay men have found increasing acceptance. “Occasionally I’ll make complaints like that—things were better when gay was more dangerous and hidden,” said Mr. Musto, only half-seriously. “Oppression can be a pretty good aphrodisiac.”
As entertainers seek slices of an ever-shrinking audience, “camp” is still a dirty word: when we called Joan Rivers’s publicist to arrange an interview for this story, we were stonewalled. “She is not campy,” her publicist told us. (Tell that to the other panelists on Fashion Police!)
Even with all of the legal steps forward for the gay community, RuPaul argued that camp was still needed: “It has always been the refuge for people who are from our perspective,” he said. “Otherwise we couldn’t take all the hypocrisy and bullshit that this world would have us take for face value. With camp, at least we can laugh at it! You can’t take anything seriously.”
But Smash and Glee and American Horror Story and Lady Gaga all take themselves grievously seriously, and not in the failed-art sense that makes Showgirls or Baby Jane so much fun. They’re competent, solid, knowing. Referring to the 2010 Cher musical, Mr. DeCaro said, “If Burlesque had been so much worse, it would’ve been so much better.”
He added, “It feels like there’s a lot more bad-bad than there is good-bad right now, and there’s a lot of good-good too. Sometimes I wonder—is Showgirls once in a generation? Once in a lifetime?”
Camp like Showgirls depends on overextension. It requires mad artists to invest lavishly in a fatally flawed vision. Today, the “bad” in entertainment is execrable—intended for a common denominator devoted to it over the million other options. The “good” is for an audience on whom no reference shall be lost, produced by a corporation that can’t place too many potential risks on its ledger. Why bother making something bad-good in an original way when you can make something good according to formula? “Camp,” the chemical reaction between bad and good, cannot possibly bridge the gap between an Adam Sandler movie and a George Clooney one. Smash could be the most misguidedly ambitious thing anyone would have seen in 1975, but today it looks tame—what tastemaker’s going to watch an NBC drama that aspires to ER?
There are a few minutes where, despite itself, Smash betrays a marvelous ambition to dazzle that is beautiful and sad in a way that feels, well, camp. The camera cuts to a smirking, gorgon-like Anjelica Huston, watching her two pet divas try to outshriek one another. It’s a just a moment, but it offers a brief glimpse of just how good the show might be were it willing to be bad.
Maybe the Marilyn stuff will help. Said Ms. Hilty, of the Monroe appeal: “There’s so many levels to her and her story is tragic and beautiful and her whole life was centered around wanting to be loved. That’s something universal that everybody feels.”
If Smash wanted to be loved more than admired, it’d be an instant camp classic. Alas, it will probably just be a hit instead.