As the country plummeted into economic despair, the poignant sight of politicos scrambling to the face-saving rescue, alternating with the ongoing spectacle of celebrities ratcheting up their indulgence level with a heightened sense of panic, provided a great year for gossip horror. Jobs vanished, morale plunged, and Jodie Foster broke up with her girlfriend. But it was never boring—and at least with the slew of “recession menus” popping up all over the place, you got all the sangria you could drink.
Early in the year, the Dems narrowed things down to Barack Obama vs. Hillary Clinton—two seemingly unelectable candidates, especially since he didn’t seem corrupt enough and she openly cried at one point about how she cares for our country. The pundits said the fact that Hillary showed such vulnerability would destroy her—especially if it was sincere—but then she won New Hampshire, so they conveniently decided the tears are what got her the victory. Hillary was back on top and fortified with Kleenex and waterproof pantsuits!
But she really had something to cry about when Obama picked up steam and got the nomination, a historic occasion that brought on the inevitable squeamish backlash from the white folk. Geraldine Ferraro famously said the guy was only in his presidential wannabe position because he’s black—as if that’s ever been anyone’s easy entrée into the White House. If being different is what automatically propels you to Pennsylvania Avenue, then Ferraro would have easily gotten there with bells on!
With a shocking unflappability, Obama vaulted past the major obstacles, but he created one of his own by handpicking Joe Biden—a potentially sticky running mate because he’s the lit keg who’d praised Obama for being such a clean Negro. But all was forgiven as the elder statesman proved to be a model of sensitivity compared to McCain’s gumptious partner, Sarah Palin, a walking faux pas who got her cues from the great almighty Gosh (and who was done much more appealingly by sketch comic Tina Fey than by herself). Palin’s good-golly demeanor (wink, wink)—which was served up in the purpose of right-wing viewpoints and a clear insufficiency of savvy—was pretty much terrifying. Most memorably, she boasted about how, in parts of Alaska, you can see Russia from your back door. Honey, I can see New Jersey from my window, but that doesn’t mean I understand it!
Anxious to keep her in the tundra, swarms turned out to overwhelmingly vote Obama into office, but exit polls claimed that seven out of 10 black voters in California pulled the lever against gay marriage, as oppressed minorities weirdly used their power to help keep each other down. Not to worry. Scads of religious whites gleefully joined them in that hot pursuit!
The sanctity of straight marriage was destroyed by governor Eliot Spitzer, who for years had railed against prostitutes—I guess because they charged so much. Also pissing on his marital vows was evaporating candidate John Edwards, who initially called reports that he’d cheated on his sick wife and fathered a love child “tabloid trash,” ignoring the fact that tabloid trash is so very often true. Deliciously enough, his lady love, Rielle Hunter, had been hired by Edwards’s campaign to make videotapes of the candidate talking about morality, ahem.
A complete lack of ethics or good sense also hit movieland, with the year’s worst film, The Happening, trying to manipulate our fears about two international crises—terrorism and the environment—and, in the process, creating a whole other one by torturing us with an inept thriller about killer foliage. Another disaster-movie tragedy was The Lucky Ones, which trivialized the war with cute conflicts and character revelations like “The big problem is, I got wounded in the dick, and it doesn’t work. I can’t get it up!” Hollywood, I’m begging you to take the same stance on the Iraq situation that I’ve long urged Dubya to assume: Drop it!
Of course, both power bases—D.C. and L.A.—came together when Dubya turned up as the title character in W., sanctimoniously defending the war, though critics were more taken by Nixon (in Frost/Nixon) perversely defending his own spurious international crisis. As the disgraced presidents battled for awards consideration, ladies were lured to the box office to help Mamma Mia! make bundles of blood money off Abba’s carcass while the Sex and the City gals buried the hatchet for a dressed-up romp about standing by your pig-man and ringing in the ka-chinging. But masked-and-caped melodrama trumped froth in pink tights as 2008’s most unstoppable sensation became The Dark Knight, a Debbie Downer of a flick that mirrored our mood and instantly acquired a macabre cult following, partly because Heath Ledger had died while in the process of exploring the trapdoor in the Joker’s mind. (By the way, upon finding Heath Ledger’s dead body, the masseuse reportedly called Mary-Kate Olsen. I guess Urkel wasn’t listed.)
As the year progressed, it became clear that Ledger’s Joker had seized our consciousness even more ferociously than scary Palin; he way outstripped her in popularity on Halloween. The combination of Heath’s daring choices, obsessive performances, and secret dark side proved irresistible to the public—in Hollywood, dying young is the easiest way to live forever—though one fan posted an online comment saying, “I wanted Heath to yell at Maggie, ‘I fucked your brother in the ass!’ “
And that provides a very useful segue to mentioning that for the part of Rachel Dawes, Maggie had taken over from the previous film’s much taller Katie Holmes. But gutsy Katie didn’t react by just staying home and taking care of Suri. She dragged her out for photo ops—and also made her Broadway debut in All My Sons to much PR hoopla. And theatergoers said, “Eh.”
No one was nonchalant about the bust-up of Madonna‘s marriage over a baseball player, though fans were concerned about who would get custody of the British accent. But Madge kept soaring, while the owner of some real Britspeak, Amy Winehouse, brilliantly sang about self-destructing while actually doing so, as you were tempted to call Mary-Kate Olsen. Even darker than The Dark Knight was the footage of Winehouse apparently smoking crack—no doubt in between garden salads and green-tea smoothies. A head on a stick, with hair that reaches up to Palin’s helicopter rifle, Winehouse fused Billie and Dusty into a wanton crazy salad that made her a modern-day Judy Garland, minus the children or the authorized prescriptions. Even weirder than her being beamed, visa-less, into the Grammys, was her crooning at Nelson Mandela‘s gala event for AIDS about not wanting to go to rehab. I’m sure he was thrilled.
But the reigning trilogy of terror, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and Britney Spears, spent most of ’08 relatively pulled together and well-behaved, to my grave disappointment. Britney won a slew of VMAs and gave the same acceptance speech for each one (but at least she didn’t lip-synch it). Paris was friendless, but turned even that into a career move. And Lindsay found love with the butch Samantha Ronson, their unapologetic bonding seeming to threaten no one except dad Michael Lohan. (He shrieked, “User!” at Samantha, furious that she had clearly usurped his role.)
Lindsay also drummed up some gratuitous career action with a semi-nude pictorial homage to Marilyn Monroe in New York magazine, so I responded by taking it all off for a Voice spread of me as Lindsay as Marilyn, putting the “meta” back in Metamucil. My mother is not alone in feeling that it was the cover of the year, and in fact, I’m still fielding reader comments from “You looked better than Lindsay” to “I lost my lunch!”
More predictable were the dozens of desperate magazine stories trying to sell us ideas about how to live cheaper as the economy continued to free-fall. Sadly, the public responded with: “We know how to live cheaper—by not buying any more magazines!”
When a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death in a stampede for a sale there, we knew the year had found its most tragically apt image. Shockingly, it was topped by that of a Wal-Mart shoplifter dying after being tackled by the store’s suddenly vigilant security. Goodbye, 2008. You had me at “Hello, your stock portfolio has gone down 97 percent.”