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Kasia Anderson on Barbara Walters
Posted on Aug 1, 2008
She also seems concerned with what people she mentions in the book might think of their portrayals, perhaps because she’s still very active in her career and social life, but as a result, nearly every major character is pronounced to be a “smart,” “truly kind, “attractive” or “close” and cherished friend with whom she exchanges holiday cards every year and hopes to lunch with soon at 21. Hardly ever does she really let it rip, which may be safer but also makes for fewer chances to honestly lay herself out on the page. Maybe she needs to ask herself some tougher questions.
That said, Walters wins points for at least appearing willing to delve into her less camera-ready sides (she looks best shot from the left, Laurence Olivier once told her) when it comes to exploring her own fault lines and vulnerabilities, which may especially endear her to female fans and writers who wonder how she did what she did to get where she got. She describes a recurring difficulty with insecurity that has dogged her throughout her life with respect to her financial and emotional safety, a certain thin-skinned quality that seems strange considering her chosen career, but then she always has scripts and teleprompters to guide her on the job. Not so off-screen. She hasn’t always dealt well with criticism or parody; in fact, it took her daughter’s admonition that she needed to “lighten up” in order to get over her initial mortification after seeing Gilda Radner mimic her, as “Baba Wawa,” on “Saturday Night Live.”
In one of many moments in which personality traits and formative traumas are linked to her destiny as a celebrity (a theme she says she draws upon in her interviews with other heroes of contemporary popular culture), Walters says her deep-set fear has always served as a major driving force behind her professional and private ventures and inspired her book title, even as it has taken its toll at times:
“Some may call it ambition. I can live with that. Some may call it insecurity, although that is such a boring, common label, like being called shy, that means little. But as I look back, it feels to me that my life has been one long audition—an attempt to make a difference and to be accepted.”
This rather ham-fisted metaphor about auditioning for others’ approval and personal success, a kind of primordial dependence on others shared by movie stars, politicians and TV anchors, becomes trying through sheer repetition in Walters’ book, but it does lend her an air of accessibility. And people like her, by definition, are not rewarded for letting their hair down; in fact, they have an army of stylists and makeup artists, not to mention producers, agents and publicists, standing by around the clock to make sure they never do. Priming the public with flashes of stars’ lives behind the scenes is par for the course, but after years of following career paths that equate performing with huge payoffs in every sense, that doesn’t mean those stars will want, or even know how, to drop the act.
Plus, they may not really have a strong sense of “authentic” identity in the first place, as Walters herself admits. Indeed, while musing about her time as a young reporter, she describes a long-standing sense that she has harbored at least two distinct personas throughout her working life: “These early interviews highlighted another difference between my professional self and my private self, a difference I’ve never understood.” (Her “professional self” is decisive and more outgoing, while her “private self” is far more reserved and tends to misplace things.) In an even more confounding moment, she muses, during a passage about the strange confidence that comes with reporting in dangerous circumstances, “For a time you put your real life aside, or maybe this is your real life.” Huh?
Thankfully, these existential hiccups are few and far between. Walters becomes slightly more animated and assured while describing her more significant relationships and is clearly aware that she is expected to pony up about her love life or some readers might feel cheated. So she dutifully delivers, admitting to her covert entanglement with the aforementioned Sen. Brooke and detailing other relationships with Roy Cohn, Sen. John Warner and Alan Greenspan and with her three husbands, Robert Katz, Lee Guber and Merv Adelson. Some of these anecdotes, like her stories about her family, form a more fleshed-out portrait of the author, almost in spite of herself, without the pithy, greeting-card tone she tends toward when handling delicate subject matter. Getting warmer. But not for long—she seems relieved to close the book on her private affairs when she abruptly announces, about two-thirds of her way through the autobiography, “I think that is enough about my personal life.”
So far, none of this material seems all that unusual for a celebrity memoir, nor does it explain why Walters’ “Audition” has succeeded. That’s a question worth puzzling over now that it is a certified publishing hit, and the answer, no doubt, has to do with celebrity—in terms of both the boldfaced names she includes in her book and Walters herself. To investigate further will require giving Walters her due, putting aside for the moment any broader considerations or critiques of mass culture and celebrity. She certainly doesn’t devote much space in “Audition” to those issues, except when she bemoans the current media obsession with celebrity at the end of the book, again demonstrating either denial or an underdeveloped sense of irony. Regardless, readers with those kinds of concerns aren’t likely to buy her book, so as always she keeps her eye on her approval rating.
Walters figures prominently in broadcast history in relation to the television industry’s rise to dominance as a global entertainment and information medium. She has played a key part in blending news and entertainment, as well as the role of the journalist and that of the celebrity, for better and for worse. Before the 1970s, even journalists working in top positions in mainstream media outlets weren’t considered superstars in the same way their counterparts in the film business were. Walters was instrumental in that sea change, following in the footsteps of more traditional celebrities by appearing on the Johnny Carson show, writing magazine articles and a successful self-help book, “How to Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything,” and by enlisting agent Lee Stevens to negotiate her contracts and line up opportunities starting in 1970. Having an agent was far from the norm for TV newspeople at the time; before Stevens entered the picture, Walters believed, as she puts it, “Agents are for entertainers.” (Again with the irony.)
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