Published November 1, 1998
Jerry Springer in ‘Ringmaster,’ directed by Neil Abramson and written by Jon Bernstein, stars Jerry Springer as the host of a daytime talk show very much like “The Jerry Springer Show”—only a disclaimer at the end informs us that this Jerry and that Jerry have nothing to do with one another. It is the downmarket version of Woody Allen’s meditation on Celebrity, and like that movie presents the lust for a few minutes’ exposure on national television as the great paradigmatic ambition of our time. Those for whom knowledge or power are forever out of reach strike a sort of poor man’s Faustian bargain in which their miserable souls and sins are exchanged for an equally tawdry but brief spell of twinkling like a star.
Actually, Ringmaster has a better shot than Celebrity at giving us the thing itself, the naked desire for fame as it really exists in its purest form among the trailer-trash whose story it tells. Connie (Molly Hagan) virtually pushes her daughter, Angel (Jaime Pressley), into the arms of her, Connie’s, new husband so that they can all go on Jerry’s show with the theme: “I slept with my stepdaddy.” Just to make sure, Connie goes down to a nearby trailer and performs oral sex on Angel’s “fiancé” so that all four of them will be invited on the show. Meanwhile, there is a less fully-realized quartet of black people going to the show at the same time, but they seem to be there only so that both mother and daughter can try to seduce the young black man, and then can be attacked on the air by his girlfriend.
As all this argy-bargy culminates in on-air confrontation, the film misses its chance to examine the lust for fame more closely. The one character who refuses to take part in the show is the least well-drawn, and simply walks away three quarters of the way through the movie. Not too surprisingly, the film indulges in a cheapness of its own. First it disingenuously pretends that it is as surprised as everybody else that these people come on the show to spill their guts about sleeping with their stepfathers or their daughters’ boyfriends. One of Jerry’s assistants, Troy (William McNamara), wonders aloud: “Why would people reveal their deepest, darkest secrets on TV for a free trip to LA?” Gee, Troy, what a mystery that is, huh?
Of course he knows as well as everybody else does why they do it, but the pretended ignorance is all part of the show’s pretense that it is simply giving ordinary people the same shot at telling their stories that the rich and famous have already. There is a little sermonette to this effect near the end of the movie, when an impromptu debate is set up between Jerry and a religious nut of some description who insists that all his guests are going to hell. Jerry leaps to these pathetic people’s defense on the grounds that it is “elitism” not to allow these people to tell “exactly the same” embarrassing secrets to the world that rich people in their country clubs have. This, says indignant Jerry, is “a slice of America,” and if the religious gentleman doesn’t like it, he can “bite something else.”
Needless to say, the human wreckage who have tarted themselves up to come on his show cheer him to the echo, but the rest of us might recoil just a bit at such transparent demagoguery. Jerry the character in the movie, like Jerry Springer in real life, is rich and famous himself because he has spent his life exploiting the misery of the most stupid and spiritually stunted people in America. For him to pretend to be their champion is as tasteless as anything else about the show, and it takes away from the occasional approach he makes to self-detachment—as when, after he attends to a disturbance in the hallway, someone asks him if the people involved are all right.
“Of course they’re not all right,” he replies. “They’re guests on my show.”
The trouble is: none of us is all right anymore.