You can't keep a good celebrity down

Faye Dunaway (right) was sacked from Sunset Boulevard -then the offers of work began to flood in. So who needs good publicity? By Mark Lawson Publicity agents have always consoled clients taking a battering in the press with the ancient optimistic aphorism of their trade: "Don't read it, measure it." They believe that notoriety is as marketable a kind of fame as any other; that even bad publicity is beneficial in focusing attention on a performer.

The client whose name it is that features in the media assaults is often unconvinced by this pragmatism. However, examination of career graphs before and after calamities does support the view that an ill wind may be just the thing to lift the sails, andsales, of a career. Faye Dunaway was sacked from the Los Angeles production of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Sunset Boulevard - an affair settled last week by a substantial out-of-court payment to the actress - but she apparently received more offers of work than for some time in the immediate aftermath of the stories of her sacking.

So is all publicity good publicity? In answering this question, it is necessary to distinguish between categories of infamy.

Moralistic: When there were legal restraints on artistic content - once exercised by the Lord Chamberlain over stage plays and the Obscene Publications Act over books - a writing career could be seriously hampered by moral objection.

However, since the works that broke those barriers - the plays of Bond and Osborne and DH Lawrence' Lady Chatterley's Lover - and the replacement of legal bodies by mere watchdogs and editorial commentators, explicitness has been the best publicity a writer could have. The controversy over the play Blasted (see below) has had the inevitable modern result of sell-out houses.

Contract dispute: Apart from the Faye Dunaway case, there have been two other recent examples of dotted-line publicity: George Michael's attempt to break his contract with Sony and the suing of Kim Basinger by a film company after she pulled out of a movie. Michael and Basinger both lost, leaving the former vowing never to record again and the latter with vast damages and costs to pay.

If Dunaway has emerged well from her own wrangling, it is probably because her case never reached the convolutions of the courtroom and because of hostility to Andrew Lloyd-Webber in American showbusiness in reaction of his Englishness and tricky personal manner.

Libel: Mick Jagger advised Elton John not to sue the Sun for libel. The Stone argued that your entire life could be dragged through the courts in the course of a trial. But this conventional wisdom about why celebrities should not fight what they regarded as lies was challenged by John's £1m victory at the door of the courts, a triumph which lifted his career.

Even losing a libel case is not always ruinous, except in an immediate financial sense. Derek Jameson, who sued the BBC and lost, got his money back and more in subsequent employment from the BBC. The actress Gillian Taylforth became the butt of many jokes after losing the so-called "motorway blowjob" case to the Sun, but her standing as a soap opera actress survived.

Sex and Murder: Adulterous liaisons - which once stalled the careers of Ingrid Bergman and Sophia Loren - are now merely an irritation, with no impact on bankability. But sex that strays further beyond the Middle American definition of the mainstream remains the publicity agent's nightmare. Even admission of homosexuality would be a gamble, so closets remain padlocked.

The career of the children's entertainer Pee Wee Herman went in to reverse after an indecency incident, but this was a clear-cut case of a juvenile icon who loses the support of the parents who were, in reality, the consumers. The case of Michael Jackson, though, is more complicated. The shadow of child abuse allegations, though no charges have been brought, immediately frightened away advertisers. Record sales, however, may not automatically suffer. As with writers from DH Lawrence onwards, there wouldbe notoriety value in Jackson's work.

O J Simpson has achieved previously unknown levels of fame as a result of his murder trial, but, if found guilty, he won't be able to benefit from it. Here, perhaps, we reach the last remaining publicity taboo. Admittedly, some now think that celebrity itself might be enough to win an acquittal from a jury. In which case, it would be possible to say that a modern celebrity can get away with anything.

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