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LIGHTS, CAMERA, REACTION

5 minute read
Steve Wulf

IN FEDERICO FELLINI’S 1961 FILM La Dolce Vita, the mistress of the journalist played by Marcello Mastroianni castigates him and his photographer companion Paparazzo by telling them, “You’re a lot of vultures! Don’t you respect anything?” But even the celebrity-obsessed Paparazzo would be shocked at what some of his spiritual and nomenclatural descendants are doing nowadays. Updated with video cameras, they lie in wait, they stalk, they prod, they provoke–all in the hope of selling embarrassing footage to the tabloid-TV shows. They are not paparazzi but an aggressive new breed of videorazzi–or, as Los Angeles-based celebrity photographer Phil Ramey proudly dubs himself and his colleagues, “scummerazzi”–and they have been very active lately:

What might have been a joyous homecoming two weeks ago for actors Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger and their three-day-old baby girl turned ugly when Baldwin confronted and struck Alan Zanger, who had staked out their Woodland Hills, California, home in a van with one-way glass. Baldwin faces a Nov. 16 hearing on assault charges.

Robert DeNiro also was charged with assault after grabbing the hair of Joseph Ligier, who DeNiro claims was verbally abusive outside a Manhattan bar last month. When Ligier offered to drop the charges for $300,000, DeNiro’s lawyers contacted the office of the Manhattan district attorney, which set up a sting that could result in extortion charges against the cameraman.

Woody Harrelson, boarding a plane on Martha’s Vineyard following the Oct. 7 wedding of Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, went ballistic when a cameraman ignored his request that only he, and not his young daughter, be photographed. A tape of the incident appeared on Hard Copy.

Two young men who said they represented Hard Copy approached Fresh Prince of Bel Air star Will Smith as he was leaving the Los Angeles airport in early September and asked for an interview. Smith cooperated, but as the questions became more irritating, he asked them to stop; when one of them blocked his way, Smith slapped him. A tape of that incident also wound up on Hard Copy.

Baldwin was able to make light of his set-to on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno last week, but it does raise a serious question: Are the stars becoming more testy, or have the paparazzi become provocateurs? Says ER’s George Clooney, one of their newest targets: “I’m perfectly willing to take my hits if I’m caught doing something stupid. The problem is that some of these guys aren’t professional videographers; they’re a bunch of kids with videocams who try and force you into a confrontation. They’ll push and yell volatile things like, ‘Hey, George, who’s the fat chick?’ Or I’m walking with a guy, they ask, ‘Is that your gay lover?’ And as soon as you say, ‘Why, you son of a bitch!’ they sell it to Hard Copy.”

Insists Valerie Virga, a senior editor at the National Enquirer: “Celebrities have been punching out photographers ever since the camera was invented.” That may be so, but it is unlikely that Mathew Brady taunted Abe Lincoln about his crazy wife. And only recently have the stars had to contend with the intrusive video camera–and the insatiable tabloid shows, always on the lookout for juicy footage of celebrities misbehaving.

The stars feel the aggressiveness is reaching a new level. “I never had a problem with photographers before this situation,” says Baldwin, who asserts it was fear for his child’s safety that set him off. “I said, ‘You want to shoot me or my wife, that’s one thing. I will not let you videotape my kid.'” What happened at Baldwin’s home is still a matter of dispute. The actor says that after he repeatedly asked Zanger to leave, the photographer refused and again raised his video camera, and Baldwin went to knock it away. Says Zanger, “He punched me in the face, knocking off my glasses–then he kicked me in the back as I turned to pick them up.” Zanger adds that his face is “every color of the rainbow.”

It is the profession that is getting a black eye, in the view of some of the old-guard paparazzi. “I treat celebrities with respect, like I would like to be treated myself,” says New York City photographer Gerardo Somoza. “Some of these photographers couldn’t shoot their way out of a paper bag. They are carrying video cameras because they are a sure thing and shows like Hard Copy buy that stuff.”

How much do they buy it for? An informal survey reveals a scale that goes from $1,500 or so for a celebrity with a new lover to about $5,000 for a drunken or angry star to $10,000 for, say, Julia Roberts’ birthday party. But even when a photographer gets a big score, he often has to kick back some of it to a tipster. Tips on a celebrity’s whereabouts, says Zanger, come “from people in the family, people who work for them–they all squeal for money.” There’s no business like show business.

While Clooney has not slugged a videorazzo–yet–he did exact unusual revenge on a cameraman who was hiding in the bushes next to his house. It seems Clooney has a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, and it rooted out the photographer and sent him scrambling over a fence, causing him to drop his camera in flight. “He wanted to sue me,” Clooney says incredulously. “But I ended up with a nice broken camera that’s hanging on my mantel right now.”

–Reported by Daniel S. Levy/New York and Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles

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