OVER my morning coffee, I spotted an item in the paper which is notable, not for its singularity, but for its depressing familiarity. "Naval Academy officials have demanded that comedian Howie Mandel return the fee he was paid for a show last month at the Annapolis school in which he jokingly invited women in the audience to perform oral sex on stage," reported the Washington Post.
I like Howie Mandel. I think he's funny. But it doesn't surprise me to learn that in his live appearances he resorts to cheap, salacious talk. Far from unusual, coarse and vulgar behavior on the part of entertainers seems to have become obligatory. Madonna may have described herself as a "material girl" living in a "material world." But, in fact, she has remained popular by being a lewd girl for a lewd age.
We are a nation that has forgotten how to blush, and much has been lost in the descent into the vulgar. Real romance, which rests so much upon mystery and distance, cannot easily coexist with gutter language. Gazing upon his love, Romeo sighed, "Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven/ Having some business, do entreat her eyes/ To twinkle in their spheres till they return." If Romeo were wooing today, would he invite his fair lady to perform oral sex on stage?
(By the way, there is a sex scene in "Romeo and Juliet." And although Shakespeare had to appeal to a pretty rough crowd in the Elizabethans, he managed to keep things interesting without heavy breathing.)
With a few wonderful exceptions, today's entertainment is a steady diet of grotesque violence and ever-kinkier sex, enchantingly narrated by four-letter words. Frankly, Dan Quayle went easy on Hollywood when he criticized Murphy Brown. There is so much more he could have said.
Movie critic Michael Medved keeps a running tally of what he calls "Hollywood's Fascination With Filth." In the October issue of Reader's Digest, Mr. Medved points out that the 1990 film "Goodfellas" featured the "f" word 294 times, along with assorted other obscenities. In "Cape Fear," according to Medved (I don't see explicitly violent movies), Robert DeNiro "plays a brutal ex-con who graphically mutilates one of his victims, murders a family's dog and menaces the head of the household." The film also features (for comic relief?) "beating, rape, drowning, burning and strangling."
But mere sex and violence are no longer enough to satisfy Hollywood's need to shock the sensibilities of its audience. Accordingly, critic Medved argues, a dozen films in the last three years have featured cannibalism -- including "Fried Green Tomatoes" and the Academy Award-winning "Silence of the Lambs." Even incest has made a debut in two new films, "Voyager," starring Sam Shepard, and "Stephen King's Sleepwalkers."
The doyens of Hollywood always respond to criticism of this garbage by arguing that they are merely responding to the market, satisfying a demand they didn't create. But that argument is as full of holes as the heroes in Martin Scorcese's movies. For one thing, Hollywood is hurting financially. Studios are closing. As Sam Goldwyn said, "If people don't want to come, you can't stop 'em." Audiences are smaller now than at any time in the last 15 years.
Poll after poll reveals that Americans believe movies contain too much violence, too much profanity and too much nudity. Mr. Medved quotes Alan Pakula, producer of "All the President's Men": "Movie violence is like eating salt. The more you eat, the more you need to taste it. People are becoming immune to its effects. That's why death counts have quadrupled."
There are glimmers, in movies like "Grand Canyon," of a furtive guilty conscience lurking in the hearts of movie producers about the violence and depravity on screen.
The moguls of Hollywood are willfully misguided if they believe that they play no part in creating the audience for violence and sex. Especially among the young, a taste for brutality can be cultivated -- and there's nothing more chilling than watching very young children laugh merrily while watching a scene of torture and mutilation.
As critic Medved says, "The dream factory has become a poison factory."
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.