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The Hollywood Myth of Male Bonding

EIGHT SEASONS of the HBO show Entourage ended on a predictably happy note on September 11. All four of the guys (Vince, Eric, “Drama” and Turtle) flew off in private jets–rich and happy–into the sunset. Even Ari, the agent, seemed happy in self-imposed exile on an Italian villa, with his wife by his side. Stay tuned for a probableEntourage movie that will bring the whole gang back together.

One of the longest-running shows on television during the last decade, Entourage followed the antics of four working-class friends from Queens, N.Y., who try to “make it” in Hollywood. There’s Vince Chase (Adrian Grenier), the superstar; his older brother, Johnny Chase, also known as “Drama” (Kevin Dillon), the mediocre actor; Turtle (Jerry Ferrara), Vince’s gopher; and Eric, or “E” (Kevin Connolly), Vince’s manager.

They spend a lot of their time sparring and partying with Vince’s Hollywood super-agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), who resents competing with Eric for Vince’s attention. Women are largely peripheral to the show, appearing as sexual conquests, bossy public relations managers, or unsympathetic girlfriends or wives who don’t “get” the friendship between the boys.

Entourage was inspired by the real-life early experiences of the Boston-born and raised actor Mark Wahlberg, one of the show’s producers. The series attempted to be a satire on Hollywood from the vantage point of “regular” guys and a study of “male friendship.”

How did it do? There’s little doubt that Entourage could be hilariously funny and entertaining, but the show was also marred from the beginning by an unrelenting sexism and homophobia, and riddled with ethnic slurs that were all played for laughs. There were many times when it was just hard to watch. But the real selling point of the show was a highly unrealistic if not almost juvenile concept of “friendship.”

* * *

RIGHT FROM the beginning, I thought there was something off about the four friends from Queens. They seemed to be straight out of central casting–fairly bland, stock-in-trade characters, products more of the imagination (or lack of imagination) of Hollywood writers and producers than of the real world.

Here were four guys from New York who didn’t seem to know anyone impacted by September 11. They didn’t know or have any relatives who were sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, or know anyone who returned home sick, dead or disabled. The wrenching economic crisis that has so devastated people’s lives was only worth a fleeting mention in the last season.

They’re just a bunch of “happy-go-lucky guys” with few cares in the world. This was particularly true of Vince Chase. Despite being raised by a single mother (his father disappeared years ago), he seemed untouched by the real world. He has no past and few friends or relatives beyond his entourage.

This is in sharp contrast to Wahlberg–whose troubled early life is not a secret–and who inspired the creation of the Chase character. Wahlberg was a violent racist bigot as a teenager. When he was 15, he harassed a group of Black school children on a field trip by throwing rocks and shouting racial slurs.

A year later, he attacked two middle-aged Vietnamese men on the street, clubbing one of them unconscious while shouting that he was a “Vietnam fucking shit.” Wahlberg left the other man permanently blind in one eye. He was charged with attempted murder, but pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to two years in prison. He did 45 days before being released–he got off easy.

The young Wahlberg was not a likeable guy, but in the 25 years since, he has morphed into a different person.

It was decided early on by the producers of Entourage that the Vince Chase character wasn’t going to have a criminal record. Whether it would have even hinted at Wahlberg’s real record, I couldn’t say, but if it did, the Vince Chase character would have been a far more interesting person.

Entourage could have been about an aspiring actor coming to terms with his racism and that of his agent Ari Gold. One of our earliest introductions to Gold was driving his car, and he shouts out the window “Do they drive that way in Tiananmen Square–BITCH!” Instead, Vince Chase is an ambitious but mediocre actor and narcissist–a person who doesn’t have an opinion about the world except what he may want for lunch.

The Ari Gold character was modeled on the real-life Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel, one of the most notorious and powerful figures in Hollywood as well as the brother of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Ari Emanuel settled a 2002 lawsuit by one his employees for $2.25 million for making racist and antigay remarks in the workplace, and stopped her from sending a script about the Navy SEALs to African American actor Wesley Snipes, declaring, “That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Everyone knows that Blacks don’t swim.”

Ari Gold was the guy you love to hate because underneath all of the money-grubbing scheming and power plays, he was suppose to have a heart of gold. The truth is that we should just hate him. It was only Jeremy Piven’s superior comic acting skills that made Gold bearable to watch. Gold’s special punching bag is Lloyd Lee (played by Korean-American actor Rex Lee), the only openly gay regular character on Entourage, who was subject to a constant tirade of antigay abuse and ethnic slurs.

The abuse that Lloyd suffered onscreen was matched by off-camera abuse on the set from the crew. In 2009, Lee went public and spoke out about the derisive jokes aimed at his sexuality and ethnicity, saying, “I try not to let it bother me.” Entourage creator Doug Ellin claimed that he was “shocked and horrified” to learn this and promised act swiftly action to deal with it. “It’s not something condoned or acceptable,” Ellin said.

But if antigay and ethnic slurs are okay on onscreen, is it a surprise that it blows back off screen? To make matters worse, the final season of Entourage featured in a recurring role Andrew Dice Clay, the same old misogynist ignoramus, who was banned for 20 years from MTV.

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BUT ENTOURAGE was also supposed to be story about the enduring friendship of four guys through the treacherous waters of Hollywood–and, for three of them, the end of their youth. The Hollywood myth of friendship is that it is something that is both mystical and fixed at the same time.

“We will always be friends” is one of Hollywood’s more overused lines. Friendship, however, is far more complex than that. Despite all of the experiences and changes that a person goes through in life–especially from the ages of 20 to 30–does one really believe that childhood friendships endure as opposed to other kinds of friendships or relationships? That may explain why there was so little to zero character development during the eight seasons of Entourage. One could skip many episodes or even seasons of the show, and find so little was different.

Why was Entourage so popular? Part of it, I think, did have to do with looking at Hollywood through the eyes and experience of supposedly regular people. Many people who watched the show saw part of themselves and their friends in the show’s characters.

During the show’s run, I asked a lot people who watched it what they liked about it, and many would say that many of the character reminded them of the people they grew up with. It is also tapped into one of those “what if” questions in the back of people’s minds. What if my friends and me ended up in Hollywood? What would we do?

While this was the hook, Entourage was a throwback in many ways. A raunch culture of sexism and homophobia has been mainstream for a long time in the U.S., and I can’t help but think that was also part of its appeal. Hopefully, the next version of Entouragewill have no tolerance for bigotry–that would make it a more interesting show.

Joe Allen is the author of People Wasn’t Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago, about the 1947 Hickman case, and Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost, a history of the Vietnam era from an unapologetically antiwar standpoint. He is also a frequent contributor to the International Socialist Review.

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JOE ALLEN is the author of Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost.

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