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Show-biz history has some lessons to teach Cam Newton

An open letter to Cam Newton:

I get it. Scrutiny of you guys is total and more often than not, unfriendly in the world of talk radio and the Internet. Look at what happened to the Bills’ LeSean McCoy once TMZ got into the business of treating star athletes like celebrities.

And heaven knows I know that pack journalism isn’t pretty.

But then you ought to see it from the other side. Some of us journalists might actually try to think up worthy inquiries to ask on-camera big shots. But we’re almost as helpless in the face of a microphone-hogging doofus as you are during a press conference.

Still, you do need to try to understand that six surly monosyllabic answers to questions and then a peremptory goodbye after losing a Super Bowl is going to arouse journalistic disrespect and more than a little public anger. Try staring down a deadline sometime with nothing but a celebrity sneering “no quotes today” and hoisting a middle finger in your direction. It sours your mood very quickly.

But I get it. I’ve been a part of celebrity press conferences – in my case showbiz celebrities – since Nixon was president. And I’ve often been sympathetic to those on your side of the lights under the barrage.

In your case, it was especially true. You’re a standard bearer for the whole league. It was your first Super Bowl. And you got creamed. Your guys looked awful. By the time Wade Phillips’ Bronco defense got through with you, the Panthers’ offense and Broncos’ defense didn’t look as if they belonged on the field at the same time.

How do you talk about getting wiped out in the biggest game of your life while 119 million people were watching? You’ve got to be a seasoned pro at both football AND showbiz. Peyton Manning, the guy on the other side of the field, could have done it. So could any number of professional quarterbacks.

It’s not a talent in your wheelhouse yet.

It would have taken, at that moment, an unambiguous, fully functional grown-up to make a few jokes about missing Disney World and say “that defense was awfully good; they made us look sick.” Jocks have long said “you’ve got to have a lot of little kid in you” to play the game in the right spirit. Unfortunately, you were caught at the exact moment when that surviving “little kid” found out what life is like when everything goes wrong at the worst possible moment.

So let me tell you about a couple experiences from my world so you’ll understand how it works elsewhere. Let me tell you about a couple of actors – one great, one very good – and their experiences with pack journalism. Daniel Day Lewis is the great one. Rock Hudson, yes, Rock Hudson, is the very good one.

Day Lewis has always hated press events. He’s a serious actor, not a trained seal for a red carpet. In a room full of journalists before the release of Jim Sheridan’s “In the Name of the Father,” he reacted to a particularly duncey question by whirling around in his chair and shooting at a Universal Studio’s publicity person, the most pathetically pleading look I’ve ever seen on the face of a major actor. “I don’t know how to do this” is what he stumblingly said to her while the rest of us listened. If he could have done a Cam Newton and instantly beat it out of the room, he would have.

Lest you think that’s pathetic and nothing else, you have to understand how much aesthetic snobbery is involved here. His mother is an actress from another era and his father, C. Day Lewis, is a former poet laureate of England. He is a man who gives extraordinary performances in the likes of “There Will Be Blood,” and “Gangs of New York” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “My Left Foot” but that doesn’t mean he knows how to sell a movie in a hotel room or to blubber on a red carpet.

He undoubtedly thinks he’s better than all that – and for good reason: He actually is. In a perfect world, he wouldn’t have had to deal with the likes of us. Usually, these days, he doesn’t. He made his point. He’s exempt.

But it wasn’t snobbery that got him there. It was his work. When Bogart said “the only thing you owe the public is a good performance” he was talking about the kind of performances Day Lewis gives. He wasn’t talking about collapsing at the Super Bowl.

I watched a Rock Hudson press conference in the 1970s, an era where his sexuality was a mystery to no one, certainly not among the TV press. One member of that press pack, though, wanted to impress upon one and all, his vision of himself as a kind of Navy Seal among entertainment journalists. He took over the microphone for a series of scoffing questions designed to either “out” Hudson or belittle him so much he might flee in embarrassment.

To his eternal credit, seasoned pro Hudson dealt with all of them with the aplomb he’d developed over decades. I remember thinking, at the time, what a tragedy it was that there was no frank memoir – or exhaustive TV interview – with the guy that would reveal just how heroic it might have been in his era to be gay and out to all your friends and co-workers but to have to continue pretending for everyone else.

Most of us have trouble getting through our single lives without baffling difficulty. How hard it must have been to live a double-life, and constantly fear exposure to a world full of knee-jerk loathing.

You think it’s hard talking about one godawful football game in front of the year’s biggest TV audience? Try being an actor who had to pretend throughout his entire life to have any sort of career at all.

I’ll say this for you: When you let your disappointment, anger and self-disgust show to everyone watching, you seemed to have no difficulty whatsoever being very real in public. And memorable, while you’re at it.

Rock could have told you what a luxury that is.