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Living in the Age of Tabloid Journalism: 15 of the Greatest Hollywood Scandals to Hit the Airwaves

Updated on April 22, 2020
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Heather has a Bachelor's Degree in English from Moravian College and has been freelance writing for more than 14 years.

What makes for a good scandal? Lots of media coverage? A sensational crime? How about the supposed perpetrator, or who was connected to the story? The list goes on endlessly. Sometimes a scandal can be caused by a shocking crime, or just being connected to it as a supporting player. That has been known to happen every now and again. It might not even be about a scandal per se, but it's about how one tragic event shaped a person's enduring legacy for better or worst.

In terms of scandals, it could vary depending on the situation. Ranging from lip syncing at various live events (Ashlee Simpson and Beyoncé) that caused either no impact or tarnished a rising career before it began. The biggest scandal involving lip syncing was the band Milli Vanilli who won a Grammy for their debut album, and they didn't actually sing a note of it. The band members were just the image, while two other singers did all the work. The award was taken away from them and the group never recovered now that the truth was out in the open. Another type of tarnishing scandal was when a former good girl (Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey) unleashed their darker sides. Some moments of tabloid glory become blips in time that go away after the next news cycle or last a little longer than intended. Recovering from a scandal could simply mean owning up to it (Hugh Grant's 1995 arrest for solicitation) or keeping some distance from the public eye (Mel Gibson) before staging a comeback. It's ultimately in the efforts of the perpetrator/celebrity in what to do next.

Impossible to boil down the most shocking and tragic moments in Hollywood (television, film and music). Some moments were left out, but still not forgotten (Selena, Phil Hartman, etc.). Here is a list of fifteen memorable scandals, crimes and situations that impacted how the media reported such events. Read on to see what made the list, or missed the cut for various reason.

Peyton Place Poster
Peyton Place Poster
They All Laughed Poster
They All Laughed Poster
Poltergeist Poster
Poltergeist Poster

Beauty and the Beast

Lana Turner- In the days of old Hollywood glamor, Turner's presence was at the top of the list. Unfortunately, her legacy was also filled with her questionable taste in men. One particular relationship involved her tumultuous pairing with the volatile gangster Johnny Stompanato. He was jealous, possessive and it culminated to his April 4, 1958 stabbing death. Stompanato's killer ended up being her then 14 year old daughter Cheryl Crane who stabbed him to protect her mother. At the 1958 inquest, it became a media sensation because it had all the makings of a tabloid event. Turner's testimony was memorable, but it also led many to believe that she was giving the best acting performance of her career off camera. It led to some conspiracy theories that it was her and not her daughter that killed Stompanato. Hard to believe that a devoted mother would let her daughter take the fall for her actions. In the end, it was never proven and Turner's career continued on until her death in 1995.

Dorothy Stratten- She was a star on the rise who had her life cut brutally short by her estranged spouse Paul Snider on August 14, 1980. Stratten became Playboy magazine's Playmate of the Year for 1980 and was starting to have a film career with a supporting role in director Peter Bogdanovich's film They All Laughed. It was during the course of filming that movie that Stratten and the director began a relationship that led Stratten to leave her husband. Snider was eager for his own success, but his own ideas managed to never get off the ground. It was only through his discovery of Stratten in their native Canada in the 1970s that he found something close to personal glory. He was eager to ride her coattails into glory as she entered the halls of Hugh Hefner's Playboy mansion, except he managed to rub everyone the wrong way he came across. Snider persuaded a young and inexperienced Stratten to marry him in 1979, but she quickly regretted the decision as her husband grew increasingly unhinged as she grew more and more successful. Her fatal mistake was to trust that he wasn't capable of such a heinous act of violence where he took her life because he thought that if he couldn't have her no one else should. Snider's act also led him to take his own life as well, which caused a ripple effect for years afterward. The release of They All Laughed was postponed to 1981 due to the aftermath of Stratten's untimely demise. Bogdanovich was greatly affected by losing the woman he loved, and it was through that loss that he eventually ended up marrying, and divorcing, her younger sister Louise. Stratten's death also brought two films to tell her tragic story Death of a Centerfold and Star 80, which was directed by Bob Fosse and was told from Paul Snider's (Eric Roberts) point of view.

Dominique Dunne/Rebecca Schaeffer- How are these two cases connected you might ask? Sure, there are some differences, but the greatest similarity involved how two men grew obsessed with these rising stars and managed to kill them before their careers truly took off. Dunne was a rising film star who had a breakthrough role in 1982's Poltergeist and she entered a relationship with a young chef named John Sweeney. Their relationship was a complicated one where Sweeney seemed to have an obsessive nature that made it clear to her prominent family, which included her father Dominick Dunne, that she would have a hard time escaping him. Unfortunately, they were right. After she broke things off, Sweeney came to her home and managed to strangle her to death outside while she was rehearsing lines with a fellow actor. She was in a coma for days and finally died on November 4, 1982. The ensuing murder trial ended up with Sweeney getting a lighter prison sentence than he deserved. In Schaeffer's case, she was a television star in the show My Sister Sam, which ran from 1986-1988. During that time, she managed to attract the unwanted attention of Robert John Bardo, a super fan, who had a strong obsession for her. He wrote increasingly disturbing letters and managed to find a private eye who could get Schaeffer's address from the DMV. He managed to ring her doorbell and he proceeded to shoot her. Schaeffer's death ended what could've been a high profile career in film before it had the chance to take off. Her legacy managed to change the anti-stalking laws to make it harder for stalkers to obtain your address from the DMV. It's a shame that it took at tragedy like that to occur to make lawmakers to sit up and take notice that stalking laws needed to be changed.

Cleopatra Poster
Cleopatra Poster
Princess Diana
Princess Diana

Tabloid Mainstays

Elizabeth Taylor- Like Judy Garland, another child star who started their career in the studio system; Taylor had a series of personal and professional ups and downs. She's had some stormy relationships and multiple marriages through the course of her lifetime. There were two particular ones that earned her a solid place in the tabloids. She suffered a major loss with the unexpected death of her third husband Mike Todd in a plane crash in 1958. Her loss led her to be comforted by his best friend Eddie Fisher, who was married at the time to good girl Debbie Reynolds. Their closeness through shared grief led to an affair and eventual marriage in 1959. That wasn't Taylor's only scandal filled relationship. While married to Fisher, she went onto make 1964's Cleopatra, which led her to a media heavy affair with her also married costar Richard Burton. The media loved to cover the story and the Catholic Church condemned their relationship, but it didn't stop them from being together and marrying, and divorcing, twice. They costarred in countless films due to their chemistry, but that attraction also led to some tension that ended up ruining them in the end. Taylor's luck with men led her to be an icon and a tabloid mainstay until the day she died.

Princess Diana- The ultimate tragedy due to relentless media coverage. The paparazzi follow her wherever she went and pushed Diana to her limits in life. From her 1981 marriage to Prince Charles to their 1996 divorce, the media attention didn't stop. As she tried to find a new love, the media was around every corner. The paparazzi's intense scrutiny led to a series of unfortunate events led to her death in 1997 via a car crash in Paris, France. Her deaths and those of two others in the crash was blamed on the driver's blood alcohol level, but the paparazzi was the object of scorn by many. It created some new laws that helped to change how the press could scrutinize a public figure. Let's hope that similar circumstances don't repeat with her daughter in law Meghan Markle and how the press examines every detail in her life.

The Godfather Poster
The Godfather Poster
Hot Shots Part Deux Poster
Hot Shots Part Deux Poster
The Wiz Poster
The Wiz Poster

Famous Family Scandals

Marlon Brando- For decades, actor Marlon Brando made a name for himself for his intense performances in various films projects(On the Waterfront and The Godfather to a name a few). He also made a name for himself as an activist and being an unconventional man off camera. Unfortunately, he also developed a reputation for having tumultuous relationships with various women and multiple marriages. Sure, his reputation as being difficult to work with caused some of his films to have some extra level of controversy. His later day films had him focusing on flash instead of substance around the 1990s. It can simply be partially explained by the events of May 16, 1990. His son Christian fatally shot his half sister Cheyenne's boyfriend Dag Drollet at his father's home. The circumstances of what happened have been in contention ever since, but it led to Christian being arrested for manslaughter. The trial was a media sensation that had Brando on the witness stand at one point. The whole situation demonstrated how fame doesn't always provide happiness for a family. Christian went to prison for five years and Cheyenne ended up committing suicide in 1995. Sure, it brought stellar media coverage, but it also showcased a family falling apart.

Charlie Sheen- Where do we begin with Charlie Sheen's past? It's a lengthy rap sheet so to speak. He's been arrested for domestic violence and was even one of "Hollywood Madam" Heidi Fleiss' high profile clients. Sheen has had numerous stints in rehab and has been on the brink of death multiple times. He's had career comebacks to only crash and burn each time. He got ousted from his show Two and a Half Men during one of those crashes. Eventually, his hard charging lifestyle led to him being diagnosed as HIV Positive years ago. He seems to have mellowed out, but Sheen's career has been the same since he left Men.

Michael Jackson- When it comes to Michael Jackson, there are two camps. One who looked at him as a consummate performer at the height of his career in the 1980s and early 1990s. The other one believed that he was a pedophile who used his fame to sweep things under the rug. It's truly hard to say which side was correct. and it was also unfair to drudge up the negative side since his death in 2009. Jackson's life seemed to be basically about a kid who was forced to grow up too fast by jumping into the music industry at such a young age. He never got the opportunity to be a proper kid and picked up some youthful fascinations as an adult that might have been misconstrued. Either that, or he was legitimately guilty. We'll never know, but we'll at least have Thriller to listen to.

Rosemary's Baby Poster
Rosemary's Baby Poster
The Naked Gun Poster
The Naked Gun Poster
In Cold Blood Poster
In Cold Blood Poster

Sex, Lies and Murderous Intent

Roman Polanski- Around 1969, director Roman Polanski was literally on top of the world. He had a successful film with the hit Rosemary's Baby and was married to actress Sharon Tate. She was also pregnant and the pending birth was eminent. He just didn't expect that it would all be taken away by the murderous intent of Charles Manson and his family of followers. Manson's "family" came to their house and murdered everyone there, including Tate and their unborn child. The tragedy shook America to its core and destroyed Polanski. In 1977, he was charged with drugging and raping a 13 year old girl. Polanski fled the country in 1978 and had never been back to the United States ever since. He has continued to have a successful film career and won an Oscar for 2002's The Pianist, but the Academy voted to expel the director due to the controversy that continues to surround him to this day.

OJ Simpson- Simpson's career as a pro football player earned him a reputation for his prowess on the field. When he retired, he turned his signature charm into being a commentator, commercials and into acting gigs. He appeared in numerous films, including The Naked Gun franchise. Sadly, his charm also hid a jealous side that only his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson managed to get the brunt of. By 1994, they were divorced and she was moving on with her life, until she was brutally murdered along with her friend Ronald Goldman. The prime suspect was none other than her ex-husband OJ Simpson. This led to an infamous police car chase with OJ in the back of a white Ford Bronco. The trial was legendary and lasted for months on television. Every nook and cranny was on the airwaves. It made a legend out of his lawyer the late Johnny Cochran who knew how to spin in the media. This led to a not guilty verdict in 1995 and OJ losing in a civil trial. Simpson was convicted and sent to prison for another crime, but many still feel that justice wasn't served for this one. His case was chronicled in season one of FX's American Crime Story: The People Vs. OJ Simpson.

Robert Blake- For some Blake is remembered for his role in 1967's In Cold Blood or the 70s television show Baretta. For many, he was remembered for being accused of murdering his wife Bonnie Lee Bakley in 2001. He was tried for the crime in 2005 and ended up being acquitted of the charges. Although, he was found liable in a civil trial in 2005 as well. Since the civil trial, Blake has led a quiet life outside of the public eye and no longer had custody of his daughter with Bakley.

A Hard Day's Night Poster
A Hard Day's Night Poster
All Eyez on Me Poster
All Eyez on Me Poster
Notorious Poster
Notorious Poster
The Assassination of Gianni Versace Poster
The Assassination of Gianni Versace Poster

Violent Crimes

John Lennon- Throughout the course of his musical career, John Lennon liked to push the envelope. He was also a creative force into writing partnership with fellow member of The Beatles Paul McCartney. When the band broke up in 1970, it allowed him to spread his wings as a solo artist and experiment in ways he never did before. On December 8, 1980, he was heading home when a lying in wait Mark David Chapman shot him and managed to fatally wound him. Lennon died once he made it to the hospital. It was a shocking crime because it showcased how celebrity and obsession can have deadly consequences if not carefully monitored. Many people in Chapman's life missed the warning signs and as a result Lennon's family and fans were robbed of his presence.

Tupac Shakur/Notorious B.I.G.- East Coast versus West Coast. That was what this 90s rap rivalry was billed as at the time. Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls were once friends in the early days of their musical careers, but time seemed to change things for them. Diss tracks and a lot of misconceptions led to their premature demises. Shakur was murdered in Las Vegas when the car he was in was sprayed with bullets at a stop light in 1996. On March 9, 1997, Biggie Smalls was killed as well. Both murders have remain unsolved to this day and have been inexplicably linked due to their musical rivalry. Their deaths led to increased interest in their music and spanned bio films about their short lives 2009's Notorious and 2017's All Eyez on Me).

Gianni Versace- In season two of FX's American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace showcased the rise and brutal 1997 murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace at the hands of serial killer Andrew Cunanan. Versace was an iconic fashion designer living in Miami and was a successful gay man. He was everything that Cunanan wasn't, which caused an obsession and led to Versace being on a killer's hit list. It's tragic that the police couldn't prevent it by finding a way to coordinate with out of state criminal offenses. That happened as a result of Versace's murder, which was a shame for everything involved, including his family.

Phil Spector- Spector was a legendary music producer known for his erratic behavior and fondness of brandishing his larger firearm collection to women. In 2002, he was accused of murdering actress Lana Clarkson. It brought large media attention and two trials. He was finally convicted and sentenced to 19 years to life in 2009. A sad chapter that tainted his legacy as a music producer.

In conclusion, a good scandalous story is in the eye of the beholder. Some celebrities are just destined to be scandalous (Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor, etc.); meanwhile some cases are meant to draw media attention (Natalie Wood and Jon Benet Ramsey to name a few). It's just the name of the game in an industry that orchestrated itself as to being famous for only 15 minutes, or at least what Andy Warhol deemed it as so. Every now and again, celebrities can transcend their scandalous stories, while some just sink under the muck and mire of it.

Currently, Meghan Markle seemed to be a target of attention and unrelenting scorn for the simple act of marrying Prince Harry. Every move she made or private family drama was put under the microscope. In a recent interview, she has addressed that her union with Harry has been great, but challenging due to the media attention. A rare move for a member of the British royal family to express their feelings so openly. It's hard to say if this strategy will either harm or help her in the future.

Media coverage and celebrity often go hand in hand. News coverage can end either making or breaking a person. It can even determine if a person is innocent or guilty at a murder trial. Playing to the media can sway the court of public opinion to a defendant's favor or against them if their cards aren't played right. Image was a powerful way to stay out of jail, or end up with a shorter prison sentence. Honesty is sometimes the best policy if you spin it a certain way to make your mistake or crime look better. As along as Hollywood has celebrities, there will be scandals to fill the gossip rags. That's just a fact of life no matter how you slice it. Accept the good with the bad, and change the channel it was not your cup of tea.


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