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Defending Justin Bieber?! ... More platinum 'Buttah' for Barbra

Liz Smith

"THE STREETS of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry. Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little and even for nothing, and all the miracles of electronic dissemination somehow do not suffice for compensation...," wrote the intellectual Leon Wieseltier in the Times Book section last weekend.

But no matter how much we old fogies and young ones, too, complain -- time marches on.

TALKING "Downton Abbey: "But, surely you don't begrudge him that. The servants are human beings, after all."

"Yes. Of course they are. But preferably on their days off."

So it went between actors Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith, the eternally jousting dowagers of "Downton Abbey." Even when storylines get bogged down or drawn out -- Edith and baby Marigold, Anna and Bates, for pity's sake! -- these two fabulous women can be counted on to liven up the veddy English proceedings.

Dame Maggie does not even need dialogue; she does more with a raised eyebrow or lips pursed in perpetual disapproval than lesser actors can convey in an hour-long monologue.

Also, always dependable is Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary. The character has been briefly wed, is now a widow and is currently juggling three suitors. (She's bedded one and appeared to have found it pleasant, but not, shall we say, estate-shaking.)

The character of Lady Mary is heartily disliked by many viewers who find her cold. I think she's terrific. Not cuddly, for sure, but honest ("Edith ran off? So what?"), usually on the right side of things and not the insufferable snob that her father and grandmother are. Not down to earth, exactly, but considering her lifestyle, how could she be, and would we even want that?

Ms. Dockery, aside from Maggie and Penelope, is also given many of writer Julian Fellowes best lines, and she has a terrific talent for casual, throwaway witchy remarks. The knife slides in, but you're not aware until it hits a vital organ.

I'm still enjoying "Downton Abbey," but some characters and storylines are sapping "DA's" elegant, leisurely energy.

SHORT SHOTS: Generally, I wouldn't defend Justin Bieber even if my life depended on it. He's such a silly boy. But I think the kid got a raw deal with the business of his "un-retouched" Calvin Klein underwear ads. ("SNL" was merciless.) Go online and you can find dozens of recent shirtless shots of the tragically tattooed Bieber, looking fit and muscular. I believe the shots supposedly revealing the "real" Justin were the phonies.

....THE odd directorial debut of Angela Bassett bowed over the weekend on Lifetime. It was titled "Whitney" and concerned itself with a few years in the life of the late, great Whitney Houston. It should have been titled "Bobby Brown and Whitney" for all it revealed about the singer herself. The movie looked good, very good -- much better than most Lifetime fare -- and Yaya DaCosta, who played Whitney, was quite appealing. But why? Angela Bassett is an Oscar-nominated actress and a big name. Couldn't she have made her debut in something less exploitative? The Houston family actually disavowed the movie. Ms. Bassett clearly has a fine eye for film. Let's hope she moves on to projects more worthy of her talent. (However, the bottom line is -- ratings were high!)

...BARBRA Streisand continues historic! "Partners" is her 31st platinum album. Incredible. Funny thing is, from the moment Streisand erupted on the scene, back in the early 1960s, nobody said, "She'll never last!" Maybe there were grumblings from the start about her infamous perfectionism, occasional defensiveness and insecurity, but everybody knew -- she was a star for the ages. Even my hero Mike Wallace, who seemed to dislike her so intensely, realized Streisand was no run-of-the-mill celebrity. (Barbra thought Mike actually hated her! He didn't. He was always just looking to be controversial and confrontational.)

DO YOU remember the Eisenhower era when the tabloid New York Daily News was so full of advertising, comics, columnists, photos, etc., that they told newsboys not to throw it on your lawn; it might kill your dog?! Shortly after this, I was hired and the tabloids fortunes went downhill with the history of the times.

The News has been stayed from extinction so far by the determination of its current owner, Mort Zuckerman, who incidentally told me the other day that he stays young by having embraced (no, not another girlfriend) vegetarianism.

Anyway, I want to congratulate the News for having lured writer Linda Stasi away from the New York Post where she was wasted covering television.

Linda recently took out after the Rev. Al, writing, "Sharpton ... called an emergency meeting of his forces to discuss potential actions against the Academy Awards. ... In other words, he wants to march on the Oscars." (She means over their not naming the movie 'Selma" for many awards.) "But Sharpton, who could figure out how to milk a dead cow, has figured out how to milk the fat cats with the biggest cow -- the Hollywood cash cow -- and he's not about to stop now." And more stuff like that.

It doesn't matter whether most New Yorkers like Rev. Al, or not. I personally won't pay much mind to him until he takes some responsibility for the infamous Tawana Brawley case. He needs to apologize for his part in that, even though it is now ancient history.

Oh, you want to know who the gossip columnists were when there were three running on one page of the News each day? They were Ed Sullivan, Danton Walker and Bob Sylvester. They were followed by such talents as Aileen Mehle (Suzy) and yours truly.

(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)

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