Posted by Richard Brody
“Stars—They’re Just Like Us,” a pictorial spread that runs in Us Weekly, is a favorite feature in our house. This week’s slender installment includes Penn Badgley (“They Bike Home!”) and Ashley Greene (“They Buy Gift Wrap!”). In many ways, it’s true, but it’s false in one decisive way—most of us don’t get photographed when we take out the trash or shop at the local farmer’s market, and stars’ awareness of being photographed, or of potentially being photographed, can’t help but distort their behavior. Anyone who has ever had the privilege of spending even a little time with notable actors (a frequent element of journalism) sees them being approached by strangers, noticed by strangers, or very deferentially yet conspicuously not noticed by strangers. Life in the spotlight is inseparable from the mere fact of being recognized—and, all the more, for being recognized with adulation and fascination. Yet the intrusion of paparazzi raises the distortion to another level—we know, from ordinary snapshots, that anyone can come out looking insane or foolish or menacing at offhand instants in daily life, but only the star, whose livelihood depends on public opinion, risks being harmed by the exposure and publication of their unguarded moments.
The matter came up in a couple of fascinating blog posts last week—first, one by Jodie Foster at the Daily Beast, in which she takes the example of the feeding frenzy over the breakup of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart as evidence of the destructive effects of today’s endemic celebrity coverage. Foster makes three salient points. First, that the attention is personally destructive to performers: “If I had to grow up in this media culture, I don’t think I could survive it emotionally.” Second, that obsessive media attention is artistically destructive for a performer: “The more fearless you are, the more truthful the performance. How can you do that if you know you will be personally judged, skewered, betrayed?” And, third, that such attention is morally wrong—that a career as an actor doesn’t entitle the public to a piece of the actor’s private life: “Just to set the record straight, a salary for a given on-screen performance does not include the right to invade anyone’s privacy, to destroy someone’s sense of self.”
Several days later, the blogger Nathaniel R. responded, at his site The Film Experience, with the assertion that every job comes with its personal toll and that the one that comes with acting is prying media attention:
I think everyone with a little perspective understands that the enormous salaries movie stars can command for only a few weeks work (remember Kristen Stewart made $34.5 million last year which is more than most of us will earn in a lifetime) are not paid to them for simply “giving an on-screen performance” as Foster states. The obscene salaries are in fact mortgage payments on Stardom. The crushing stacks of money can then be used to restore some Sacrified [sic] Privacy equilibrium in the form of bodyguards, impenetrably secure mansions, private jets, plenty of time to oneself in luxurious remote locales, and so on…
They’re both right. The attention is doubtless difficult for actors, and there’s no special moral justification for it—and yet, it is crucial to the very nature of acting. Actors differ from us in yet another way: they’re photographed not just taking out the garbage or walking the dog; they’re photographed having sex (or, rather, persuasively pretending to do so), committing murders (rather, doing a convincing imitation of a murderer), leading nations, fomenting revolutions, saving the planet from intergalactic marauders, and doing all sorts of other things in the realm of the extreme.
Most of us would do a pretty poor job of simulating extremes, in part because doing so is mainly a matter of bearing such extremes within, often due to having experienced some variety of them; few actors get by on imitative technique alone. This comes through when one has the pleasure of meeting major stars—they have an emotional intensity, responsiveness, and an audacity that leaves most civilians in the tranquil shade. Long before their stardom is earned, their private lives are often much more riotously passionate, daringly willful, and ecstatically, even self-destructively hedonistic—and it’s this voracity of experience that’s reflected in the onscreen performances that make their name and their fame. The fascination with their acting is inseparable from the fascination with their private lives, whether or not the details are known.
Goethe’s primordial bildungsroman, “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” from the seventeen-nineties, is the story of a bourgeois scion who follows his inclination for a career in theatre and finds himself in a troupe of exotic, mysterious outcasts who remain just beyond the edge of the respectable. A letter from 1777, when the author was in his late twenties, crystallizes the extra-moral fury of his art:
Annoyance, hope, love, toil, want, adventure, boredom, hatred, absurdities, foolishness, joy, the expected and the unforeseen, the shallow and the profound—all just as the dice falls, with festivities, dances, bells, silk and tinsel—a wonderful kind of life… . I’m afraid this joy won’t be yours… . Your “Thirst after Christ” makes me sorry for you. You are worse off than we pagans are, for our gods do appear to us in times of need.
Yes, writers, composers, and painters often live that way, too, fulfilling William Blake’s Proverb of Hell “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” But, unlike these creators behind the curtain, actors display and dispense their furious wisdom in their person. Our cinematic ecstatics often go too far; they always have (but in earlier eras, tyrannical studios and Cerberus-like publicists rode herd on journalists and officials to tone down unwanted exposure), and they have become transcendent, holy, feared survivors. Britney, Lindsay, Liz, Robert, Charlie, and Russell all raised and lived some variety of hell, and their power to come through it and to deliver the unbearable yet astonishing news onscreen only adds to their allure.
Parents counsel their children to stay to the straight and narrow, to follow the path of caution and prudence, even while paying to see reckless children embody the follies they can only imagine. And asking why there’s such demand, expressed with slavering intensity, to see the idols of passion in the flesh or in the world and why paparazzi and their publishers respond to this demand is like asking why Prohibition and drug laws have been such failures. It isn’t that reality isn’t enough; it’s that we know reality to be bigger, deeper, wilder, and stranger than the life at hand, and we want more of it—even by way of shortcuts that cheapen it.
P.S. There’s another type of celebrity, one that remains even more closely bound to the wild life: the Kardashian/Hilton sort, or, stardom without talent.