Apr 24, 2013

Cinematters: Public Faces, Private Moments

Yesterday I read this piece by Lisa Jakub, who was an actress as a child and appeared in, among others, Mrs Doubtfire and a personal favourite of mine, Joe Dante’s Matinee. You should read her piece in full, because it’s interesting and thought provoking, but in summary Jakub talks about flipping through a celebrity magazine; Us Weekly (think Heat, British readers) at the hairdressers, and being struck by the hypocrisy of a photo spread of famous people doing normal things, headlined “Stars: They’re Just Like Us”. As Jakub observes, if that were something that Us, or Heat, or the Daily Mail and its despicable sidebar of celebrity driven trash believed then they would have no reason to exist.

The piece made me think, just as the recent discussion around the Leveson report in the UK did about the way, whether as a fan or as a journalist, I relate to celebrity. We all, I think, value recognition. I certainly do. I enjoy hearing that people have heard of this site, that they like what I write or what I put out on my podcast, and I do work to promote those things through my Twitter account. I even, I admit, got a bit of a thrill when I heard that someone recognised me at a screening purely because of my voice, having heard it on the podcast. That said, I’ve no desire for fame, not even the sort of small time internet fame that people often achieve these days. Fame seems scary to me and the more I see it from the outside the less appealing being inside it looks. This (well, this and the fact that I hate having my picture taken) is why you almost never see my face on either my sites or my Twitter.

I went to a big London hotel recently to conduct an interview, and to get in I had to walk past a gaggle of screaming girls. They were not there for me, or, as it happens, for my interviewee. Justin Beiber was staying in the hotel. I sat in the lobby listening as perhaps thirty girls, most likely aged between 14 and 18 and skipping school to stand there screamed “We want Justin” over and over. You’d think that would be quite exciting; girls screaming your name, but even with only a handful there to me it seemed cultish and sad for the girls and probably rather scary for Beiber. In that moment it seemed pretty easy to see why famous people often go off the rails, dealing with that every day must warp your sense of reality. London being a media centre, and given that my job often takes me to places where there are famous people around, I’ve seen much worse things than this. The paparazzi are terrifying. I was walking to a screening once and ahead of me was a pack of paps photographing a young woman (apparently she was on the knockout stages of X Factor) as she walked to the gym. On another occasion, as I walked to the cinema in another part of London, I had to pass an even bigger phalanx of photographers who were waiting outside a hospital to photograph some poor soul.

I understand the argument that, at a certain point, a celebrity gives up their right to a normal level of privacy. Take someone like Katie Price, whose talent, if she has one (someone else writes her books) lies in self-promotion, who has sold her life for the last ten years in the form of glossy photo shoots, ‘reality’ TV series and frequent ‘auto’biographies. It would, perhaps, be unfair of her to expect not to be photographed when she goes out, but does that mean that if she were the celebrity those paps outside the hospital were waiting for it would be any less awful than if it had been someone who doesn’t court the limelight? I don’t think so. I think there’s a line, and of course each person draws it for themselves, but when the Daily Mail publishes a picture of pregnant actress Evan Rachel Wood’s scan, surely we can all agree that the line has moved beyond acceptability (even the Mail apparently agrees, as the article no longer appears on their site).

I don’t publish gossip on this site, and I don’t ask people about gossip in interviews because, while it’s nice to get the odd retweet from a name I recognise, or to meet someone that I admire (I’m not beyond asking for a signed DVD or Blu Ray, if it’s appropriate to do so), I ultimately am just not interested. It’s not that I don’t care what’s happening in people’s lives, if something sad happens in the life of someone I admire then I have sympathy, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to write about it or ask about it, unless it somehow directly relates to their work. This site, and my interest in actors and filmmakers, has always been driven by their work. I’ll happily read, or write, a story about Julianne Moore’s latest film but THIS kind of story, about her sitting at a basketball game with her 10 year old daughter (who, to the evident surprise of the Daily Mail, looks like her Mother) to me represents the death of journalism. That’s not news, it’s rubbernecking, plain and simple. It’s even more infuriating because the focus of much of the ‘story’ isn’t Julianne Moore but her child, who has done nothing to court the media except be born.

I understand the lure of certain paparazzi stories. For instance when Kate Middleton was photographed topless last year I understand why people went out of their way to see the pictures. The furore around them was almost certainly increased by the British press, suddenly coming over all pious, competing to see who could shout loudest about not printing them, but as much as anything there’s always going to be a thrill in seeing something you’re really not supposed to be allowed to see, especially when it’s an attractive woman with her top off. What I don’t understand is the mentality of people who write or read stories and gaze at photos of celebrities doing their shopping, or taking their kids to the park or engaged in any one of the other mundane daily activities the paps photograph. Where is the fascination as a reader? And where, as either a journalist or a reader is the sense of empathy?

This isn’t to say that I think journalists should refrain from personal questions. In her piece Lisa Jakub observes that teen magazines used to want to know about her favourite foods and movies. The second of these is, I think, very valid. It’s something I ask actors and filmmakers about as a matter of course, first because I think it’s actually extremely informative and potentially insightful to understand what someone who works in film likes in film, and secondly because it’s the sort of thing I’ll ask anyone I’m talking to within five minutes. There are other things that could be seen as purely personal, but which I think can and should be asked about on occasion. For instance, I don’t generally care what someone’s religious convictions are, but to leave that out of a discussion about Battlefield Earth with John Travolta would almost be negligent. The same goes for politics, usually I wouldn’t care much what someone’s political opinions are, but if a film invokes political issues then that’s a fair question. I still can’t see any context in which photographing someone as they go to get coffee is useful or insightful though.

Celebrity is a thorny issue, and I can absolutely see why Lisa Jakub and her Mrs Doubtfire co-star Mara Wilson both decided largely to leave it behind. I hate the way it’s reported on, and I suspect many of you reading this do too. Ultimately I think the best thing we can do as writers and readers is focus on the substantive things surrounding celebrity, and try our best to ignore the minutiae, because it will only ever go away if people stop looking.

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