Watching an online clip of Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair made me realize that being famous today can’t possibly have the perks it once had. Sure, people scream and go crazy when they see you on the TIFF red carpet BUT people scream and go crazy when they see you on the TIFF red carpet. More distressing is the fact that regardless of what you signed up for (say decades of exceptional film making and archetypal iconography that virtually outstrips most of your peers) you can be taken apart and deconstructed in the most humiliating way seconds after a poorly judged public appearance.
This is no apologia for Clint. He had it comin’. But the excessive nature of judgment, the tone of social media being always in high pitch, had the resultant effect of a kind of po-mo theatrical comedia del arte: the creation of a clown for all our sins.
In medieval Europe a lot of theatre was done in masks so that performers could easily move from happy face hero to nasty faced villain during their temporary and mobile presentations. Of course acting became an art form over the next several centuries peaking with the great melodramatic artists of the late nineteenth century. In the 20th century film turned the art form inward and Marlon Brando was created.
Now, however, we have these things called celebrities who make several movies a year, do very little acting in them and look really good walking on a carpet. More important than their actual portrayals in the films is how they handle their publicity. In fact, most speculation about these celebs never has anything to do with acting but the details of their often really boring lifestyles. A good celeb knows how to make public appearances work and keeps the Twitter feed to a minimum.
Most importantly celebs are products that are worth money. Like Coke or a McD hamburger, Kirsten Stewart makes many people very rich. It seems just a little disingenuous to make fun of Clint’s big misstep but not have a problem with our standard excepted belief that Hollywood operates with good will. And celebs are just a happy distraction from our dreary, non-limousine / hired staff existence. Many of these people do film for the money, not to be artists. Unlike Clint most are not artists but very photographable, narcissistic and obedient people. It wasn’t weird that a Hollywood icon stepped up at the Republican convention, it was just unusually honest.
Hollywood may be a bastion of liberal progressives but you can bet that belief system does not interfere with paychecks. Money is the accepted dogma of film. Last year Occupy Wall Street protesters were aggressively dealt with by authorities but shutting down acres of Manhattan for the latest Batman movie went unruffled. Why? Because the film company paid for the disruption. As David Lean, the director of Lawrence of Arabia once said, “this business is millionaire stuff.”
If you stepped out from your mask in theatre, you were no longer a player. Today there is virtually no difference from the ‘mask’ or persona of a celeb and their real selves. Or that is what they want us to believe. They insist that they are normal, like us but no one who gets paid five hundred grand for three months work is like anyone, except the other people who do the same thing. It’s a narrative that exists for a reason. And Clint Eastwood, along with Mel Gibson, Joaquine Phoenix, Charlie Sheen and many other whacked out celebrities who’ve decided to just be themselves isn’t good for business. Vilifying them is the construct needed in order to keep people buying into the idea that movies and celebrities are good for us. Everyone has to agree to believe, kind of the like the end of the stage show Peter Pan when we all have to clap and make Tinkerbell come back.
We seem to need these performers to implode and ruin themselves occasionally. We need clowns, not just the ones that make us happy but the ones that take off their mask and tell truths, awful hard truths. Sometimes the truth is eloquent and heroic, it inspires us, and sometimes it reveals something ugly and just seems crazy like an old guy talking to an empty chair.