As someone who spends great big chunks of her time writing about film and television, it seems perhaps a tad incongruous that I’m no fan of celebrity culture.
Put simply however, I find the elevation of entertainers, athletes, whoever to the status of being our betters to be abhorrent. This isn’t to dismiss talent, dedication or triumph-over-adversity, but rather, that I find its worship despicable.
The peculiarity of devotion aside, for those stars treated to the pedestal, the experience is often treacherous. Folks, for example, completely incapable of being “role models” get thrust into the part. Cue a drug bust or salacious awards show performance.
Equally so, people who are broken or flawed or downright bloody evil, can in the same breath be brilliant actors/superb athletes/great and powerful auteurs. The public love fest for them however, means that rather than audiences sanely separating art from artist, instead, reevaluations of masterpieces like Chinatown (1974) and September (1987) transpire all because celebrity culture dictates that we take too much interest in the person behind the oeuvre.
Alas, such worship continues and, truth be told, I really don’t care enough to grab a megaphone and try to stop it. What does pique my interest however, is what celebrity culture has done to my ability to relate to famous people. To mourn them, or not so in my case.
During Sunrise’s reporting on the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman this week, David Koch commented that such a death reminds us that celebrities are real people with real problems.
Happiness (1998), Magnolia (1999), 25th Hour (2002), The Savages (2007) and Synecdoche, New York (2008) are amongst my favourite films. Hoffman starred in each: it’s important that I note that I considered him as incredibly talented, but acknowledge that he was someone I had zero interest in - zero investment in - off screen.
A consequence of fame and accolades and private lives lived on the public record results in me not thinking of Hoffman – not thinking of any celebrity, in fact - as a real person. I never think about their real lives or their daily struggles. This isn’t because I’m a heartless shrew, but rather because celebrity culture has packaged them for me as a product. I buy them when I purchase a ticket to a movie; I buy them if I pick up a gossip rag. They aren’t people to me, they are objects.
When a celebrity dies, I’d be lying if I claimed any sadness, any grief. In fact, I’d be lying if I divulged any emotion whatsoever other than perverse curiosity about the where, the when and the how. With exactly the same motivation as reading a novel or watching a film.
Callous? Hard-hearted? Unsympathetic? Or perhaps just reluctant to being manipulated.
Let’s back it up a little. Long before the release of The Truman Show (1998), I was privately convinced I was actually living that storyline. Not that my life was a reality television show exactly, but rather, as a kid I intermittently had the vague - and, on hindsight, thoroughly egotistical - feeling that everything wasn’t real. That the world around me was being performed for my benefit.
The Truman Show promptly snapped me out of my madness. Had it continued into adulthood however, and I quite possibly would have been diagnosed with something psychiatric and marvellous.
I’m not going to speculate on why people suffer from The Truman Show delusion. For me however, I blame celebrity culture.
Tabloids and awards shows, TMZ and E!News each pitch us the idea that celebrities are different to us; that their lives are better, more exciting, more dramatic. That their very existence is worth following, that their garbage bins are worth scouring.
If we considered celebrities to be “like us”, gone is their star power, gone is their ability to fill a cinema, and gone are the industries cashing-in on our desperation for deities. It’s essential therefore, that we keep thinking of them as unreal and untouchable.
So when a celebrity goes off the rails, when they get busted cheating on their partner or when they go on an extensively papped bender, my assumption is that this is just part of their public story, their package. These people aren’t my friends - aren’t my loved ones - they are products. They are products and their doings are just spectacles played out for my entertainment.
Just as their films and their songs and their Olympic medals are each presented for me to partake of - to delight in - equally so, their failures, their adversities and quite possibly even their deaths are presented exactly the same way.
The celebrity trajectory is familiar to us. Quite possibly too much so. In fact, nowadays, when the news offers me a Breaking Story, I think either terrorism or celebrity death.
Actually, much more shocking to me than any famous deaths are the reactions of those around me. People in my orbit who are going on Facebook and Twitter and declaring devastation.
I don’t understand the mourning of people not known to us personally. And yet I know perfectly well that celebrity culture is built on the idea of making us feel like we know these stars well enough to consume them ravenously. Equally, I know that grief is strange and subjective. And if I can cry listening to The Smiths, then I guess people who don’t know Hoffman outside of his work can grieve for him. It’s just all very strange to me.
I’m currently hosting a 4-part “Wednesday Mornings” radio show for 3RRR. You can listen to the first and second episodes online. Episode 3 goes to air live on February 5th at 9am: RRR 102.7FM: we’ll be talking Melbourne fashion, Melbourne food and Melbourne tourism.