This is our rare Stop the Presses post. For those times when even the Chair feels compelled to speak mid-week.
The national zeitgeist exploded this weekend with three huge stories – well, actually two huge stories and a third that promised to be. They were:
- The Super Bowl
- The untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman
- The first extended public accusation from a now adult Dylan Farrow that the filmmaker and then “adopted” father Woody Allen sexually molested her when she was 7 years old.
In case you were wondering, the Super Bowl emerged as the one unexciting non-story of the three even though it turned out to be the most watched program in television history with 115.2 million viewers.
But there was little excitement watching the Seattle Seahawks trounce the Denver Broncos 43-8. How could there be when the winner of a contest is never in doubt? It made even the commercials feel dull and expected.
Not so with a lifeless Mr. Hoffman, found slumped over in the bathroom of his NYC apartment with a needle in his arm and up to fifty baggies of heroine on the premises. Nor was it the case with Ms. Farrow’s riveting written outcries and accusations against Mr. Allen and the litany of beloved movie stars who still choose to work with him, as posted on Nicholas Kristof’s NY Times blog.
We don’t like dull and expected, at least in this country. But we do love a good celebrity anything. Which is the primary reason why the zeitgeist is still reeling, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future, from Mr. Hoffman’s demise and Ms. Farrow’s grizzly tale of personal family drama.
I don’t mean to sound heartless or unmoved by these two tragedies. They’re awful, and tragic and worth any series of emotional, physical or verbal reactions people are throwing out onto social media or in person to friends and family. And I count myself as one among those people.
But still –
They. Happen. To. Everyone.
Drugs? Sexual abuse? This horrible stuff is in the news daily. Plus, we already knew that Mr. Hoffman has had severe drug problems in the past and as recently as six months ago did a stint in rehab. We were also aware for years Ms. Farrow and her family believed Mr. Allen sexually abused her and that in the last three months both her mother Mia Farrow and her brother Ronan Farrow have publicly taken to Twitter and Vanity Fair in order to advance Dylan’s accusations back onto the national stage against the seemingly constantly lauded Mr. Allen.
The only real connection to the public zeitgeist here – and it is not shocking at all – is that both of these stories involve celebrity.
We all have a very screwed up idea of what it means to be famous, privileged, wealthy and/or talented in this country. And it’s only getting worse. But here are some truisms I try to remember after many decades working among them in the business called, not coincidentally, show.
- You might feel like you know a famous person by their work or reputation but in reality you know very little about the real them. In some cases, they may know very little about the real them. Or they may know a lot but they are choosing not to share it with you. That emotional connection you feel through their art is wonderful – but it is the art you’re connected to, not the person. And art can’t overdose.
- Being privileged and wealthy is a double-edged sword. So is celebrity. Nothing at all comes without a downside. It is certainly more comfortable to grow up in a sumptuous Manhattan apartment or a mansion in Beverly Hills but it is not always an environment more enviable than your parents’ ranch home in the dull suburbs or the cramped two bedroom/one bathroom you shared with them and a sibling. Though it is possible that it might be a more desirable environment. Once again, the fact is that you never will know for sure.
- Think about the worst photo of yourself ever taken and consider whether you’d want to see it blown up several feet bigger at a bad angle for all the world to see and comment about on every social media platform known to man. (Note: Yes, you might already duplicate and post larger than life versions of yourself publicly in varying degrees of duress or undress… or your friends might) but the world is not terribly interested.
- Okay, now that you’ve done that think of the worst thing that has ever happened to you and consider doing the same thing with it – at least metaphorically. (Note: That is, if you can even think of a metaphor. If not, just use the actual moments of the event and treat it like an endless, tawdry stream of pictures and posts and gossip and news stories on Facebook, Twitter, Entertainment Tonight, The New York Times and The Nightly News that will never quite disappear).
The L.A. Times’ Kenneth Turan on Monday published an appreciation of the many brilliant and diverse roles the mega-talented Mr. Hoffman played in the movies and onstage in his 46 short years. The headline of the story read: He Could Be Anyone.
This did much more than address Mr. Hoffman’s talents for transformation as an actor. It commented on his death, Ms. Farrow’s past traumas (change the pronoun to “she”), and on any number of public scandals we’ve become fascinated by in each passing year. Just like the story of what happened to your friend, relative, or casual acquaintance from the neighborhood or office, there is no simple answer as to why. Nor is there a truly satisfying explanation for any of it
Food for thought.