Lance. Jodie. Manti Te’o. What are we to do about you? You thrill us. Then you disappoint us. Then you thrill us again. And then you drop us down even further. Have a heart. And just be real.
Of course, that’s exactly what we DON’T want you to do, despite what we say. We’re like a put upon boyfriend or girlfriend who begs their untrustworthy mate to be honest and then, when faced with their true self, angrily throws the book at them along with the front door and whatever else we can grab. And since I have been in this position at least once in my life I can honestly testify to the truth of this action. This is not to say that I wanted to NOT know the truth and to remain living in the lie. It’s more – I wanted confirmation that the person who I loved was, indeed, the person I thought that I had chosen to love, rather than who they really were.
This is unfair and does not make for good relationships. But it is what hero worship is about. And that’s what we’re talkin’ here. Or maybe it’s a potential reality show called Heroes: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Yes, the latter is more like it. That avoids words like lies and truth and anything in between. Because once you go there you get into very murky territory (as the military can tell you). There’s a reason why despite all the remakes and sequels you will only learn so much about Batman, Superman, Spiderman or even our much-maligned Cat Woman, even though you’re sure you know everything. But they are fictional creations where filmmakers (or other makers) are in control, and every really great creative artist knows better than to tell-all.
However, this is not the case in our current age of mass celebritydom, which can be confirmed by watching any one of a parade of B-stars on reruns of Celebrity Fit Club or Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. You will find out and/or see more than you ever wanted to realize about recognizable names like Sean Young, Brigitte Nielson and Jeff Conaway (RIP) and be none the better for it. Nor, will they. In fact, though a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, in some public cases it will, indeed, work quite nicely.
Which brings us back to this week’s live celebrity superheroes and the people who love them (the latter of whom would be us). We’ve had quite a week. And it’s hard to know where to start. But I say, let’s go for the gusto.
There was something about watching (now former) seven time Tour de France champion cyclist Lance Armstrong confessing his lies about a long history of illegally drugging his body to celebritydom’s mother confessor Oprah on international television that was the worst kind of cliché. And yet, it was fascinating and riveting and featured two superheroes – one at the height of their super-powers (Oprah) and the other forced into an arena stripped of everything that once made them the most formidable force on the planet. Imagine Christian Bale’s Batman in the black suit and with full arsenal (Oprah) fighting a Tobey Maguire Spiderman (the Lanceman) with zero accessibility to anything Web-based (a daunting task for any of us these days.. oh and pun intended) and you can sort of get the picture.
Lance is a survivor of stage-three cancer whose name has raised mega-millions of dollars for a cancer education and prevention organization called Livestrong that has helped untold numbers of people psychologically, financially and even physically. For those reasons alone, he will always be somewhat okay in my book. But I’m not a sports fan and after a lifetime in the entertainment industry I know that no one – not one person – that you know from their public image is ever, ever, ever giving you the full truth of all that they are. In fact, often they are disappointing in real life simply because as mere mortals they can NEVER live up to the carefully constructed image of what they are resonating in the zeitgeist.
Nor, if they want to survive, should they. Because if all is exposed then nothing is protected. And with more than 7 billion people in the world, that makes you a pretty easy target.
The problem for Lance Armstrong is two fold. One is the boldness of the lie upon lie and the other is the denial of such once he was caught. Though he operated in a haze of credibility for years, he and Oprah pretty much acknowledged that had he not tried to make his last big comeback in the last decade he might have “gotten away with” all of his previous wins and no one would have ever been the wiser. Yet the truth – as anyone who has really known a celebrity can testify to – is that it takes a real-life superhero to walk away from that status (and those are rare, if they exist at all). I mean, once you’re a god with all of the perks it affords, you begin to believe you ARE a god so why would you ever want to be simply human again??? For love? For sanity? For…humility? Are you kidding????
Yet this activity also fostered The Lanceman’s escalating denials – which proved to be his version of Kryptonite. There was no way he could stay in the game without upping his vitriolic disownment of the real truth. And every time he did this, he got more famous (or infamous) and further away from reality, thus making his superhero achievements even bigger and more open to public consumption than they ever were. Consequently, the perch from where he would inevitably fall grew higher and higher – prompting some to dub him the “biggest liar” in the history of sports or, perhaps, humankind.
The latter hardly seems fair or true, though certainly those are not adjectives to be applied in this kind of discussion. Yes, we know he was a bully who took down other people in his way. And uh huh, we acknowledge he ripped off his competitors and the organizations that touted him by his “lies” and “win at any cost” strategies. But worst of all – he’s proven to us that rather than embody a superhuman version of the good part of the human spirit, he’s merely the man behind the curtain posing as The Wizard Of Oz – a man who in real life is equal parts great and awful — a reflection of the best and the worst of our qualities. Quelle Suprise.
There are very few 50 year-old movie stars who have been in the business for 47 years, won two best actress Oscars, directed three feature films and still find time to raise two seemingly very well-adjusted children. In fact, I can’t think of one — except Jodie Foster.
Then it shouldn’t be surprising that in recapping to us highlights of her life in a slightly odd, slightly rambling stream of consciousness speech while accepting a lifetime achievement award at this year’s Golden Globes, that she drew so much attention, concern, praise and vitriol – the kind usually reserved for some sort of superhero (or perhaps villain, depending on where one stands). Being exceptional and famous and on television can do this because you can never please everyone by being exactly and totally who you are in public.
If Ms. Foster were to have a superhero name I vote for Jodie Possible, after the TV cartoon heroine Kim Possible – because a) we know the likelihood of childhood star human survival to age 50 b)we know the likelihood of leading movie actress industry survival to age 50 and c)we know the likelihood of sanity and so many other forms of survival that seem to actually make Jodie IMpossible.
But what has not been traditionally super heroic to the mainstream (up until maybe this year?) for Ms. Foster is the fact that she is gay, or to put it even more precisely, a lesbian – two words she managed to clearly avoid yet more than hint at in the seven minute acceptance speech heard round the world. Ironically, that is part of what made her a bit of a superhero to me up until that night – the fact that she has lived her own sort of life all these years with intelligence and grace, often out of the spotlight yet hiding in plain sight of anyone who has driven through the hills and valleys of southern California.
So why is it that Jodie Possible’s speech, tinged with a tone of arch, dare I say it, anger, left me and a significant portion of others – confused, upset, disappointed and, dare I say it…pissed off? Why was she now so suddenly upset about celebrity culture when for years she wisely chose to ride above (or below) it? At a time when there are numerous out gay celebrities in 2013, why was she cryptically addressing her ex-female lover and personal life in odd language that implied some sort of public persecution for years by evil onlookers? Especially when today most people no longer care what she does in bed or are willing to give her a pass for secrecy because a crazed would-be assassin named John Hinckley famously said he was trying to prove his love for her when he shot some bullets at Pres. Ronald Reagan in the eighties?
The whole seven-minute speech was strange and uncomfortable in a way we weren’t used to from the public superhero named Jodie. What it also seemed to be was – honest. Sort of like when Tom Cruise went on Today and eschewed all of psychiatry to Matt Lauer, or spoke condescendingly about non-Scientologists on a famous You Tube tape espousing the superiority of all those in the upper echelons of his adopted religion.
In full disclosure, I’ve briefly met JF several times in passing (not making passes!) over the decades (once when she was a teenager and several more times as an adult) and have always found her to be nice, smart, classy and more normal than any 50 year-old former child star/still movie star should humanly be. This is why I was so taken aback by a side of her on television that I had never seen publicly or privately. Why so edgy? Why that look in her eye that implied she was capable of saying something she could never take back or, worse, something we could never forget or forgive her for? Well, why not? Why couldn’t she do all of those things and what difference does it make that she’s confused and disappointed me by not being Jodie Possible this one time? Unless, of course, this is who she really is and all of the other times on screen and the handful in person were just….acting. Which would mean, I’ve been duped. And – we (I?) don’t like that. Especially from superheroes we look up to.
But aside from all that fancy reasoning, here’s the one thing her speech really did teach me – all actors, even the really good ones – need writers. And I’m more than comfortable living with that.
THE MASK OF MANTI TE’O
This story is still unfolding and is still thoroughly confusing. To paraphrase the famous line from that classic hero worship film Love Story – what can you say about a 24-year-old college football player who was runner up for the coveted Heisman trophy, led his team to record victories weeks after enduring the gruesome deaths of his beloved grandmother and girlfriend on the same day, and won the heart of the sports world for doing so? That you loved him? That you looked up to him? Or — that he’s a pretty big liar and now you’re a pretty big jerk with egg on your face?
Note: The Love Story tag line, for those of you under 50
“What can you say about a 25 year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant. That she loved, Mozart and Bach,, the Beatles and………me?”
It appears that part of Manti Te’o’s aura is not just that he is a very good college linebacker (now turned pro, with an agent) who performed exceptionally well in a specific period of time, but that he did so against emotional odds heavy enough to inspire at least one or two after school specials or network TV movies if the industry still made them with the same amount of frequency they did in years past.
So imagine everyone’s outrage when it was unearthed this week that Manti’s (or Mr. Te’O – we haven’t been introduced) relationship with his girlfriend was not only an online “romance” with someone he never met despite all implications otherwise, but that she did not even exist in real life and that he was the victim of what he and his coaches claim was an elaborate internet hoax perpetrated on a naïve and purely trusting soul. So, you mean…he merely helped win all those games when just his beloved grandma was dying??? Well…I’m not sure if that counts at all….
What people say they are angry about in this case is not so much the reality but the deception and downgrading of the myth. Forget the fact that this guy can play football, but how dare he make up a girl who never existed, even if he didn’t know she existed at all!! And if he was in on it and was using the story of the death of this girl to make his achievements even more spectacular – well, that’s really despicable. I mean, it’s one thing to do that in a reality TV show (which everyone knows isn’t fact – or do they?) but this is real life.
Some people posit that there might be some compelling reasons for the fictional girlfriend who then died. The most popular of these is that Manti Te’O, a devout Hawaiian Mormon, is secretly gay and wanted to hide his private life because it goes against both his religions — those being both the Mormon faith and football. Well, I have no idea if this is true but here’s a thought – in the scope and meaning of life as it exists in 2013 – who really cares?
We need to grow up and know that in reality heroic human achievements are never done by superheroes. Translation: If someone’s story sounds too good and looks too good – usually it is too good. I learned this the hard way once when a bad movie deal that I desperately wanted to believe in went horribly bad. But we need to know it today in real life — which sports and the movies we watch are not. Not nearly. Not even close.