Woody Allen satirises our obsession with celebrity in his new film. Simon Fanshawe says it is time to stop sanctifying sensation and start recognising people who achieve something real
Woody Allen once said “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.” It looks like in the end he might achieve it by becoming the lover of his ex-wife’s adopted daughter. In the past couple of years his life has gone from the arts pages of the broadsheets to the front pages of the tabloids and turned into an episode of the Jerry Springer show. So it’s hardly surprising that his latest film is called Celebrity and has a cast of characters that include a guest list of modern-day parasites – models, movie brats, plastic surgeons, weathermen, chatshow hosts, and even a mention of Sonny Von Bulow who is only famous because she is in a coma.
Previously Woody was only known, or at least loved, by the kind of people who went to cinemas where they sell carob cake rather than popcorn. But transgression has made him a celeb. The papers carry long-range pictures of him with his forbidden lover and their baby and he finally appeared on Parkinson – solo. The last person to do that was George Michael and, as he himself pointed out, he had had to get his todger out in public to achieve it.
George joined Hugh Grant on the short list of the pay-and-display famous who have managed to parlay notoriety into self-deprecating owning up. They both just used to be stars but now they’re celebs too. Grant has even managed to edge himself back up the celebrity ladder alongside his girlfriend, Elizabeth Hurley. We no longer stand in awe of them as gods of fame, but regard them closer up as mortals with flaws. The famous have slid from the top of Mount Olympus down to the plains where mere humans dwell: they are no longer even representations of ordinary life but ordinary life itself.
The perfect example is Maureen Rees. When a woman who drives a car in much the same way as John Prescott speaks the English language becomes a national figure it is almost unnecessary to repeat that we live in a climate obsessed with creating celebrity. Alongside Maureen Rees in Driving School sit Eileen Downey in Hotel and, most terrifyingly, the apparently tone deaf Jane McDonald from The Cruise who became the defining faces of television last year. McDonald, who by now has had a number one hit and her wedding featured in a TV documentary, even presented a BAFTA award in May. It was one for factual programming, although her creation as a public figure is closer to fiction.
In Woody Allen’s movie there is a pivotal moment when a child is asked to tell his granny who came to speak at his school that week. He explains that it was a man who had been a hostage in the Lebanon. From what he says we recognise a kind of Terry Anderson type. “Why’s he famous?” the granny wonders. “He just got caught”. But he didn’t just get caught. Like McDonald, Rees and Downey, he got famous because he got caught on TV.
The emergence of stars is generally dated from the theatre of the 18th century with such actors as Garrick, Sarah Siddons and Edmund Kean. They and a number of others became famous separately from the characters they played. As the theatre became financially and professionally more viable they moved away from playing prescribed roles and became known in their own right. In movies the key event in the creation of a star is generally taken to be the planting of a story in 1910 in the St Louis Post-Dispatch that Florence Lawrence, “the Biograph Girl”, had been killed in a trolley car accident. She was in fact at home and quite well. And the producer who spun the original deceit, Carl Laemml, promptly took an ad in the trade press the following day denouncing it as a vicious lie.
There always has been a great deal of fiction in the creation of a star. God’s gift to women Rock Hudson was never straight and goody-goody Doris Day was divorced. In fact the fiction surrounding Judy Garland was precisely what made her a great star. As critic Richard Dyer has pointed out, we all knew that her family, her daughters, her marriage to Vincente Minnelli, her extraordinary smile and her remarkable vivacity on screen was an unreality for her. It was the fact that her “normality” was an act that made her an icon, in particular to a gay culture that knew all about brave pretence.
Individual stars embody the contradictions of their age. That’s what makes them stars. And we know what that means when we think of Monroe, Dean, Hepburn , Davis, Tracy, Stewart, Streisand, Newman, Beatty, Redford, Madonna, Dylan, Springsteen, Cruise and maybe even Julia Roberts. Celebrities, however, embody nothing at all as individuals. Ex-prime ministers’ sons, minor marrying royals, weather girls who sell topless photos, hounded rugby captains, Page Three girls, Paula Yates, Melinda Messenger and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson exist only as a group. Their sole aim is to get themselves for any reason whatsoever on to the other side of the velvet rope in life and encourage us to believe that we can do it too. They – and we – are driven by nothing but fame itself. Together they do embody one great contradiction of our age. The drive away from elitism and towards equality none the less demands new elites and new inequalities.
This New Celebrity is a complicated mixture. There’s money in there for sure, but you also have to add breasts, sin and, worst of all, feelings. Pools winner Viv Nicholson, one of the first New Celebs, perfectly, and significantly at the beginning of a time of prosperity, captured the thrill of being catapulted from charlady to Croesus in 1961 in her exhilarating call to shopping, “Spend, Spend, Spend.” Now she’s a Jehovah’s Witness in Wakefield with only the riches of the kingdom of God to look forward to as she followed her own exhortation to the letter and has none of her £152,000 win left.
At the start of the 70s girls billed as having little in their heads and lots in their bras showed that you could make an indecent living from Page Three. All you needed was attractive breasts, which unlike talent you could acquire. And with earnings for the more successful girls at £100,000 a year you can only agree with John Berger’s assertion that “glamour cannot exist without envy”. The roll call continues through Mastermind winners, instant Lottery millionaires, streakers, footballers’ exes, air stewards, models with safety-pin dresses: a heady cocktail of what the sociologist Leo Lowenthal called heroes of consumption. Fame originally touched those who did, those who achieved – the inventors, the conquerors, the leaders. Now it alights on the shoulders of those who “stem predominantly from the sphere of consumption and organised leisure time”, which in plain language means actors and sports people. They become models of consumption for every one of us.
But at least, never mind how indolent Jack Nicholson or Faye Dunaway might be, stars in some way tell our stories. Celebrities however, at inordinate and dreary length, just tell their own. The heart of myth and collective tales has been ripped out of fame and now we are just exposed, through the false idea that to talk about something is to act on it, to newspapers and television dignifying the lives of perfectly ordinary people with an aura of specialness. Hit TV shows are now about things that we can all do ourselves, gardening, cooking and DIY. If we couldn’t do the latter it would be called “I do it on TV” – IDIOTV. And in parallel, celebrity is created from notoriety. OJ and Louise Woodward are not good old-fashioned moral warnings they are fictions created in the same mould as soaps. The elevation of Louise Woodward to the level of a Panorama interview is an absurdity as great as the prime minister speaking out in support of the Free Deirdre Raschid Campaign, when Ken Barlow’s ex was about to be gaoled on Coronation Street. They are all fictions in the service of profit and sales. As are the false moralities that editors throw up to create the new Fallen Idols. Lawrence Dallaglio was only a role model for a narrow group of rugby enthusiasts until the editor of the News of the World decided he was a role model for everyone in order to tell the world that he wasn’t. He was only made famous in order to make him infamous. He had to be invented to sell newspapers. It’s the way with celebrity. It’s no surprise at all that Jerry Springer and Vanessa both made up stories and got actors to play out “real lives”. Just how different is that from EastEnders, where actors, who spend much time off set trying to look as glamorous as possible, are paid large amounts of money on set to be as convincingly ordinary as they can?
An age of increased social mobility inevitably devalues celebrity by making it more accessible. Real heroes and proper stars transcend that, in part by doing something that is genuinely out of the ordinary, achieving beyond even their own dreams, and in part by just making themselves more inaccessible. So then the daily diet of a vastly expanding media is filled with those who are the cousins to stardom. Stars stick their head above the crowd. But “celebs” are just ordinary people in the crowd who accidentally catch the spotlight looking for the stars. And there are signs that we’re tiring of them. So come in Monica Lewinsky, Grant Bovey, Julia Carling and a thousand others on cable, your time is up.
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