Thursday, December 08, 2011

Fame: it's corrosive stuff

On December 6, actor Alec Baldwin had a public meltdown on an American Airlines flight. You may have heard a little about this incident from a number of different sources. The majority of them report that Baldwin was playing a game of Words with Friends when a flight attendant asked him to shut down his electronic device. When Baldwin subsequently refused, reportedly stalked into the airplane's lavatory, slammed the door, swore at flight attendants and otherwise behaved like a two-year-old child, he was removed from the plane.

What surprised me about this -- although maybe it shouldn't -- was the public response to Baldwin's little tantrum. While the preponderance of people seem to agree that he was overreacting and behaving childishly, an astonishing number of fans are siding with Baldwin. (And by "an astonishing number" I mean "any number above zero.") While accounts of his behavior differ, depending upon whom you ask, all accounts seem to agree on one important fact: the attendant was asking Baldwin to comply with FAA rules and regulations. Everyone else on the flight was required to shut down his or her electronic devices before the plane could pull back from the gate, so it was hardly an unusual request. And yet a small but vocal number of Baldwin fans seem to believe -- along with the actor himself -- that the modern rules of air transportation should not have applied to Alec Baldwin, whose need for continuous personal entertainment apparently takes priority over public flight safety procedures.

Some years ago author and speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote of an incident she observed at the 75th anniversary party of Time magazine, where a number of political leaders and Hollywood celebrities were in attendance. She watched as celebrity Kevin Costner stole and ate Raisa Gorbachev's dessert:
...Kevin Costner leaned forward slightly, languidly swept his right arm to his right, and picked up Mrs. Gorbachev's dessert, a peach melba kind of thing. He picked up a spoon, and he began to eat. He did this without her permission. He did it with what seemed a sense of what Kevin wants Kevin, by definition, should have.

I looked to see her response. She had seen his movement from the corner of her eye, saw him make off with her dessert and smiled. It was a broad, coquettish smile full of delight. Thank you for taking my dessert, it said. I am glad it caught your fancy. Shall I open my purse? I have some change in there.
The former first lady of the Soviet Union, one of the great world superpowers of the 20th century, allowed this second-tier celebrity to steal and eat her dessert -- was thrilled and honored, in fact, that he had shown her a tiny sliver of his valuable time and interest by doing so. Because, after all, he was a star.

When writer/director George Lucas was young, he brought forth a slew of hits: American Graffiti, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark. But somewhere between that time and the late 1990s -- during his rise from faceless nobody to major Hollywood brand name -- Lucas sank slowly into a pit of his own making, a warm, damp hothouse of a place where he allowed his natural tendency toward paranoia to run rampant and surrounded himself with professional sycophants who praised and flattered and rarely if ever criticized him -- the only place, in fact, where dreck like the script of The Phantom Menace and its subsequent sequels could possibly have thrived and flourished. In the rarefied air of his personal hothouse, Lucas lost or forgot many of the admirable qualities that had led him to create his most compelling films and film scripts, until the only thing left was a vast, soft, bloated ego that would put Jabba the Hutt to shame. He has gone from consistently making bank to resting on (and crushing) his laurels; unsatisfied with his current penchant for churning out multimillion-dollar film-shaped turds, he has returned to his original creations to tweak and churn and CGI-retcon the hell out of them as well, seemingly in thrall to every stray impulse of that huge and ever-growing ego of his.

Unrestrained ego growth, as encouraged by the Hollywood culture of sycophancy and anything-goes permissiveness, turned this talented, promising child actress:

into this professional train wreck:
in just over a decade. Much as with the other examples mentioned above, there is a pervasive sense among the majority of Americans that this young actress has wasted her copious talent and a considerable measure of public goodwill in her favor, was spoiled and corroded by early fame, raised with a stunning sense of personal entitlement and the deep-seated belief that nothing -- NOTHING -- is ever her fault. If she doesn't decide to cash her reality check, and soon, she may end up returning to the Los Angeles County morgue not for community service, but as a client. And even though I happen to believe most of her current problems are of her own making, that would be an inexpressibly sad ending to a story that was once so full of promise.

Nancy Davis Reagan had an interesting comment about Hollywood marriages and the corrosive nature of fame as well. (Her husband was a famous actor who later got involved in politics. You might have heard of him.) Here's her insight:
I'd seen too many marriages fail because both were in the business. Every day, you know, you're told how dear and darling you are in the studio, and you come home and you want to be treated that way at home and that's not the way it is. [emphasis mine]
Life outside Hollywood, inside the intimacy of a marriage, turns out to be a potent reality check. And the people who lack personal discipline, or whose finer impulses have been corroded by the "dear and darling" treatment so common in Hollywood, quickly discover that they can no longer handle the unvarnished truth, even from the people they love most. By coddling them, pampering them, shielding them from reality and making every possible excuse for their public misbehavior, the Hollywood machine helps perpetuate and metastasize the insane lifestyles of too many stars and stars-in-the-making -- and shares complicity in the broken relationships, wasted lives and early deaths of entirely too many people.

I occasionally talk about fame on this blog, because I don't always understand it -- there's a capricious aspect to fame that's difficult to explain or pin down -- but also because I recognize it as a powerful and dangerous force, like fire or acid. When fame allows people to become separated from reality, to behave in frankly abnormal and socially unacceptable ways and get away with it, the damage is usually already done; it is quietly eating away at their souls like the worm inside an apple, destroying them from within until all that is left is the once-attractive outer shell (which must then be surgically tweaked and Botoxed into submission).

It shouldn't be happening, but it is. Why do we let it happen?


Jennette said...

C'mon, there's an easy solution to Alec Baldwin's situation: give him a private jet, which he most certainly deserves, on which he will never have to be pestered by those irritating rule-following flight attendants every again!

Excellent, Sooz!

Soozcat said...

I'm sure Mr. Baldwin or his handlers are negotiating something like that as part of his contract right now. Because it sounds like American Airlines wants to ban him from all future flights, and his lame non-apology also managed to honk off Greyhound Bus Lines. I can't remember who pointed it out, but if he doesn't stop putting his foot in his mouth he'll soon be traveling by paraglider.

LDahl said...

I've been hanging out here at your blog... It is more fun to read than a magazine. Good stuff!

Soozcat said...

Aww. You guys are nice to me. Now I'm gonna get a swelled head!

Rachel said...

I love your wit and dry humor. Excellent post!