I learned about the meaning of celebrity at an early age.
Eons ago, after a grade-school student concert in which I sang, I was sitting alone in the cafeteria when an unassuming, blond-haired woman nearby began to speak to me.
“You have a beautiful voice,” said Mia Farrow.
I’m not sure if I blushed, but I certainly appreciated the compliment. And I knew who Farrow was, too; her children attended the same small private school as I did, and although I was too young at the time to have seen Rosemary’s Baby (1968), I was well aware of her fame. I thanked her, and that was the conversation. She didn’t say anymore, but it was OK.
Years later, at another student production, I saw Woody Allen in the audience. This was before the public fracas with Farrow, and he was obviously there as a family member. I’d seen some of his films and liked them – the earlier ones more than those that came later – so I was initially pleased at his presence.
That feeling dissipated when I noticed how he was sitting: slouched into his chair, as if trying not to be seen. He wasn’t speaking to anyone. It was as if he were trying to disappear.
I remember that, for some reason, every time I laugh at one of his flicks, whether it’s Bananas (1971) or Love and Death (1975). And despite the fact that I don’t think much of Farrow’s performance in Rosemary’s Baby or any subsequent film I’ve seen her in, I recall our exchange fondly. Though I understand how to separate the talent from the individual, it remains difficult to do – and I wonder if other people feel the same way. Can we treat each element differently? Or do they go hand-in-hand?
One might make the argument that Richard Wagner’s operas often abided by a schematic that followed his ethics closely, though his notorious anti-Semitism is superficially absent in his masterful Ring cycle. Yet it’s difficult for me, when listening to Parsifal or Lohengrin, to discard his philosophies altogether. Later associations of his music with Adolf Hitler only bolster my reservations, though I often find myself feeling like listening to Götterdämmerung over Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro when I’ve had enough levity for the day. Do I ignore the historical connotations and just enjoy the music? How can the former not cross my mind?
It’s easy when you have a personality such as Mel Gibson, whose bizarre and oft-offensive public behaviours have been well documented, and whose cinematic output as actor and director is, to be kind, inconsistent. I generally find his acting mannered, from Gallipoli (1981) to Hamlet (1990), while his direction, to my mind, frequently offers a combination of bridled inspiration and over-the-top theatrics at the same time.
It’s harder, however, when you have someone like Brendan Fraser, whom I interviewed, along with Patrick Dempsey, Moira Kelly and director Alek Keshishian, as part of a large group of student reporters gathered for a screening of the film With Honors (1994). The gentlemanly Fraser was affable and erudite during the interview session and even gave me a pleasant pat on the back on leaving after he noticed that I dropped my recording device during the process. (These were my collegiate years, and unfortunately, they were typified by a distinct lack of polish on my part from a reporting standpoint.)
Sadly, With Honors was a terrible film, and his performance was lacklustre. I panned it in the student newspaper I wrote for after waffling on how I should treat it. Starstruck I was. Rational I wasn’t. But rationality won out in the end.
To this day, I still wonder why I had to be so honest.
Reporters need to establish relationships. It’s important to make the interview subject feel comfortable, so he or she doesn’t think he’s being attacked or interrogated. But it’s tough to extricate the art from the personal; I feel bad if I don’t like something created by someone I’ve interviewed. Interesting people may not always produce interesting works. Likewise, interesting works are sometimes crafted by people who don’t make for interesting interviews.
The moral is that people are complex. You don’t always get what you think you’re getting from an individual; sometimes the end product doesn’t jibe with the creator. That’s how it seemed to me with Farrow and Allen, two very different people taking disparate public strategies at school productions. Yet I find that I still think positively about Farrow, despite her often mundane body of work, and negatively about Allen, though his output is much better. Is this a fault of mine, that I idealise the concept of celebrity? Or is the true celebrity one who can be celebrated more as a person than as an artist?
I may have learned about the meaning of celebrity long ago. But I still haven’t learned the answer to this day.