Separate Tables: On Differentiating Between Talent and Celebrity

celebrity mia farrowI 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?

celebrity mia farrowOne 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.

celebrity woody allenTo 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.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

8 thoughts on “Separate Tables: On Differentiating Between Talent and Celebrity

  1. Wow, same private school as Mia Farrow’s and Woody Allen’s kids?! That must have been some school!
    The question you have raised here—and analyzed quite deftly—is certainly an important one. I don’t think there is an answer, either. As for me, my interaction with celebrities has been decidedly minimal (i.e., 0!), so I haven’t had to deal with this yet!

    • Many thanks, Alina. It’s definitely a question that permeates our cinematic fabric, especially with celebrities’ every public step being dissected in the media. That can lead to artistic overlap, methinks, and that’s when the gray area becomes really hazy.

  2. It’s an intriguing question, Simon. I think it’s impossible to entirely divorce human emotion from an assessment of art, and human emotion can be affected by personal interaction with the artist. For most of the audience, there’s no real imperative to even try to set aside those personal feelings. For those who would hold themselves up as critics, I think they should make the effort. I haven’t had much success doing that myself, so now I try not to overreact to any one incident or performance. I think we all have a tendency to do that. Making lifelong decisions about someone’s character or artistry based on one incident is rarely a good idea. But I struggle with that one too. Pete’s Van Morrison anecdote refers directly to the artist’s performance, and so I certainly can see how such an experience would make me suggest that fans buy his music but not pay for a live performance.

    • Good points, Jon, and you’re right–my perceptions of these artists isn’t relegated to the feelings I got on seeing and/or meeting them briefly in person. Yet I definitely think about this while mulling their movies. It would be interesting if there were artists who were so absent of personality that their art would be the only thing to consider, context-free! But I don’t know if there’s such a thing.

      Pete’s Van Morrision anecdote is definitely telling. I’ve been to see Billy Joel perform numerous times, and he’s always been bright, energetic and sunny, despite whatever personal issues he has dealt with. So public personas can also be misleading. It’s a very complex issue.

  3. I don’t think it is human nature to separate the two Simon. I had a ‘road rage’ argument with the photographer David Bailey some years ago. He was so obnoxious, I can no longer look at his (very famous) photos. As a lifelong fan of Van Morrison, his total disrespect for the audience at a concert in The Albert Hall made me swear to never see him again.
    On the other hand, a brief introduction to David Bowie, at the height of his Ziggy Stardust fame, changed my mind completely, as he was a total gentleman, and very unassuming.

    Probably best to never actually meet those whose work you really admire, I conclude.

    An interesting read as always. Best wishes, Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete! I’m curious about those anecdotes–I wonder what it was that Van Morrison did that was so off-putting. I’m not a big Van Morrison fan myself, but I’m intrigued.

      I think you’re right though about human nature often getting us to combine the two. It definitely depends on the person, though.

      Best regards,

      Simon

      • We paid a lot for the tickets. He came on late, hardly looked at the audience, and then rushed through a slurred medley of hits, without pause. He was on stage for less than an hour, and refused to come back for an encore. It was very disappointing, after waiting all those years to see him.
        As for Mr Bailey, it would take too long to describe his arrogance and ego…
        Best wishes, Pete.

        • Wow … I’m sorry you had to see that concert, Pete–it definitely sounds like Van Morrison wasn’t into it. Too bad–it doesn’t make sense to treat audiences like that.

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