I recently watched Phantom Thread (2017) by Paul Thomas Anderson, one of those few filmmakers out there who is creative, idiosyncratic and generally unpredictable. He first impressed me with the magnificent and opera-like Magnolia (1999) only to follow it up with the small indie-like film Punch Drunk Love (2002) that ran half its running time with, of all people, Adam Sandler in one of his best and funniest roles. Phantom Thread is a different breed altogether, but I quite enjoyed this film in its own right.
Then I heard about what inspired this talented director to make the film: It involved a strong bout of the ‘flu during which he was taken care of by his wife. There might be nothing too exceptional or extraordinary about this situation, although ardent feminists might possibly criticize his wife for falling prey to the archetypical gender role of caretaker; yet for me something felt amiss and I felt queasy about this. And somehow it inadvertently lowered my esteem for this great filmmaker.
This might be partly due to his candid admission of weakness or helplessness. Although generally I do not see admission of weakness as disempowering - in fact, I think it’s quite the opposite, only the strong and confident can fully admit to and embrace their flaws and weaknesses – in this particular case, I would have preferred an instant of sudden epiphany as a spark of inspiration or something else that did not involve common day ailments. There was far less magic in the latter.
It was mainly the deception of finding out that he is, after all, a human being like everyone else, prone to sickness, disease, pain and suffering and not an otherworldly genius untouched by such ordinary issues. As someone who recently had his own unpleasant brush with a stomach ‘flu (and no I don’t think it was the mushroom pizza my wife made me), I can personally vouch for and sympathize with the grueling experience of sickness; but the problem is that we often assume, mostly subconsciously, that these god-like celebrities are not only beyond the common rabble in terms of talent and intelligence, but that they are also immune to the human foibles. Of course, they are not.
There is and most likely always has been a cult around celebrities. These famous people often reach a god-like status in our minds. In the past, it was mostly related to artists, musicians or other brilliant minds, so people might have swooned over Mozart, Beethoven or the booming voice of Charles Dickens and perhaps less over great philosophers like Nietzsche whose talents were barely recognized in his own time.
In our time with the advent of television and other forms of technology, celebrity status has become more ubiquitous. We see their faces plastered everywhere from checkout aisles to posters to billboards and other types of advertisement. One could easily pinpoint to the crushing waves of Beatlemania with young people fainting in front of their musical idols that sported terrible haircuts, which incidentally did not hinder but rather helped propel them to stardom. Yet this kind of swooning is not peculiar nor limited to the music industry nor the young.
This otherworldly aspect is evidently augmented through the use of television and the big screen as well as today’s smaller blue screens of laptops and cellphones. The faces of actors and actresses are now streaming on our gadgets and devices and we watch them play their respective roles, while they have reached quasi-mythical statuses in our imaginative minds. We infuse them with borderline supernatural powers and seem surprised, not to say shocked, to see that they are like us, prone to slips and weaknesses.
For instance, we are surprised to hear that some of them get angry, lash out at others or get into brawls, and that they cheat on their loved ones and / or lie to the public. They are often held to higher moral standards than politicians, who in some cases are celebrities themselves entering the realm of politics.
All of this makes us lose sight not only of humanity but of reality as well. We assume that the Terminator can indeed end all the threats or that a cowboy actor president may shoot and eliminate the villains once and for all. Whenever flaws or weaknesses creep up, this wildly unrealistic and implausible image rips and cracks at its seams, and we either turn a blind eye or get angry and drop those celebrities like hot potatoes.
One of the problems with being in the limelight / spotlight (although my personal experience of this is very limited) is that you become visible to all. Hence, the preoccupation with one’s looks. As the faces on the screen remain fixed and immortal, the changing faces due to aging often become a major source of stress and anxiety for celebrities. More than any other group and people, they will try to preserve and hold onto the faces we have come to know on the screens and more often than not plastic surgery is used to rectify the (supposed) blemishes of getting older.
It is somewhat easier for men as our culture tends to find them still sexy despite or in some cases because of their advanced age (I’m looking at you George Clooney pictured above), while women constantly battle the lines and wrinkles on their faces and dye their hair (except Helen Mirren, of course, and that is a good thing).
So much for physical aspects; let us look at the shadier moral parts and pieces. Here it does indeed become messy. As we expect them to be perfect not only in looks but also in demeanor and behavior, celebrities are held up to often unrealistically high standards. This is where the Me Too movement found its main drive and inspiration. The now unaccepted and always unacceptable behavior of male celebrities towards their female counterparts and females in general has brought everything quickly and successively into the spotlight.
And so it should be. However, part of this fallout is fueled by an anger towards celebrity figures because they failed to live up to our higher standards. And this is regardless and, in some cases, irrespective of their actual deeds, meaning its degree and intensity. The main culprit here is of course Harvey Weinstein who exploited women by using and wielding his power and authority in the movie industry. And many other celebrities fell in the wake of him.
Yet the problem lies in the fact that everyone is suddenly judged retroactively about their behavior. For example, in the past (and in some cultures still today) many deeds and actions were accepted or simply ignored, such as whistling at women or making inappropriate comments towards them. I do not condone that, but evidently, these deeds are not as serious and damaging as rape and sexual assault, which are crimes no matter where you are. However, during the zealous swirl (I am careful not to use the word hysteria) of the Me Too movement, everybody was thrown into the same pot or under the same bus; whether they had engaged in misdemeanors or crimes, it did not matter or the general public did not differentiate much.
Case in point is Morgan Freeman. He is or rather used to be well-loved and respected. There was hardly a blemish on his track record until news surfaced of sexist language he used towards females alongside inappropriate behavior, such as attempts at lifting skirts. Suddenly everybody started attacking him and his reputation took a great hit for things he had said and done in the past.
Sure, what he did was wrong, and he did apologize, but the harm was done. But he is not a Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby or a Kevin Spacey for that matter. He is like many others and he engaged in what was or used to be generally accepted in this macho culture. The sitting president was excused for similar behavior referring to it all as typical locker-room banter, while Morgan Freeman was evidently not.
Another thing we tend to overlook is that celebrities are merely doing their job and those who are good, good-looking and / or simply lucky can also gain handsomely in the process. But it is, at the end of the day, a job and not much more. So you cannot expect an actor playing a doctor on television to operate people in real life, nor hire Perry Mason to take your criminal case or Inspector Colombo to solve a crime (replace them with more younger and hipper models and examples, if you wish). Nor can we assume (far from it!) that Bill Cosby is a good father or human being despite his projected image of a loving and caring person. These are roles that often do not correspond with reality.
We still buy it though. We even expect a golf player to act with moral standards even though they are just athletes who are good at their given sports. That is all. They are no role models, nor do they have the responsibility of being one. Rock musicians have it easier because we expect them to behave badly and when they do not, we get disappointed. Yes, Tiger Woods would have made a great rock star, but he (unfortunately?) chose golf instead and was then blamed for his actions.
There is a distinct form of hypocrisy at play here. We expect our celebrities to be who we think them to be. We mold them with the aid of media and publicity into archetypal figures or figments of our imagination. As long as they play the role, we are content with them. The moment they assert their individuality and are not who we thought they were, we feel angry and reject them. In these cases, it may be about them, but it also says a lot about us and our attitudes towards ourselves and others.