Overdramatizing to make celebrities seem interesting

Lewis as Lt. Dick Winters.

Lewis as Lt. Dick Winters.

I started reading this with some interest yesterday, at the recommendation of Michael McKean:

The United States, locked in the kind of twilight disconnect that grips dying empires, is a country entranced by illusions. It spends its emotional and intellectual energy on the trivial and the absurd. It is captivated by the hollow stagecraft of celebrity culture as the walls crumble. This celebrity culture giddily licenses a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness and betrayal. Day after day, one lurid saga after another, whether it is Michael Jackson, Britney Spears [or Miley Cyrus], enthralls the country …

Until I saw it was turning into an Occupy-style rant (which “locked in the kind of twilight disconnect that grips dying empires” should have hipped me to, but I had skimmed over it)…

…despite bank collapses, wars, mounting poverty or the criminality of its financial class.

In any case, I shared the concern over celebrity obsession. We really shouldn’t be fixated on celebs, unless they happen to be Christina Hendricks.

But you know, if a significant proportion of the few remaining journalists who are paid to do their thing must focus on celebrities, at least they should do so honestly and well. You don’t have to be writing about war or famine or the fates of nations to do a good job with it. Look at the great tradition of fine sports writing, from Ring Lardner through Sports Illustrated. And let’s not forget that Renaissance man George Plimpton.

Admittedly, there are grace and nobility in sport, while what actors and singers and people-who-are-famous-for-being-on-TV do can be relatively lacking in poetry. But if you must write about them, at least do so honestly, instead of making lame attempts to make them seem more interesting than they are.

I had been delving in triviality myself — looking for most popular Christmas songs — when I saw a link to some apparent controversy regarding something Damian Lewis had said. Being a fan of his work in “Band of Brothers” (and to some extent in “Homeland”), I clicked on it:

Sir Ian McKellen has a bone to pick with Damian Lewis…

Lewis recently commented that when he was in his 20s, he became concerned that if he didn’t break out of the theatre in time, he “would be one of these slightly over-the-top, fruity actors who would have an illustrious career on stage, but wouldn’t start getting any kind of film work until I was 50 and then start playing wizards.”…

Oh, gee — let’s see what sort of verbal artillery McKellen unleashed on Lewis:

The X-Men actor went on to describe Lewis’ statement as “a fair comment”, before adding: “To rebut it: I wouldn’t like to have been one of those actors who hit stardom quite early on and expected it to continue and was stuck doing scripts that I didn’t particularly like just to keep the income up.

“I’ve always wanted to get better as an actor. And I have got better. You’ve only got to see my early work to see that.

“As for a fruity voice? Well, it may be a voice that is trained like an opera singer’s voice: to fill a large space. It is unnatural. Actors have to be heard and their voice may therefore develop a sonorous quality that they can’t quite get rid of, so you think actors are as pompous as their voice is large. I suppose Damian was thinking of that a little bit, too.”…

So… McKellen was fairer, and more thoughtful, about what Lewis said (which, by the way, could as easily be applied to Richard Harris), than this story was.

Where was he “reeling”? Where did he pick a bone?

Sorry, folks — no slugfest here. Move along…

McKellen as Gandalf.

McKellen as Gandalf.

20 thoughts on “Overdramatizing to make celebrities seem interesting

  1. Doug Ross

    The attraction to and illusion of celebrity has always been there. I recently finished Bill Bryson’s excellent book “1927 : One Summer in America”. It weaves a story of that summer around several larger-than-life characters who captivated the country at that time: Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge, Henry Ford, Sacco & Vanzetti… with literally hundreds of other character arcs that connect them all.

    The cult of personality was just as strong back then, especially for Lindbergh, who it turns out was a very dull, academically challenged, anti-Semite. Ruth’s exploits off the field would never survive today’s twitter-verse and cellphone culture.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Nazi sympathizer, too. But I guess that goes with being an anti-Semite.

      The Bambino would be huge today just as he was then. His carousing would only add to it. Imagine A-Rod combined with Lindsey Lohan…

      Actually, that doesn’t do him justice. Neither A-Rod nor any other player today comes close to his level of justified fame…

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    Jill Lepore, writing in last week’s New Yorker, posits that the polarization of American politics is a result, in large part, of the people who used to have to watch TV news or nothing, now watching entertainment, and dropping completely out of political involvement. Studies show that low information voters tend to be moderate while highly informed voters are consistent with partisan positions.

    She also says Democrats are, on average, more left, but that is because southerners left and moderates dropped out. The GOP, however, is well to the right of Reagan, now.

    1. Mark Stewart

      Which would therefore leave a huge percentage of the population in the middle, does it not?

      I may be a low-information voter. Certainly, I am a moderate. If I’m supposed to be consistently partisan – or more likely inconsistently partisan as people seem to sort of pick and choose their “orthodoxies” – then certainly put me in with the low-information voters. Thank you in advance.

      I think someone else could posit a more nuanced, and accurate, theory than what it sounds like she has offered up.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Um, I condensed a long article into a few sentences…..sorry if I failed to capture the nuances. I’d link, but I think the New Yorker has a wall against nonsubscribers….

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Well, dang it, I subscribe digitally and can’t get in without a password. And I don’t know what the password is.

          The iPad app never asks me for a password…

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            Yeah, I have struggled to access the digital content. As a print subscriber, I am entitled, but I get into a loop of password resetting….

  3. Phillip

    I’ve been reading an interesting book, by an American composer and writer, Daniel Gregory Mason, called “Contemporary Composers.” The sentences you quoted above about America spending “its emotional and intellectual energy on the trivial and the absurd…captivated by the hollow stagecraft of celebrity culture…” could have been written by him. Mason says that because of modern innovations, we suffer from “a thousand distractions…no longer insulated from the outlying world by time and space, as were our more simply-living ancestors…we read, see, and hear as much in a day as they did in a week.”

    He goes on: “We digest nothing, taste everything; ‘eclecticism’ is our euphemism for spreading our attention very wide and very thin; and the nightmare that you soon uncover under all our art is not that our minds may become bewildered (for that they are already) but that our senses may become jaded….”

    Mason wrote this in 1918.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          No, it’s a technological thing. We ARE experiencing the phenomenon to a greater degree. Phillip wrote:
          that because of modern innovations, we suffer from “a thousand distractions…no longer insulated from the outlying world by time and space…”
          We have far more innovations that do that, and far more ways to be distracted…

          This is a case where the medium itself is the message…

          1. Doug Ross

            I don’t agree that we are more distracted… some people who are not able to be disciplined may be but I bet they always were. I think we’re seeing a widening gap (much like the income equality gap) that is separating out those people who can process more information from those who can’t. Those who can’t will claim to be overwhelmed or distracted.

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            Oh, but we are. I know I am.

            All my life, I’ve gotten a rush from looking stuff up. If I had to check a word in the dictionary, it would take a huge act of will on my part to put the dictionary down. That’s because I would run across five words that I found utterly fascinating on my way to the one I was looking for, and then when I finally got to my target word, it would make me think about ANOTHER word I wanted to look up, and that would lead to two others, and… well, it was a problem.

            Something about that activity released lots of endorphins or something. But I COULD generally tear myself away after a few minutes.

            Now, with the Internet…

            It’s like I have a cocaine problem and now, every second of every day, I’m Tony Montana with that mountain of coke on the desk in front of me, and all I have to do is drop my face into it and INHALE…

            I have the sort of mind that constantly wonders about things. But before the Web — before my iPhone, and iPad — something someone said to me might make me curious about something, but then I’d move on. Now, I don’t move on. Somebody says a new word to me, I look it up. Something I see reminds me of something I once read, and I’ve got to go find it and place it in context. Someone has a familiar face, and I go to pursue my hunches of who I think it might be. (I’m really anxious to get a good facial recognition app so I can just aim my phone at someone and know right away who it is. I’ve GOT an app that will recognize almost any song I’m trying to place. The faces thing is about all that’s missing.)

            Once, when you were in the middle of something, you might go, “I wonder…,” but then you had to set that aside, because there was no way to find out right that second, and get on with what you were doing.

            Now, there’s almost always a way to find out RIGHT NOW.

            Hypertext links are the most seductive thing I’ve ever seen that didn’t involve actual sex. They work the way my brain works — one thought leads to another, which leads to another, on and on and on, until you’ve long forgotten what you set out to do. My mind resonates to HTML.

            The world I live in now is a million times more distracting than the one I grew up in. And if anything, that’s an understatement.

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    I like that picture I used above of Damien Lewis. It’s from the scene on D-Day in “Band of Brothers” in which Lt. Winters gathers the few members of Easy Company he can find (like most paratroopers, they were scattered all over Normandy) and leads them in taking the German guns trained on Utah Beach from Brécourt Manor — an action for which Winters received the Distinguished Service Cross. Their assault is used today at West Point as a classic example of small-unit tactics and leadership in overcoming a larger enemy force. As I wrote about that scene once before:

    I was struck by how well the actor Damien Lewis captured a quality that Ambrose had described in his book. Winters had the rare ability to stay cool under fire, and more importantly to analyze the situation instantaneously and know exactly what to do in the given situation, and convey it to his men. Nobody who hasn’t been in those circumstances knows how he would react — neither did Winters, before this day — but everyone hopes he would perform exactly the way then-Lt. Winters did.

    Lewis communicated that really well, coming across as a natural leader who is hyper-alert and focused due to the adrenaline, but preternaturally calm and decisive….


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