Why We Need Celebrities

Woody Allen

Woody AllenI was discussing the Mariel Hemingway/Woody Allen situation with a friend yesterday, and she asked “do we expect more from celebrities?” Why do we expend so much time and energy discussing their personal lives?

Woody Allen has been in the news intermittently over the past two decades, following his breakup with Mia Farrow and his subsequent marriage to Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn; the relationship started when she was 19, Allen was 56. Around the same time, Mia Farrow accused Allen of sexual abuse against their adopted daughter Dylan, who was seven when the abuse allegedly happened. Details have been released over the years, as the story has ebbed and flowed; Allen escaped legal conviction but has become known for his “proclivities,” as my friend put it. Through it all, Allen has made a movie each year.

Mariel Hemingway starred in Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) when she was 17, and he was 44. Allen wrote, directed, and starred. In the film, his middle-aged character has a relationship with Hemingway’s, a teenager. (This theme recurred in other Allen films, notably in Husbands and Wives (1992), which again featured Allen’s character in a relationship with a teenager, played by a teenaged Juliette Lewis.) According to Hemingway’s upcoming memoir, after Manhattan wrapped Allen wanted her to accompany him to Paris, on what was clearly intended to be a lover’s vacation. She resisted, her parents urged her to go, she ultimately refused.

Erin Keane wrote an insightful piece about this in Salon, examining her own re-evaluation of the Manhattan film, which she loves, in light of Hemingway’s revelation. Keane suggests that while we might be uncomfortable with the fictional romance, we tend to dismiss it as fiction. The life-mirrors-art angle forces us to reconsider.

I also love Manhattan, and I am also reconsidering. It strikes me that in Woody Allen’s movies, we only get to see his viewpoint. The young girls are extremely smart, find his character desirable, are obviously willing… We don’t see their interior conflict, only his. Hemingway has provided the other side of the story, which necessarily changes our perception.

Certainly we can separate our enjoyment of art from approval/condemnation of those who create it. I’ve met hundreds of artists in my theatrical work over the years, many of whom were jerks; I’ve read biographies of writers and rock stars and have disapproved of their choices while still enjoying their creations. But I found my own line recently in the Bill Cosby situation. I’d long cherished Cosby’s work, and purchased his concert recordings, books and videos; I continued enjoying them despite lawsuits and rumblings that he might not be such a nice guy. As more women came forward in recent months, I found I could no longer separate the art from the man.

My friend asked, “Can’t we just sit back and enjoy a nice story?” Almost everything in life can be understood as a transaction – an exchange of resources. Artists produce their work and we purchase, consider and discuss it. The transaction has wide-ranging impacts, which is one reason criticism has value. I made a decision to withdraw my support from Bill Cosby, and transfer it to those I believe he has victimized. Cosby’s work celebrates family, which produced an unbridgeable cognitive dissonance for me. Erin Keane’s piece makes a similar argument concerning Woody Allen’s work.

Which brings us to the question: why do we get so worked up about celebrities? Celebrities provide a kind of conversational shorthand. We know what someone is talking about when the subject comes up, so we don’t have to spend a lot of time on background – we get right to the issues. I can more easily have a discussion with my brother, who lives in a different state, about Bill Cosby or Woody Allen than I can about Joe, who lives up the street from me. Or I might talk about Joe using those celebrities as a reference point. Celebrities are distant from us, somehow unreal, so we can discuss their lives as “safe” stand-ins for our own. We explore how we feel about various issues using their choices as a jumping-off point.

So do we hold celebrities to a higher standard? I don’t think so. Think of local scandals you’re familiar with – the minister who ran off with the church secretary, the legislator who took a bribe, the teacher who had an affair with a student. Probably none of these were held to a lower standard than the celebrity who did something similar. In many ways, the celebrity enjoys more support than the less famous person does. But our understanding of the nuances of a local situation becomes more sophisticated, less black-and-white, because we’ve considered similar issues in popular culture.

“Celebrities tell us what to think, which is why their hypocrisy is so annoying.” Sure – any artist worth their salt has a point of view they’re trying to communicate. Most are also trying to earn a living from the transaction, so their view is tempered more or less by commercial considerations. But EVERYONE tries to convince others their point of view is valid. We all have convictions, and we all regularly fail to live up to them. Hypocrisy bothers us because we know, deep down, it could always be us.

I’m still churning over the Woody Allen situation – his movies remain on my shelf for now. The public conversation is shifting, though. The value of Allen’s celebrity is that it helps us to evolve the values we hold as a society. Creepy older guys who preyed on young women used to be much more accepted. Frank Sinatra married Mia Farrow when he was 50 and she was 21. Back then it probably wasn’t even called creepy. People ask why Bill Cosby’s victims waited so long to come forward. It’s because we weren’t ready to hear them until now. Let’s keep talking.