Do movie stars owe us anything?
It’s a simple question with not-so-simple answers. The knee-jerk response would be: sure. All celebrities exist at our sufferance — they’re famous because we grant them fame — and the corollary is that they should be grateful for it, or else. Nothing turns a crowd of idolators into a vengeful mob quicker than the star who is perceived to have risen above his or her station and forgotten who pays for the tickets.
“They’re no better than us” — it’s the kind of spiteful itch to level the playing field you read in comments sections and letters to the gossip tabloids, and what it really means is “They’re no better than me, and how dare they think otherwise?” For every admirer there’s a hater, and the dirty little secret is that they’re often in the same body, ready to toggle into resentment with one celebrity misstep.
These musings are prompted by a Buzzfeed story about actor Armie Hammer that ran this week, his response to that story, and the response to the response. Hammer has been up-and-coming for a decade now — he played the Winklevoss twins in “The Social Network” and survived the disaster of 2013’s “The Lone Ranger” — and with his performance in “Call Me by Your Name,” in which he plays an antiquities scholar in Italy who falls in love with the teenage son (Timothee Chalamet) of his host, the actor may well have broken through to his Oscar moment.
Which means it’s time for the backlash, of course. Thus Anne Helen Petersen’s career breakdown and takedown in Buzzfeed, which reminded readers of Hammer’s privileged roots — he’s the great-grandson of the late business tycoon Armand Hammer — and snippily wondered “is Hammer truly a unique star who’s finally finding his niche — or simply a beautiful, pedigreed white man who’s been allowed, in a way that few others in Hollywood have, endless attempts to discover it?”
It’s a piece that has a point but buries it in snark, from a writer known for her sharp mind and sharper pen. And Petersen’s subject wasn’t having it. Hammer, who has been quite vocal on Twitter — taking on actor James Woods when the latter criticized the April-June romance in “Call Me by Your Name,” for instance — fired an online shot back at Peterson: “Your chronology is spot on but your perspective is bitter AF. Maybe I’m just a guy who loves his job and refuses to do anything but what he loves to do. . . ?”
And then he quit Twitter. Which, honestly, freaked some people out more than Petersen’s article.
What’s that about? What gives, say, a Slate writer the right to post an article headlined “Man Up and Reactivate Your Twitter, Armie Hammer”? Don’t these people have anything better to do? Don’t I? (I know you do, but you’re still reading, right? So what’s that about?) With the country seemingly about to come crashing down around our ears, why were too many people arguing about an actor?
Wait, I just answered my own question. Aside from the comforts of mindless distraction, though, there’s an unacknowledged sticking point here, and that’s the question of who owns Armie Hammer? Not the man himself, obviously, but his meaning in the popular culture, his personae and how he and we use it? To whom does the fame of the famous belong? Them or us?
Less to them than you’d think. I’ve interviewed enough actors and other celebrities over the years to recognize that stardom can be a double-edged sword to those who carry it. I’ve sat at a cafe corner table talking with a beloved A-list performer and been interrupted every 45 seconds by someone asking for a selfie, tangible proof that they had a piece of the guy. (He graciously acceded to each request, but imagine if that were your every living moment in public.)
I’ve had Jodie Foster tell me that if she were 18 again, she’d choose not to go into acting; easy for her to say, but you haven’t had an insane stranger shoot a president to get your attention and then had the world media harass you into hiding.
In fact, I’ve met and written about enough creative people over the course of my career to understand that the bulk of them are generally about the work and that the recognition that comes with successful work leaves many of them with complex and not always pleasant feelings. Gratitude, certainly, and an enjoyment, guilty or not, of the paychecks and perks that can come with fame.
But also an awareness, to one degree or another, that their public personas are not who they are but rather a false front created in collaboration with us, the consumers of popular culture. Moreover, that those personas are entwined with an audience’s desires and resentments and sense of ownership and need to control the narrative. That their renown is a beast bigger than they are, and the beast can bite back.
Oh, boo-hoo, right? Arguing over who Armie Hammer “really is” is beneath you, yes? So who do you like to argue about? Each well-known persona is a token of human behavior, a marker for discussions around the campfire. The long arc of, say, Robert Downey Jr.’s career tells a different story (talent, addiction, redemption) than, I don’t know, Johnny Depp’s (the slow squandering of a gift). As I wrote about last week, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are different conversations, ones in which we stake out our own positions regarding how to behave (or not) in public and onscreen.
Who owns Armie Hammer? Not the man himself, obviously, but his meaning in the popular culture, his personae and how he and we use it? To whom does the fame of the famous belong? Them or us?
Some of the famous are lucky: Why should we care what Meryl Streep does on weekends when watching her act is enough? Some of the stars who seem like natural wonders are the product of careful forethought. (Favorite quote, from John Wayne: “When I started, I knew I was no actor and I went to work on the Wayne thing. It was as deliberate a projection as you’ll ever see. . . . I practiced in front of a mirror.”)
None of them are who we think, and the actuality of who they are isn’t, honestly, of real interest to us. The smarter stars, the ones who’ve been around long enough or have a good head on their shoulders, understand that. Maybe Armie Hammer’s starting to. In fact, maybe he quit social media so he could spend some time with himself.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.