October 03, 2010

On the nature of celebrity (and death)

This week  happened to be one of those weeks where a lot of people died.

Actually I dare say the same number of people died this week as last week, it just so happened that I knew of a lot of them.

At the beginning of the week there was Gloria Stewart. She played the elderley Rose in James Cameron's Titanic. She was 89

On Wednesday she was followed by Arthur Penn, 88, the director of films such as Bonnie and Clyde.

Thursday was the day for Tony Curtis to shuffle of this mortal coil at the age of 85

And yesterday Stephen J Cannell became an ex show creator when he passed age 69.

I wonder why so many people happened to leave this human state within a short time period? The one thing they all had in common is that they were not young. 'They had a good innings' as we English say. But what is it about these individuals that made us feel an amount of identification with them? After all on average 100,000 people die on a typical day around the world. So why did these stand out?

Because they were famous. (Or at least well known).

They were people we could identify and put a name to. Or at the very least we could see the name and know of the person. They became part of our extended family.

Who hasn't watched 'Some Like It Hot' and thought "Those two guys look like they could be my friends"? Who hasn't seen Titanic and felt some sort of affinity with the old woman who was so in love with the man she met 80 years ago that she was willing to drop a priceless jewel into the North Atlantic as a tribute to him?

Or - if you are my age or older- who hasn't watched Saturday afternoon imported American TV shows and seen the guy at the typewriter in the end credits rip the sheet from the platten and throw it into the air from where it transformed into the 'Stephen J Cannell' logo?

In reality we don't know any of these people (Unless you are one of those who work in the industry and have actually met them). For the majority of us they are names and faces we recognise from our involvement with the entertainment world. It's the same with the current crop of stars and actors. Who doesn't know Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Aniston, Kate Winslet, Judy Dench? The truth is, very few of us know them. We know of them, though. That knowledge gives as a level of affinity that allows us to identify with them when something happens.

The same happened with Princess Diana. Despite her public profile she was an intensely private person and yet at the same time she was one of the most recognised faces on the planet. The outpouring of grief when she died was almost unheard of in historical terms. People were crying in public, sending letters and flowers to Kensington Gardens, and the number of people who lined the route of the coffin at her funeral was unbelievable.

There is a dark flip side to this as well. Our need to know and understand the lives of 'public' figures will often extend to wanting to know salacious and intimate details of their existence. There exists in most markets a breed of publication known as the gossip magazines which takes great pleasure in documenting the lives of the rich and famous and disseminating it to the masses. Magazines such as "The National Enquirer", "O.K.", "Hello" and similar, along with web sites such as perezhilton.com all thrive on the insatiable need of the public to see what Kate Moss looks like when she leaves a night club inebriated, or to hear about Lindsay Lohans' latest brush with the law.

This drip feed of celebrity gossip serves two functions. Initially it helps us to know more about the people we are watching. But it also causes many people to identify a lot more closely with the celebrities themselves.

Of course with the celebrity magazine comes the cult of celebrity itself. Who is really famous? Bill Clinton is, of course. But is Monica Lewinsky?  Paul McCartney is, but what about last years winner of "America's Got Talent" (or worse, the second or third placed contestants on that show?). Yet these are the people who form the large majority of the content of these publications.

This also brings about an insidious side of this phenomena which is the paparazzi. It is widely acknowledged that one of the contributing factors to the death of Princess Diana was the relentless chasing by the paparazzi. I myself have been subject to the paparazzi when I worked on a music video recently. The shoot was buzzed by helicopters and at one point a Belgian photographer was found and relieved of his camera memory card. Despite that a large number of shots still made it onto the web. Earlier this year I worked with a company that had it's headquarters across the road from the BBC radio headquarters in London. At all times of the day there would be at leat one guy with a number of cameras strapped around his neck waiting for someone famous to come in or go out.

And why do they do this?

So that you or I can see the picture of them wearing 'civilian' clothes and oftentimes without any make-up or grooming as they go about their everyday lives. The pictures will be sold on and appear on-line or in the aforementioned 'gossip' rags so that we can convince ourselves that Angelina Jolie is really going to leave Brad Pitt and I might have a chance to be with her.

Is that really going to happen?

On a brighter note, I see that the Lithuanians have started a holiday resort on an island in the Maldives run by blondes. Where do I sign up?