As entertainment grows ever more self-reflexive, the burden of celebritude is presented as an acute social problem— at least from the supply side. The past few months have brought several meditations on the subject— The Truman Show, Pecker, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, Velvet Goldmine. Woody Allen’s Celebrity is another, even opening with the
image of a cosmic cry for help— as
well it might.
Predicated on a paradoxical mix of secrecy and exhibitionism, the Allen persona has always blurred the distinction between his art and his life. Still, one would scarcely expect Allen’s attempt to satirize daily life in the National Entertainment State to be this tired, sour, and depressed. Whether or not the filmmaker regards the condition of celebrity as a curse, his meditation on the subject is extraordinarily punishing. Celebrity is as nasty as Mighty Aphrodite or Deconstructing Harry, and without the jokes.
Perhaps responding to those (myself included) who have wondered how much longer this incipient codger would continue to cast Hollywood’s hottest young babes as his adoring sex toys, Allen has annointed a younger surrogate in Kenneth Branagh. It is a chastening experience— mainly for us. The spectacle of earnest Branagh imitating the body language and cadences of the obsequiously dithering Woody, without showing the slightest facility for the master’s comic timing, is enough to make one wish for Allen’s return, even if it requires a face-lift, dental surgery, and a triple bypass. To compound the misery, the Branagh character is married— at least initially— to Judy Davis, who is playing another whining, neurotic Woody clone.
Ostensibly, Branagh thrashes through the role of a craven, horny celebrity journalist, visiting movie sets and hanging out at literary parties, as he attempts to write his own novel on . . . the curse of celebrity. (The movie is a generational mishmash. Branagh plays the only 40-year-old writer in America who davens at Elaine’s and names as his inspiration William Saroyan.) The movie’s premise, an opportunistic journalist exploring decadent high society, is loosely modeled on the 1959 Fellini warhorse La Dolce Vita— something Celebrity acknowledges with such Fellini-esque gargoyles as a TV priest, a star plastic surgeon, and most spectacularly, the gorgeous supermodel (wittily embodied by Charlize Theron) who leads Branagh on a merry chase to the end of the night.
To add to the carnival atmosphere, the large cast is augmented with such real-life media thugs as Anthony Mason, Donald Trump, and Joey Buttafuoco. If their celebrity weren’t scary enough, Allen adds a bad-boy á clef. In the film’s equivalent of a money scene, Branagh joins the entourage of a drug-crazed young star (Leonardo DiCaprio) and tags along to Atlantic City, haplessly trying to peddle a film script while the star beats up his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol), trashes their hotel suite, and engineers an orgy. All is possible when celebrity is the coin of the realm. But what exactly is Woody’s complaint? If anything, the world of Celebrity is what his movies have always been. Allen is no stranger to self-absorption. Nor, beginning with the Marshall McLuhan gag in Annie Hall, has any filmmaker made more of the celeb cameo. The horror, I suppose, comes from his imagining himself being on the outside looking in.
Several have already noted the bizarre reversal in which a big star (Melanie Griffith) fellates Branagh’s celebrity journalist. But this apparent misunderstanding of media dynamics is rectified with the even more embarrassing scene in which Davis— who has now made one Woody Allen film too many— pays a hooker (Bebe Neuwirth) for oral-sex tips. Supposedly this lesson is preparation for her upcoming second marriage to an adoring TV producer (Joe Mantegna); in reality, it’s her symbolic initiation into a new role as a TV interviewer. If the Griffith character goes down on Branagh’s Woody surrogate, it may be because Allen suspects that the only BJs he’s going to get for this movie are from himself.
A mind-numbing three-hour update of the 1934 chestnut Death Takes a Holiday, Meet Joe Black suggests the sort
of New Age drama that Celebrity‘s Leonardo DiCaprio character might imagine for himself. Indeed, this ponderous, didactic weepie aspires to Titanic stature even if the only ship it sinks is itself.
As in Celebrity, social climbing is universal. Death decides to learn about life by appropriating the body of Brad Pitt and attaching himself to American media mogul Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins). A sort of domesticated Rupert Murdoch, Parrish has been scheduled to shuffle off this mortal coil but, in the interest of his own education, Death— now known as Joe Black
allows him to live on a bit, harrassed on the one hand by a fellow corporate shark and the other by the fussy, rejected daughter (Marcia Gay Harden) who is preparing his 65th birthday party.
More like a dazed puppy than the great devourer, Pitt’s eye-batting Joe attends Bill’s board meetings and family dinners while Bill, who never offers any explanation for the presence of his swanky young friend, keeps mulling about how crazy it all is. (Hopkins tries to act his way through this hogwash, although his part is really ready-made for wisecracks and Woody Allen, particularly given the climactic party’s heavy dependence on the Astaire-Rogers songbook.) After a while, Joe falls for the mogul’s beloved younger daughter Susan (Claire Forlani, forever blinking away or smiling back tears). That the feeling might be reciprocated is signalled by the modification of her oft-repeated line, “What are you doing here?” to “You’re here!”
Although the media mogul lives surrounded by Rothkos and Kandinskys, the most immaculately lit objet d’art is, of course, Pitt. To watch this immaculately coiffed, boyishly smiling reaper provides less the chill of the grave than the sense of the blow-dryer lurking just off-camera to tousle his hair between takes. The movie’s excessive length and ridiculous cost (reportedly $90 million) are nothing compared to this mystery: In all the snarky speculation about Joe’s relation to Bill, why does no one ever wonder if this stud-muffin is the old guy’s boyfriend? There really must be some things worse than death.
“The Power of Glamour”— title of the 25-film show opening Saturday at AMMI— is something that Meet Joe Black mightily strives for and that Celebrity, for all its gorgeous cinematography and Winona Ryder’s splendid makeover, pretends to decry. Glamour is the aura that surrounds a star— as material as those solid-gold halos that crown the saints in early Renaissance paintings— and it is the thesis of Annette Tapert’s book, which inspired the AMMI program, that Hollywood’s top female attractions of the 1930s provide a template for the glamorous life.
Stardom, according to Tapert, was a full-time occupation. Hardworking actresses like Joan Crawford (Possessed) and Carole Lombard (My Man Godfrey), Norma Shearer (A Free Soul) and Gloria Swanson (Zaza)— to name only those featured in the first two weekends— were, in effect, never off-camera. Unlike Truman, however, they were complicit in their own production. Their artistry was their studied self-
presentation; their uniquely 20th-
century calling was the care and feeding of a public image. Complaining, in those days, wasn’t part of the program.