Behind Celebrity's Curtain

I run in the other direction from Maureen Dowd (some of you may like her) of the New York Times Op-Ed section. In her column "Sex and Self-Pity" of Nov. 29, 1999, she says that when she goes to work, she "feels trapped" in President Clinton's libido, and at the movies, in Woody Allen's. After wagging her finger at both of them and calling the President "the weasel king" (I'm not skittish, but do we print that sort of thing, even if we're thinking it?!) she writes:


"Woody Allen's new movie, 'Celebrity' begins with a scene that many construed to be homage to Monica and Bill. Melanie Griffith, playing a movie star, offers to give a certain kind of sex to Kenneth Branagh, a journalist writing a profile on her. 'What I do from the neck up,' she says, kneeling before him, is none of her husband's business.

"Ah, yes. The sex that isn't.

"It is utterly mystifying that respected actors-- and worse--respected actresses--are still so flattered to appear in Woody Allen's nasty little indulgences of his own bile. A casting call from Mr. Allen is just an invitation to degradation."


"His new film is a veritable anthology of erotic tackiness. He has a hooker, played by Bebe Neuwirth, instruct Judy Davis in the proper technique of the sex that isn't sex, using the banana as a teaching tool. He has an Amazonian model, played by Charlize Theron, explain the pan- orgasmic nature of her exquisitely sensitive body, while Mr. Branagh, playing Mr. Allen, finds meaning in the universe in the sight of her tight little dress."


Dowd then goes on to state, in a way that might please the perverse side of Woody Allen, that she likes his early movies. (This is NOT a disparagement of those who enjoy them; I love them, too.)

But this woman has missed entirely the messages of "Celebrity"--and not just because she's got a formidable ax to grind with President Clinton. She should have just titled the column, "The sex that isn't sex." Okay, give it rest, Maureen.

What does this have to do with the movie, you ask?

I liked Celebrity. A lot. I wouldn't say I loved it, not in the way you can love, say, some of those early movies. (I couldn't resist.) So, while this is a "rave" maybe it's not exactly a "rave review." But the movie has so much to say, and is packed so densely, that to shrug it off as simple, or worse, as sour sex grapes, would be a catty cop-out. Yes, a lot of it is "grown-up" and "not pretty". Much of growing up, and seeing who we are, what we do, and what we value is not pretty.

Sometimes films are meant to affect us, darkly, and tell a truthful tale about the things we chase after, and the things we throw away. Sometimes, a film is meant to shake us up--and since Maureen has her knickers in a twist, I'd say that Woody's film has worked perfectly for her--although she'd be the last to realize it.

People may look exclusively to the title for the meaning of this movie. This is a mistake, though an understandable one. Although Allen uses celebrity in its many forms as a vehicle for commenting on us, and yes, on himself, he's also telling us--asking us, I should say--so much more in his film. The mix of themes and characters is complex, and though Allen doesn't have it all figured out, he's asking the right questions.

I was surely helped to this conclusion by Kenneth Branagh's almost too-perfect performance as the flawed writer Lee Simon. If you can't find something to identify with or understand in the hero/heroine (strengths or weaknesses) in Allen's films, then something is wrong. Here, Branagh has it painfully right. In Lee Simon we can be appalled and yet see exactly how his insecurities, faults, and irresponsible decisions land him in the dark at the film's end. Attractive even when he's rumpled (and stuck with a perpetual bad hair day throughout the film) Branagh captures the lost and lusting side of a man in mid-life crisis. A key to Branagh's real success, though, is that his Lee also seems sincerely clueless. It would be a good acting coup indeed, if Allen himself could pull off being sincerely clueless. But he knows better than to try that sort of role at this stage of the game. For all his genuis, Woody has never had great range as an actor, and he's been with us for so long on film (hurrah!) and in life, that clueless sincerity is not an option for him. (He has also said that he wanted someone much more attractive to play Lee.)

Branagh turned out to be a wise choice; he nailed Allen's crafted persona almost better Woody himself could have. (I cannot for the life of me imagine Alec Baldwin, whom Woody also considered, as Lee Simon. Nor would Woody have had any patience for Baldwin, who told PBS's Charlie Rose that he likes to be heavily directed, an approach which Woody abhors.)

More Woody than Woody? I was over what some critics found to be Branagh's "impersonation" after I saw the trailer a few times. Branagh is a great mimic as well as a gifted actor--and at a couple of brief moments, you're seduced into watching Branagh be the composite Woody character. (It's downright eerie.) But those moments pass. (As did a fleeting desire to tie up Branagh's hyperactive hands. I have the same reaction to his Woodyesque Mike Church in the car phone scene in "Dead Again.") And, strangely, I found that Branagh's interpretation acted as a reminder of Allen's own "celebrity" in a way that one other reviewer has noted. While looking up Allen's height (in comparison to the--according to another reviewer--"tall" Mr. Branagh), I found banks of photos of Woody walking with Soon-Yi, on the streets of New York, doing NOTHING in particular. Whatever you say (and whether he "deserves it" or not) Allen knows about celebrity in its darker form.

But Branagh was much more than a cipher on a page, or stand-in. He brought a drifting sense of urgency to a character who doesn't have clue where to go to find exactly where that greener grass is. And this is what the film was about, for me, in a major way. You can look for it-- happiness--or whatever turns you on. But happiness is sometimes just behind the curtain behind you--and you don't know it. Whereas the stuff in front is smoke and mirrors. It's a rich drama, all the way, with the world as a run-way, and Woody's characters trying to make sense of why we're on it. For many of those who are spotlighted on the catwalk of life--or aspiring to be--happiness is achieving stardom and fame--being the celebrity flavor of the week, in demand and served up at every book party. Tom Wolfe's new book (A Man in Full) party sounds like it might have been right out of Allen's movie, if you ask me. And by the time you read this review, that flavor will be out of favor.

In terms of themes and ideas, Allen was taking on a lot. Witness the strange bedfellows celebrity makes: the skinheads have a shmear with Rabbi Kaufman, and the vain ACLU lawyer is unhappy in the green room with the Klansmen from South Carolina--because he needs a touch-up. Although he might have riffed on these set-ups with endless easy laughs, Allen chose not to jam up the already overpacked script. His intelligent restraint in not milking the funny bits gives him the time to let us soak up something other than straight humour. His runway images--clothing "models" bleached out in black and white, walking scantily clad in front of flashing bulbs--work well as the sheerest visual commentary. At his high school reunion, Lee Simon drinks deep from a tumbler of poignancy and pathos, and responds with a dash of cruelty towards his classmates. Allen refuses to lighten the feel of this scene, letting it play for the urgency it gives to Lee's increasingly frantic search for satisfaction. Overall, Woody's questions about our culture and our individual lives, (albeit more at mid-life and rather New York-based) were excellent, if a bit unnerving and unflinching.

Leonardo DiCaprio succeeded deliciously in living up to the part of the indulged superstar, mostly because he never plays it archly, but as Woody wrote it. More than just inspired casting, the real life/celebrity life tongue-in-cheek angle was perfectly excuted. It was critical that Allen got folks in the biz to "appear." Getting celebrities to laugh at themselves--and at us, for taking them at face value--and for valuing the "face" over what's inside.

I laughed out loud, which is a must for me at any Woody film. Then again, I laugh at the dark parts. I get sad and introspective at what may be the "funny" parts for some people: like when you see Lee Simon realize that the woman he's just dumped has got his manuscript, and when he's running to the boat to see it all just "float away." Woody picks the joke up later, sadly, and it's funny and ironic at the same time--Lee *threw* the manuscript away like he threw away the move-in relationship he could have had. For nothing.

He literally missed the boat.

I can think of a dozen or more themes which jump out and beg for discussion. I think it's Woody's flip version of Steve Martin's LA story--when the nature of love or real human warmth is shown by its lack, instead of by example or on display. Martin did it with a light "heart" and Allen does it with a heavy one. Martin leaves us with a hopeful look. Allen seems wistful, more an outsider to the party. But Allen has never been one to serve up a truly happy ending, even in those early films. Watch carefully, between the jokes and gags. At first, it was only that the universe was expanding, and we could laugh. Now, it's closer to home. Allen, is making us more uncomfortable. That's the idea.

Segue to the banana scene. Okay, I didn't like it much-- I think I would have cut away just before or after Davis sinks her teeth into the scene. By leaving the actual lesson to our offscreen imaginations, we could still get Davis' well-acted angst and the "crucifixion" joke. But maybe that was just the point. The scene does more than establish that Davis' character is uptight; Allen stays with this scene until it's something America would watch on Jerry Springer. (For non-American television viewers without cable, it's a bizarre bazaar which indulges an audience's fascination for private humiliations made public. It doesn't get much lower on the viewing food chain than this.) Part of Allen's point may have been that we are prepared to watch this sort of thing in our Joey Buttafuco fellatrix-intrigued world. (Although a banana scene was used in Rufus Sewell's "Dangerous Beauty" it was played for an entirely different effect.) Or maybe Woody just thought it was funny. This sort of scene used to be funny, or funnier than it is now. These days, it's politically relevant for crying out loud. The next docu-dramedy miniseries may be the Starr report, with a re-enactment of key scenes; but with funnier dialogue, because Starr is hysterical. I'm not kidding.

Serious theme? The movie is about tearing things down. We all know we should build our lives, inner and outer, carefully. But, fools that we are, we can, and do, tear it all down. For stupid reasons, or for no reason at all. Lee Simon tears down anything he's got going for the "next thing." As we watch Lee, and ask, why are you going after Wynona Ryder (aside from the obvious reason), we should be savvy enough to know that sometimes we do exactly the same thing. Okay, maybe for different reasons. And for different things. But you know what I mean. And, like Lee, we don't see what we're doing.

That was one of the points of the Donald Trump one-liner. Let's tear down anything that's worthwhile--how about St. Patrick's Cathedral? Nothing is sacred. We tear ourselves down--WHY should we feel we need a nip and tuck? Are looks really everything? Davis doesn't need a face lift--she needs a heart lift, and Allen operates so quickly and deftly, that if you blink, you're going to miss it. This part is inspired-- Davis is saved, through blind luck, from going under the useless scalpel of This Year's Famous Face-Lift Doc, in a unbelievable fairy-tale rescue by a wonderful Joe Mantegna. In case you didn't get it, it's the equivalent of the damsel in distress, being saved as she's tied down to the railroad track. It's the "just dumb luck" message that Woody offers, as to how some of us can end up happy. You don't need to change your face, you just need to change your doctor. Blind luck.

That's the love and warmth part--such as it is-- that many viewers seem to have missed. Look at Mantegna's family, wonderfully created--kooky and pains in the neck, sure, and not immune to the perks that Mantegna's status can give them. But if Branagh's character is "h-e-l-p" then Mantegna's is "I'm fine and pretty-well adjusted, all things considered, thanks."

A mix of messages, with lots characters, the film is loosely hinged at times, and on first viewing, you may be trying to figure out just whom you're supposed to be watching carefully. Allen's focus can seem almost random, floating like the camera floats (so wonderfully) at Elaine's, from face to face. My advice is to relax, enjoy the ride, and just go with it.

Maybe it's people at mid-life or older, or those viewers who can put themselves right there, who can identify with the swirl of these characters in the most meaningful way. I wouldn't like to think so, since the movie has a lot to say about growing up--from bona fide "can't-go-backs" to twenty-somethings and even teens. I can see how some people might not "like" this film--it's not happy or pretty--but neither is a close, objective, inspection in the mirror. Our personal and collective mirrors, that is.

The ending was masterful, in my opinion--VERY Woody. Very reminiscent of Woody in close-up watching Casablanca in his earlier film, "Play It Again, Sam"--except now, the bittersweet yearning has elemental truths which we can't rush away from--remember Allen's expression? (Whether Woody knows it or not, Branagh at the end of Celebrity is the grown-up version of his earlier screen persona. How's that for free analysis!) I loved the slow pan of the rest of the audience. We're all watching--watching them watching! The heads, facing front, suggest that we're not even seeing who's next to us. All those other people who have lives, who have a story, who are all "watching" a screen next to Lee Simon, but not with him. Yep, even in a crowded movie theatre, our current houses of worship (am I the first to say that?) we are alone. In pain, and in the dark, looking for answers.

Hey! Did I mention that the movie was funny? There is love--and warmth--in this movie. If you "want your ten dollar's worth," look closely into the crystal ball scene, revealing our hopes and fears and expectations of love and life, and love *in* life. (Julie Kavnor in "Oedipus Wrecks" from "New York Stories" popped into my head). Haven't we all, at some point, waited for "the other shoe to drop"? Yes, it's a dumb luck. Tragedy (her husband leaves her) turns into happiness for Davis. Go figure, Allen says. We have to laugh at ourselves. The way we think, the way we feel, the way things turn out.

I have always admired how Allen can make his point(s) at the the end of his movie without patronizing the audience. I suppose this is one of the advantages of being an writer/director who works with a cluster of people who trust him (his longtime producer) and whom he trusts (his editor and cinematographer, among others). I get the feeling this scene may have been there from the start, though. It's a perfect "ending." I wonder how everyone else missed how good this movie is.

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For an interview with Woody Allen, go here.

(C) 1998 The Daily Telegiraffe. This particular article may be freely reproduced to stimulate discussion online or in print media, by anyone except "The New Yorker" magazine. You guys will have to pay.

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