"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Since we pay their salaries, movie stars belong to you and me.
They’re not entitled to dine out in peace; photographers should be allowed to shove cameras in their, or their children’s, faces at any time; they deserve our resentment because we’re not as rich or beautiful or successful as they are. They’re receptacles for both our dreams and our derision, although most times we can’t figure out exactly what we want from them — all we know is they’ve got something we want, or think we want, or have talked ourselves out of wanting. We’ve become a nation of shallow people with nothing better to do than salivate over the pages of InStyle, and who’s to blame for it? Movie stars.
Now that we’ve nailed both the problem and its cause, it’s time to ask one small, squeaky question: Does anybody out there simply enjoy watching them act anymore?
In the old days, movie stars had a simple purpose: To give us pleasure. Lillian Gish, Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, Doris Day, Paul Newman — the list goes on. Movie stars were accepted (and, sure, in some cases revered) as exceptional people, possessed of special qualities that the rest of us didn’t quite have. We knew what their role was, and we knew what its limits were. We might have been jealous of them, but it never occurred to us to hold them responsible for our own unhappiness.
But by the last stretch of the 20th century that had begun to change, and now we live in what has been termed by every junior sociologist and her personal trainer a “celebrity-obsessed culture.” The phrase itself has become a cliché — most of us have uttered it at one time or another, usually with at least a small moue of disapproval. We often use this phrase as a way of asserting our own good taste, of reaffirming our distance from the masses. It’s a shorthand way of saying, “There are two types of people in the world: Me, and the kind of people who try out for reality TV shows.”
But the people who decry our culture’s obsession with celebrities have become even more annoying than the people who are so obsessed. And although the first group might like to think they’re infinitely superior to the second, the fact remains that both groups desperately need the raw material that only celebrities can supply. There’s a culture war being waged between “the peasants” and “the people who know better,” and celebrities are the pawns in between, the unwitting instigators of every societal problem from body-image issues to frustration with dead-end jobs to pure stupidity and shallowness.
That’s a lot of responsibility to shoulder. Even at $20 million a picture, are we paying them enough?
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Everybody sees celebrities on TV and in magazines. But if you’ve ever found yourself in a room crawling with them, you might be surprised by your own response to their actual presence. People who live in Los Angeles and New York are somewhat used to seeing them around. But being in an environment where they expect you to socialize with them is a different story altogether, as I found out myself a few weeks ago at the New York Film Critics’ Circle awards dinner, which I attended as the guest of a friend.
For one thing, I’d certainly seen crowds gathered outside celebrity happenings, waiting for a glimpse of so-and-so. But I’d never had the experience of having a crowd part for me: On my way into the restaurant, a small cluster of people interrupted their chatter to allow me through, before they realized that I was absolutely nobody. What surprised me most, though, was that even once they realized I was nobody, they didn’t seem annoyed that they had displaced themselves for me — there was an air of goodwill about the gesture, as if they were happy to cede way even to their potentially imagined glimpse of a movie star.
And then I was inside, where I came face to face with the genuine article. Some actors, like Daniel Day-Lewis and Dennis Quaid, were there to receive awards from the group; others, like Julianne Moore and Rosie Perez, were there to present awards to their peers. I have no hard-and-fast rules for conducting myself around celebrities, other than the New York rule, which is to express secret delight that you’ve spotted them but to suppress any outward sign that you’ve noticed them at all.
But it’s entirely different when you find yourself at a low-key cocktail reception where they’re fully prepared to chat with the press. The NYFCC awards dinner is a relatively relaxed affair; it’s not televised, and for the most part you sense that the people who show up are happy to collect an award. And it was a work night for them, after all — part of a celebrity’s job is to make appearances, and even the ones who don’t like it usually manage to muddle through.
From what I could tell, they all had more poise than I did. My own poise, such as it exists, was completely shredded when I noticed that Moore, an actress whose work I have long loved and admired, was headed straight toward me (I was standing close to the bar). She looked at me and was just about ready to smile and say hello — when I awkwardly and, I’m sure, obviously looked away, as if this luminously beautiful woman were one of the Gorgons.
It wasn’t as if she didn’t have anyone to talk to — a colleague of mine spotted her just before I did and cried out, to no one in particular and to everyone within earshot, “Oh, Julianne is here!” and wasted no time in pouncing on her. I wouldn’t have taken that route, either, but I quickly realized that the more polite thing would have been to smile and say hello and let her pass. Pure shyness was definitely part of the problem; but even more than that, I think, my manners had been overridden by some deeply ingrained instinct to preserve her privacy, even in this public if supremely relaxed arena. I realized that, as weird as it sounds, I feel protective of movie-star celebrities.
In the bizarre world we live in, there are two basic ways to deal with celebrity excess: You can prove you’re above it all by bashing celebrities — for example, making snappy, barbed remarks about Winona Ryder’s shoplifting habits — or, worse yet, you can be the type of person who writes fawning letters to magazines that read, “Thank you so much for writing about [insert name of latest hot starlet here]! Your article proved that she’s just as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside!”
But if you don’t take particular delight in either making wisecracks about them or worshipping the very ground they tread upon, where do you stand? Let me say that I enjoy a bit of celebrity dish as much as the next person. I enjoy gossip columns; from week to week I try to keep track of whom J.Lo is planning to marry (I find it’s handy to keep a chart); I’m not immune to the charms of pictures of Madonna and Guy Ritchie’s baby dressed in a bunny-ear hat; and boy, do I scrutinize those gowns at Oscar time.
There’s no reason we shouldn’t be somewhat curious about and intrigued by these glamorous, alluring creatures. We should also remind ourselves that our fascination with movie stars is nothing new. Photoplay readers in the ’30s were just as eager to read about the romance between Clark Gable and Carole Lombard as InStyle readers in the ’90s were curious about the details of, say, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston’s wedding.
But today’s climate is different. There are more media outlets than ever, and there’s more “information” — note those significant quotation marks — clamoring for our attention. We’re surrounded by media people who are certain they know what we want, even if they perhaps only know what we think we want. And perhaps we think we want celebrity dirt, of all types and at all hours of the day. You used to be able to pick up all the celebrity poop you needed or wanted just by scanning the gossip columns a few times a week. Now it’s almost a full-time job just to keep up.
Some people are fine with that, but there’s also a lot of simmering evidence in our culture that many people, understandably, want less. Our culture is too obsessed with celebrity. But for some reason, we don’t shoot the messenger, which is the media; we shoot the celebrity. TV and movie stars are still the ones on the front lines of the celebrity flock. Sports figures and Oprah-caliber TV personalities are a close second, but after that, the categories become a lot weedier.
There are very few rock stars anymore, now that only a few committee-approved (if not committee-manufactured) artists get to make records for mass distribution. As far as writers go, there’s no real modern equivalent to Norman Mailer or William S. Burroughs or Tom Wolfe. Movie stars carry most of the load.
They also, admittedly, make a hell of a lot of money. There are always going to be rifts between the haves and the have-nots, and movie stars, whom we all perceive as rich, sit squarely on the side of the haves.
But while we all know that Julia Roberts demands upward of $20 million a picture (and if that’s not the current figure, it just proves how far behind I am on my celebrity homework), we probably don’t stop to think that there are plenty of Hollywood studio executives — and honchos in other, less glamorous industries — who take home that much or more, and maybe for doing a lot less work. It’s likely that part of people’s hostility toward stars is, at least partly, misguided aggression toward the Hollywood machine for being fat and greedy and not giving us enough good movies. The public sees the stars as part of the machine — why shouldn’t they be taken down a peg or two?
But for every Julia Roberts there are hundreds of other Hollywood actors who just want to work — and do good work — for a fair wage. It’s easy to blame actors for Hollywood’s excesses because they’re the most visible people in the industry. But if we’re looking for genuine greed, there’s a lot more of that further up the ladder.
Even then, if Julia Roberts can actually get $20 million a picture, why shouldn’t she go for it? A friend recently recalled how Pauline Kael once remarked of Roberts, with a laugh, “Just look at her! Not a trace of guilt!” The handsome boyfriends, the radiant smile, the big paychecks: Kael’s point was that Roberts had it all and seemed to know how to enjoy it, refusing to apologize for anything. And wouldn’t it be disingenuous for Roberts to act apologetic toward her public, especially after cashing the checks? Instead, she just turns up the star power. Rather than blaming celebrities for being all the things we can never be ourselves, wouldn’t it be healthier to think of their audacity as a kind of performance art?
But then, being sensible is so much less fun than being sarcastic. And the truth is, there’s money to be made in making nasty cracks about famous people simply because they’re famous. Writers who eviscerate celebrities are getting just as much mileage out of them as the ones who write stupid, fawning celebrity profiles: They’re both glomming onto celebrity fame, and they’d have nothing to write about if celebrities didn’t exist. I always dread the reams of snarky post-Oscar ceremony coverage: To put it plainly, if watching the Academy Awards offends your intelligence and sophistication so much, read a book instead. It’s a simple choice, really.
Everybody has something to say when celebrities make mistakes — realistically, how could we not wonder what on earth was going through Winona Ryder’s head as she surreptitiously stuffed thousands of dollars’ worth of clothing into a shopping bag? But while we complain that our television shows and our print press are clogged with too much celebrity “news,” nobody ever complains about the excessive, wearisome cleverness of the media’s celebrity bashers.
Many pundits provided what they considered sharp satirical skewering of the Ryder debacle — but how original and sharp do you have to be, exactly, to skewer something so inherently absurd, bizarre and sad? And how hard is it to make a cheap joke about Jennifer Lopez and her unquenchable urge to get engaged? (I can tell you exactly how hard it is, because I made one myself a few paragraphs ago and it took me all of five seconds to come up with it.)
The prevailing attitude may be that stars, who by their very nature often court the spotlight, deserve everything they get. But the logical extension of that line of thinking is that Rebecca Schaeffer deserved to be killed by a stalker because she had the audacity to appear in a minor sitcom. (As Keith Olbermann astutely pointed out in a recent Salon column, Schaeffer, the star of “My Sister Sam” who was murdered by an obsessed fan in 1989, wasn’t particularly well-served by the fact that stars’ addresses often make their way into newspapers’ real-estate columns.)
Anyone who becomes a star does have to realize that putting up with certain inconveniences and annoyances comes with the territory. It’s part of what stars get paid for. And yet, in casual conversation, whenever I find myself coming to the defense of celebrities, the counterarguments never amount to much more than “Well, they’re not really people, after all.” There’s a tendency to think of celebrities as this one big Other, a bunch of people who all live together in the same clubhouse, like the Monkees.
Why are so many ordinary, otherwise decent civilians convinced that celebrities are the scum of the earth and don’t deserve even the common courtesies we extend to dozens of strangers every day of our lives? Why is it OK to consider celebrities commodities rather than people? When I saw Daniel Day-Lewis accept his award at that dinner, I couldn’t believe how lousy his posture was. He’s one of those tall, shambling schlumpers. Most movie stars have such incredible carriage — don’t they all learn it at the clubhouse or something? Day-Lewis has incredible carriage in the movies (when the role calls for it), but in real life, the guy walks like a stringbean schmo.
Well, he is an elegant stringbean schmo. And anyway, I don’t find that disappointing; if anything, it’s exhilarating. I now realize that when Day-Lewis plays a character who stands straight and tall, it’s because he has reassembled his very bones to fit that character. If that’s not movie magic, I don’t know what is.
Obviously, I don’t like the work of every movie star. But I’d say that the work of those I’ve loved over the years makes up, with zillions of extra points to spare, for the work of those I haven’t. And so movie stars, collectively, have come to mean something more to me than a gaggle of ridiculous people who make too much money and marry and divorce with ridiculous abandon.
I love them for the way they look, for their sense of glamour and style as it translates on-screen (even more than off), for their ability to make me feel things that I would never have expected to feel. When people have given you that much pleasure, there’s sometimes no way to express it adequately — which is why some of us can do only the dumb thing, averting our eyes as they pass by.
Movie stars are not at all like you and me — except when they are. Day-Lewis, who may be reclusive but who doesn’t appear to be a snob, seemed genuinely grateful when he accepted his best actor award that night, although he didn’t seem to stick around for long; I suspect he skipped most of the post-awards schmoozing and slumped off quietly into the night. One of the half-dozen greatest actors of our generation, Day-Lewis is also a man with a job, a wife and a family. And, like so many of us, very bad posture.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)