AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
VENICE 2012 – THE MASTER AND THE MARGHERITA
THE STARS AND THEIR COURSES AT THE 69TH VENICE FILM FESTIVAL
by Harlan Kennedy
There I was eating a takeaway tranche of Pizza Margherita as I walked past the Palazzo del Cinema – a slice from the festival gardens kiosk where they do these things so yummy good – when I saw the first shiny black Lancia draw up. The spotlights were coming on in front of the palace. The paparazzi were closing ranks. Lenses were being raised. Oh wow, I thought! It’s a Venice gala premiere. The stars are on their way to the red carpet. Let’s pause to eyeball.
It was THE MASTER, and soon, my Margherita munched, I watched Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams perform what Tchaikovsky would surely call ‘The Dance of the Bold but Bashful Celebrity’. It is always the same, year on year. At Venice, or Cannes, or indeed Oscar-night Hollywood. Tuxedo’d to the gills, resembling a penguin from outer space, the male celebrity advances up the honour avenue waving proudly. Swishing boldly in a designer label, slashed, fluted, flounced, furbelowed, dense or diaphanous, low-backed or low-bazoomed, the female celebrity smiles, blushes, radiates.
The flashbulbs pop like an outer space battle, ‘star wars’ with a new meaning. At the Venice fest, and often at the Oscars, inaudible words are exchanged between the star and a TV interviewer. Then the maw of immortality opens – the Door to the Building (“Lasciate ogni speranza, tutti infamosi”, “Abandon hope, all ye of little fame”) – and closure is consummated to this cosmic communion between the hoi-polloi and the hey-can-I-have-your-autograph.
But wait. I’m not here to discuss mere red carpet events. What fascinates is the way this dance, the bold-yet-bashful routine whereby the star flirts with his large audience (you must add national or international televiewers to the standing crowds) – that coy exhibitionism which denotes that he spends much of the rest of his life diving for cover from such idolatry – interconnects with the movies these stars star in.
Have you noticed – you would have done at Venice – how many stellar feature films, especially thrillers or (like THE MASTER) dramas freighted with existential portent and epic foreboding, seem to be fables about fame? In addition to their notional artistic agendas, their apparent narratives, Robert Redford’s THE COMPANY YOU KEEP and Ariel Vromen’s THE ICEMAN are both about heroes trying to evade the horrors of fame.
Redford plays an ex-Weatherman – former member of that violent protest group that blew up buildings during the Vietnam war – who goes on the run when his cover is blown. (It may be to prove his innocence of killing rather than to flee the consequences of his guilt). In THE ICEMAN, Michael Shannon plays a truth-based Mafia hit man who tries to hide from avengers and score-settlers by ‘retiring’ into the bosom of his family.
Redford’s WMOR (Wanted Man on the Run) spends the movie dodging, weaving, camouflaging: in fact looking just like the Redford who tries not be noticed annually at the Sundance Film Festival. There, if you see someone resembling a well-matured Marlboro Man with baseball-cap-not-cowboy-hat pulled low over brow, it’s probably he. The star spends much of THE COMPANY YOU KEEP, which he also directed, practising the five-finger exercises of inconspicuousness just as he does at Sundance or indeed, probably, throughout his life.
Then, of course, quelle ironie, he must promote his film. A film about self-effacement. He must walk the walk on Venice gala night.
The Lido crowd went clinically berserk. There was co-star Shia LaBeouf, who had preceded Redford up the steps, addressing the anodyne questions of the Venice TV interviewer, when the unmistakable, upstaging roar sounded. “Bob!” “Roh-bairt!” He was decanting himself from his Lancia. Forget Shia; small fry; had his minute. Redford squired himself up the steps with that smile that says, “It pains me to be here, ‘cos I’m just a modest all-American guy, but I’ll be a reflector for your love for these minutes, bouncing it back at you in my grateful, simple, golden-boy way.” He did grateful/simple/golden all the way to the TV interviewer; then, after the hint of a polite tussle to extricate himself, into the building.
Redford, we know, is dangerously famous. There have been times when crowds would have torn his clothes off. Michael Shannon will never reach that pop idol status. He is merely a good, sometimes borderline-great, screen actor. (One Oscar, well-deserved, for REVOLUTIONARY ROAD). But he too did the Tchaikovsky ballet of self-contradiction. To publicise a movie about a man who wants to vanish from public scrutiny – and from the ken of his onetime organised crime cronies – he donned the dinner jacket, smiled the smile, and bared himself to the motley-coloured adoration (some shrieking “Michael!”, others “Who ees he?”) of the Italo-Euro-global rubberneckers.
Fewer and fewer film fans fail to recognize him today. Shannon – I throw this out – is helped to fame, beyond the confines of his natural indie constituency, by his startling resemblance to a SIMPSONS character. With that well-defined, even prognathous upper lip he is a shoo-in for Homer, whenever they get round to a live-action movie. (All he needs is a pot belly). Since he also gets better with each film, he will become ever more racked in coming years, like any star, between the Yin of indecent celebrity and the Yang of decent fugitive shyness.
The MASTER gala, however, was the most fascinating pas de deux between the clamour of fame and the longing of the celebrity recluse. Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie is the tale of a vulnerable id, Joaquin Phoenix’s tormented ex-sailor, taken in hand by a superego with a crackpot doctrine: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cult leader and self-help guru. Both men in opposite ways are “on the run,” Phoenix from the traumas of war, Hoffman from the newsmen and lawmen scouting for scandal.
There were the actors on the Venice steps, weirdly “doppelgangering” their roles. I watched the procession with the simple, ritualistic relish with which I had just dispatched my slice of Pizza Margherita (another sensory pageant with an international flavour, perennially re-enjoyed by a world never tired of the same treats). Phoenix, darker and scowlier under the duty smile, bore himself with a swagger at once reticent and defiant, as if to say, “I really want no part of this. But I’ll play along because my minders say it’s good for me”. His screen mentor Hoffman was all ebullience and sunshine, a congenital extrovert or born-to-it bluffer.
It seemed so much a part of the extended drama – the decking built out from screen fiction into festival reality – that Phoenix should break away from his guards at one point to do some disapproved autograph-signing. (The guards urgently tried to prise him back from the crowd). Then Hoffman followed suit. He bounced towards the mob for his pen-and-signature gig, just as a clever folk leader might say: “Anything my protégés can do, I must show willing and do myself.”
They, like Redford and Shannon, soon vanished into the building for the ‘Fame Part 2’ continuance of their shtick: the bit where the common crowd is excluded, the idolaters are handpicked, and celebrity finds breath again in the decompression chamber of controlled adoration.
These are the secrets of stardom, and how to deal with it. Fight, flight and fan control: how to get back to mastering the speed and temperature of your super-celebrity. By the end of the day, to your relief, you can duck out of it altogether – so that by the end of the night you can regain the appetite, strategy and smiling stoicism to do it all over again.
Because you’re a star.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved