Celebrity (1998)


So I’m trying to think what this movie is really about.  First of all, yes it is about celebrity, but I’m having a hard time figuring out what it’s trying to say about celebrity.  I’ll work it out here, and hopefully by the end of these 1,500 to 2,000 words* I’ll have figured something out.

But it’s also about relationships and finding yourself.  That seems to be the opposite of “celebrity.”  “Celebrity” is public, vast, famous yet unfamiliar.  Maybe Robin and Lee’s marriage didn’t work because they were both so unfamiliar with each other.  It could be that “celebrity” refers to the images you create in your head to represent the people around you, even the people you know most closely.  Okay, so that’s my sort of thesis statement, now let’s break it down.

Celebrity is another Woody Allen film.  It’s one in which you can imagine him playing the main character, but instead of Allen it’s Kenneth Branagh playing the part of Lee Simon.  Lee speaks like a character played by Allen, and he gets himself in trouble like a number of Allen’s characters in past films.  I think the only reason Allen didn’t cast himself in the role was because he deemed himself to be too old for the part.

Lee announces to Robin (Judy Davis) that he wants a divorce.  It’s sudden, at least to Robin, and the conversation goes down while driving in the middle of the road.  Robin gets out of the car and sprints into Central Park, forcing Lee to chase after her.

Robin then goes to a religious-type retreat to clear her head.  We learn that she had a very religious background, and she’s an overall conservative person.  We also learn that Lee is quite the opposite.  He’s a writer who bounces back and forth between wanting to write another novel or a screenplay or just write magazine pieces on celebrities.

In a flashback we see that Lee was pretty content with his lot in life until he went to his high school reunion and suddenly realized he wanted to completely overall his life.  So the story is really about Lee and Robin’s separate identities outside of marriage and how they form those identities.  It’s like a dog that loses its back legs and must learn to walk again.

Robin has a very tough time.  A friend of hers gets her an appointment with a famous plastic surgeon, and while there a news crew shows up, led by producer Tony.  Tony has a thing for Robin, helping her come out of her shell a bit and realize she has value.  Robin struggles with her insecurities and anger towards Lee.

Tony is a calming influence who not only sticks with her but also helps her transition into a new job at his production company.  She moves from being a school teacher to a producer’s assistant of some kind at the studio to ultimately becoming an on air reporter.

When Lee realized he wanted a divorce, his thinking was that he didn’t want to be married to a school teacher.  His hang ups in his marriage are based on the idea he conjures up in his mind of what a school teacher wife is like versus, say a model or actress wife.

Lee’s journey involves multiple hook ups and near hook ups with women in the entertainment industry.  Early on, actually right away in the film, he is on set of a film in which he meets an extra named Nola, played by Winona Ryder.  They quickly dive into flirtatious ways, but then Lee is distracted by the actress about whom he must write a fluff piece for his magazine.  One thing leads to another and they exchange fluids in what might be the image in the dictionary for “meaningless sex.”  The whole things feels formulaic, and the actress implies that this is how many of these actress-journalist encounters go.

Soon after, Lee meets a model played by Charlize Theron.  He is infatuated with her and escorts her all across town even when she hardly pays him any attention.  She comes across as someone who gets what they wants and expects it to continue that way.  Lee, of course, only encourages this attitude as he follows her like a puppy.  She is forced to leave when he crashes his car while thinking about sleeping with her.

Later Lee is dating a woman who can help him publish his third novel, but they break up when he runs back into Nola and they start a relationship.  Eventually they break up, and Lee and Robin run into each other at the premiere of the movie that was being filmed in Celebrity‘s first scene.  At their run in, Robin is happily married to Tony, Lee is comfortably single, and they both seem more grounded and accepting of themselves and each other.  The image that began the film also ends it: “HELP” written in the sky.

Okay.  Lee is overly concerned with celebrity, that’s for sure.  He has so many encounters with famous actors and models, but that’s partially because he’s a writer most known for profile pieces on celebrities.  His profession calls for him to fawn over these famous figures.

He lusts after many women, and he tries to use any connections he might have to advance his own career.  In a memorable few scenes, Lee tries to get his screenplay in the hands of Brandon Darrow (Leonardo DiCaprio), a hugely famous actor.  DiCaprio is cast perfectly here as he is and was worldwide famous, particularly after Titanic (1997).

Darrow is also the stereotype of what we imagine a young Hollywood star to be.  He trashes hotel rooms, fights with his on again, off again young girlfriend, snorts cocaine, sleeps with a host of available women, gambles thousands of dollars in Atlantic City, all in the span of a few hours.  It’s so over the top, and it only makes sense as an extension of the image we build up of young, rich stars who can do as they please.  At the same time, maybe it could be read that this is subverting the image of specific young celebrities.  After Titanic, DiCaprio was probably adored and seen as a kind, gentle young man.  So it either confirms or totally rejects the image you have in your head, depending on whether you’re a pessimist or an optimist.

Through all that erratic and expensive living, Lee is the one who doesn’t fit in, following Brandon’s entourage and trying to get a word in about the script.

Lee breaks up with his book-producer girlfriend after running into Nola again, and he does so the same morning that she has movers bringing in all her furniture.  It’s a quick rejection of their relationship, made worse by the forward momentum it seemed to have.  In fact, they seemed to be good together.  After the supermodel rejected him, I kept thinking Lee’s girlfriend would be the run to call things off or at least to pump the brakes. Instead he breaks up with her only because he knows Nola is waiting in the wings.  He’s acting like a spoiled celebrity who ends a beautiful thing because he knows something better is waiting for him.  It’s like how we treat our phones, or our tacos, or anything we buy.  We expect the best of everything.  Lee is like that with people, or he was, because by the end he seems to have let it go.

It’s heartwarming watching Robin collect herself and find comfort in her new life.  After a couple opportunities as an on air reporter, she confesses to her future husband that she has become the kind of person she used to loathe, but she’s happier than she used to be.  She becomes the celebrity, and it’s purposefully ironic that she finds fame after Lee left her precisely to come closer to a famous lifestyle, one that he imagined but probably doesn’t exist.

I think Lee’s rejection of her is also a rejection of their ability to grow together.  I don’t know if it’s shortsighted or completely accurate, because they definitely seemed stagnant as a couple.  She probably needed to be on her own to become the person she was by the end.  So Lee’s decision was rash but completely right, I think.

I think “celebrity” refers to the endless search for what we want or expect our lives to be.  No matter what, we’ll never stop looking… or some people won’t.  Robin seems fine, and that’s great, but as long as there are people like Lee, there will always be that search for fame.

Are there more people like Lee or Robin?  Does it matter?

One final note, is that Lee’s novel was about the decay of society and a condemnation of how we celebrate everyone and everything.  In other words, everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame.  For some people it’s like a drug that they scratch and claw at to hang onto, but for other people 15 minutes is enough.

*Not including this sentence, this post was 1,506 words.  With these sentences, this post is 1,521 words.


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