As the world's most glamorous film festival plumbs new depths, why have we fallen out of love with celebrity?
The end of the affair
The 61st annual Festival de Cannes started this week and runs for a fortnight on the beaches of the French Riviera. It's still considered the most glamorous film festival in the world, but over the years the lustre has faded. The photographs of French B-movie starlet Simone Silva, topless, alongside Robert Mitchum on the beach at a 1954 press conference, established the festival's image as a place of hedonistic glitz. But these days the red carpet seems more like a place of simple commerce, where actors get photographed because it's part of their job. They're there to work more than they are to work it.
When Sylva took her top off a half-century ago, the scramble for pictures was so manic that one photographer broke his arm and another his leg. But these days even the paparazzi aren't impressed by the celebrities on display. Last year Pamela Anderson, the star of films like Barb Wire and Blonde and Blonder (which she was promoting at Cannes) was booed by a crowd of photographers for arriving late to a photo shoot.
Cannes has always had a fondness for booing, but the targets in years past were movies. Michelangelo Antonioni's masterpiece L'avventura was booed by the audience in 1960; in the 1980s and 1990s both Robert Bresson and Jim Jarmusch were booed - at the premieres of L'Argent and Dead Man, respectively. The crowd at Cannes is ever-alert to the least bit of cinematic turbulence; hissing and booing is their way of complaining to the management.
But you don't expect Pam Anderson to join the ranks of Antonioni and Bresson. She may be a cultural product of a certain disrepute, but not the kind of disrepute art filmmakers fall into when they release a difficult work. No, the booing of Anderson signifies something else. It means the average person is finally allowed to be as bored by a celebrity as they would be by an Antonioni film. It's not just that celebrities are dull. More and more, there's also something about them that fills us with revulsion. It used to be that a celebrity sighting was cause for celebration. You'd phone the wife and kids: "Hey, I just saw Robert Stack walking into the Automat!" Now it's more an occasion for jeering.
Or, more accurately, a chance to feel a deep queasiness about what's happened to our culture. The celebrity is quickly becoming a harbinger of nausea, a delivery system for Weltschmerz, there to remind us that things, actually, are what they seem: pathetic. Whenever I'm in Los Angeles, I experience this unease. I don't have a name for it. I go out to lunch and worry Sinbad's going to be sitting across from me. I wait in line at a hot dog stand and hope I don't spot Carmen Electra.
A celebrity sighting can really ruin your day. At night it's even worse. Not too long ago I was eating in a favourite restaurant when Mike Myers walked in with a large group I hesitate to call an entourage. As the loveable star of the Austin Powers movies sat down with his people, you could see on the faces of the other diners that their wine had just turned to vinegar. What's he doing here, their expressions said. What's he doing in this part of town? Why isn't he in his own area?
Increasingly, that's where we want them: away from us. The Bible suggests that the poor will always be with us. Today it's the rich who will always be with us. If they're famous on top of it, that makes their presence all the more galling, not to mention disruptive. Whole neighbourhoods of our cities have turned into ghettos of the celebrated, and there's nowhere we can go to escape. They will always be with us. Who wants to live across the hall from the breakout star of Survivor: Guatemala? Riding the bus is bad enough without Ashton Kutcher taking the last seat.
Even celebrities have become aware of the problem. A couple of months ago George Clooney was on a panel with other actors nominated for Academy Awards. He told a story about discovering helicopters flying over his house, startling him and ruining his night. It turned out that Britney Spears lives up the street; she was going to 7-11 or the hospital or somewhere, to get Doritos or help or whatever, and the press had mobilised. "Now I have to move," Clooney moaned.
Clooney, who still seems like a star cut from the old cloth, apparently realises that part of being a star is maintaining a semblance of normality, that even though he is apart from us - he does live next to Britney Spears - he is still somehow like us - he lives next to her but he's not too happy about it. Celebrities, by contrast, are people who are not like us. They are like each other, all freakish in the same way.
The famous bore us with their sameness. It's not that they can't be the same as everyone else, or that they can't be the same from day to day. But why are they all the same as each other? What force compels them to only marry each other? Even a certified star like Scarlett Johansson must be pulled down to earth - she's marrying Ryan Reynolds, formerly of the sitcom Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. Johansson's been compared to Marilyn Monroe, but the times dictate there will be no Arthur Miller for her.
"Marlene Dietrich is not an actress, like Sarah Bernhardt; she is a myth, like Phryne," wrote André Malraux. For the sociologist Edgar Morin, writing in the 1950s, stars were still godlike, Other. It used to be that a celebrity - someone famous merely for being famous - was an anomaly among the stars; Zsa Zsa Gabor, for example. Today, the situation is reversed. A star like Clooney has to make an effort to distance himself from celebrity.
Morin wrote his 1957 book The Stars just as the concept of celebrity was taking over, when this Otherness was still attractive and desirable. But already he saw an army, like something out of The Day of the Locust, who "by dark glasses concealed their anonymity beneath the manifest symbol of celebrity". These days celebrities are more like the gods in Rachel Bespaloff's essay On The Iliad, who "have that want of seriousness... that for Homer... is the distinguishing mark of the subhuman; this is what makes them such exquisite comic figures."
They swoop down out of nowhere to change the lives of the lowest among us. But even when they're saving African babies, rescuing whole continents, recalibrating the ecosystem, giving big, there's still something a little off about them, that separates them from the semi-mystical figures of Morin's day. Today, when all acclaim has become a form of debasement, celebrities are those figures who, when you show them a shark, will jump it.
Their desperation makes us want to push them away, and they seem smaller and smaller as they recede. We even watch them on smaller and smaller screens. But it's obvious it's not just the pictures that got small. AS Hamrah has written for the Los Angeles Times and Newsday, and is film critic for the magazine n+1.