Most actors work best with a script; improvising can be dangerous. Take Gary Oldman, the latest figure in a now-familiar cycle of outrage and remorse, whose comments in an interview in the July-August issue of Playboy—about the hypocrisy of West Coast liberals vis-à-vis racist and/or derogatory comments made by Mel Gibson and Alec Baldwin—swiftly, inevitably, went viral.
The problem, Oldman argued, was not the use of incendiary language—because, hey, who hasn’t used the word ‘nigger’ in private? Who hasn’t called someone a ‘dirty Jew’, or a ‘faggot’... you know, just among buddies? Gibson’s supposed crime, he said, was no crime at all, merely another example of political correctness run amok: “[He] got drunk and said a few things—but we’ve all said those things. We’re all fucking hypocrites.” (Oh, and one more thing: Hollywood is “a town that’s run by Jews.”)
Oldman’s politics are of the right, which is fair enough. And like many Tories and Republicans, he views himself as an endangered minority in mostly liberal Los Angeles, forced to stomach their tedious, self-congratulatory pieties in order to keep working.
Some of what he had to say, however, went beyond mere partisan politics: “If I called [US Democratic House Leader] Nancy Pelosi a cunt—and I’ll go one better, a fucking useless cunt—I can’t really say that,” he told the interviewer.
Well, no, you can’t. Or actually, you can, but if you do then you have to expect some blowback. And that’s not a matter of Right-Left divisions, or conflicting conservative and liberal worldviews; it’s simply a question of manners.
"I’m not sure why we feel we have to admire artists whose work we enjoy."
Unfortunately for Oldman, it seems some people do read Playboy for the articles, and so the narrative that followed his comments was as predictable as any Hollywood blockbuster. First the obligatory slam from the Anti-Defamation League. Then, on cue, a public and carefully-scripted backtracking from the star, an apology delivered in prose so cautious, so utterly divorced from anything an actual human might actually say aloud, that it might as well have been a Kevin Rudd speech. Although, at the very end of his statement, Oldman did seem about to go rogue again—not only had he recently read a pro-Jewish book (!), but “the Jewish People,” he added, “persecuted thorough the ages, are the first to hear God’s voice, and surely are the chosen people.” (Steady on, mate. Let’s not alienate the Methodists.)
So, in summary: a public figure says something not so much ill-advised as unmanaged—and for a moment there’s a breach in the carefully guarded façade that is their public persona, a surface buffed by teams of agents and publicists to a dull, featureless gleam. In place of the usual say-nothing banalities, we get a brief, dizzying glimpse of something real: actual opinions, strongly held.
And everyone panics.
I’m not sure why. Just as I’m not sure why we feel we have to admire artists whose work we enjoy. I know, for example, that Morrissey is an absolute, unremitting bastard—but that fact doesn’t stop me from loving The Smiths’ albums. V.S. Naipaul is by most accounts a fairly monstrous human being—and the author of some of the most extraordinary prose I’ve ever encountered. Their work is—should be—larger, better than either of them. I won’t enjoy Sid and Nancy or Prick Up Your Ears any less knowing I have little in common with their star. I’m looking at a performance, not a moral exemplar.
But there’s another issue here, and it has to do with the ever-contentious relationship between celebrities and the press that covers them.
Back in the day, when I worked for newspapers—back when there were newspapers to work for—I occasionally used to do interviews with actors. And it was interesting, over the lifespan of my own journalistic career (such as it was), to witness a perceptible shift in the level of access granted. At, say, the Venice Film Festival in 1998, I was given a 30-minute, one-on-one chat with George Clooney, there to promote his starring role in Out of Sight. Two years later I had almost 40 minutes with Matt Damon. In each case, we spoke freely across a range of topics—partly the result of my unscripted, let’s-see-where-this-takes-us interview style, but also a testament to the relative non-interference of publicists. Who introduced us to each other, showed us to the hospitality suite, and left us in peace.
"I sometimes imagine publicists and managers lying awake at night, too terrified to sleep, monitoring their clients’ Twitter feeds, or TMZ, for the catastrophe that must, inevitably come."
Even three years later, this kind of interview was unthinkable. Suddenly you were placed on round tables with other journalists—as many as a dozen of you, from all countries, all talking over each other, clamouring to get a question in. And as the numbers grew larger, the times got shorter: the entire mob got 20 minutes per slot. And then they started doubling up the Talent. Now, I hear, a round-table can be up to 15 journalists, and two and sometimes even three actors, for 15 minutes, tops—while minders lurk within earshot, ready to shut the session down should anyone go off-script. Good luck with that.
I sometimes imagine publicists and managers lying awake at night, too terrified to sleep, monitoring their clients’ Twitter feeds, or TMZ, for the catastrophe that must, inevitably come. But when something like l’affaire Oldman occurs, I feel a deeper chill descending. Because the result will almost certainly be greater regulation. More copy-approval, more stringent conditions, more exacting demands. Advertorial instead of editorial: meticulously stage-managed ‘encounters’ that make no pretence that they’re intended to do anything but sell the product in question.
And instead of journalists? Junketeers—quote-whores, lavishly accommodated at the studios’ expense, well-fed from the hospitality suite, and so flattered by their proximity to the great and good that they’d never dream of committing anything contentious or even awkward to the public record. Why would they? It would be like biting the hand that (literally) feeds them.
Ironically, Oldman’s transgression and contrition only makes me respect Kate Moss even more. Who weathered her one brush with real scandal—she did cocaine! a supermodel! who knew?!—with admirable fortitude, even as a bunch of British tabloid journalists (who’d probably chopped out a line or two that same morning) tut-tutted in high moral indignation, and a few equally gakked-up designers froze her out and withdrew their contracts.
Moss, either unusually astute or remarkably well-advised, recognised this hypocrisy for what it was, knew the storm would blow over, and waited. Her professional mantra—‘Never complain, never explain’—should be posted next to Fran Lebowitz’s maxim ‘Think before you speak. Read before you think’ in the book of Life Lessons Worth Heeding. And her refusal to don the hair shirt and do a public walk of shame was positively thrilling. No crocodile tears. Just a simple apology to those she’d “let down” and then a stately, dignified silence.
We now live in a social media-driven world. One in which everyone is a broadcaster, endlessly transmitting every half-formed thought and careless gesture to the world. What is Twitter, after all, if not the idiots’ bully pulpit? Most of it is inconsequential, storm-in-a-teacup stuff. (Do you honestly give a crap about Bindi Irwin’s ‘beef’ with Caitlin Stasey? Or Frances Bean Cobain giving unasked-for life lessons to Lana Del Rey?) Yet when even as literate and seemingly reasonable a chap as Patton Oswalt is pulled into endless online fights—reverse-trolling right-wingers and thoughtless online columnists—you have to wonder if there might not, just perhaps, be a better use of this clever and talented man’s time?
A question for you, reader: can you think, right now, of one thing Kate Moss has ever said? Do we know her views on the war in Syria, or the plight of the Sumatran tiger, or Edward Snowden? I’m not diminishing the significance of these things. On the contrary, I’m saying that they’re sufficiently important to merit serious consideration, not a dilettantish, tossed-off quote, more red meat thrown to the Online Coliseum.
Frankly I don’t care what she thinks of anything—nor Gary Oldman, for that matter. And Moss, at least, understands this, which is why she has for more than two decades remained so silent, circumspect and aloof. Would that others followed her example.