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The price of fame

Baldwin protests too much

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Alec Baldwin has been making movies for nearly three decades and has been an A-list Hollywood celebrity since he starred in the film The Hunt for Red October in 1990. A popular host on Saturday Night Live, the 55-year-old actor also has had great success on the television sitcom 30 Rock, starring alongside Tina Fey.

According to the website, Baldwin is worth $65 million and was paid $300,000 per episode for 30 Rock.

Yet, Baldwin is equally famous for his temper. A few years ago, he berated his then 11-year-old daughter, Ireland, as a "rude, thoughtless little pig" in a voice-mail message broadcast across the planet. Then, in December 2011, he became embroiled in a nasty argument with a flight attendant when she told him to put his cellphone away. And last November, he was caught on a cellphone video screaming an anti-gay expletive (which he denies) at a photographer who was stalking him and his family on a New York street.

Fed up with living life in a proverbial fishbowl and feeling misunderstood, Baldwin has announced he is leaving New York City and relocating to Los Angeles, where he believes he can find more privacy behind the gates of a mansion.

Being a celebrity used to be a lot easier, he suggests in an article he wrote (with Joe Hagan) for the Feb. 24 issue of New York Magazine. Yet that all changed with cellphones and the digital revolution.

"It used to be you'd go into a restaurant and the owner would say, 'Do you mind if I take a picture of you and put it on my wall?' Sweet and simple," he writes. "Now, everyone has a camera in their pocket. Add to that predatory photographers and predatory videographers who want to taunt you and catch you doing embarrassing things... You're out there in a world where if you do make a mistake, it echoes in a digital canyon forever... In the New Media culture, anything good you do is tossed in a pit, and you are measured by who you are on your worst day."

Still, there always has been a high price for fame. It is the downside of big salaries, fancy homes and glamorous lifestyles. Despite their best efforts, celebrities generally cannot pick and choose when they want to be in the public eye. Being famous means an almost complete lack of privacy, whether it is getting a cup of coffee and buying groceries or attending a movie première.

And as Baldwin rightly complains, every outburst, indiscretion or marital problem becomes worldwide news, now given even greater scrutiny by paparazzi, cruel bloggers and everyone and anyone with a cellphone camera. (Similarly, Lorde, the 17-year-old New Zealand singing sensation recently declared she can no longer tolerate the "lecherous gaze that I'm subjected to." Adding, after journalists "jostled" her at the airport, "the price tag of fame sucks.")

Stars like Baldwin are indeed an easy target for gossip, innuendo and spite, sometimes brought on by their own controversial actions. And that is true today as much as it was nearly a century ago.

In 1921, there was likely no bigger star than Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. He was a comedic genius of the silent film era and, according to legend, the first person to throw a cream pie at someone in a movie. That year, he signed a three-year contract potentially worth $1 million and a minimum of $250,000 annually -- a huge sum at the time.

Prohibition of liquor was in force in the United States in 1921, yet that hardly mattered to Arbuckle and his friends. On the Labour Day weekend, Arbuckle was in San Francisco for a night of drinking and partying. Attending the festivities, too, were a group of models and chorus girls including Virginia Rappé. At some point during the evening, Rappé became sick. Arbuckle tried to help her and she was taken to the hospital. Three days later, she died from a ruptured bladder, most likely caused by complications brought on by a recent abortion.

Her friend, Maude Delmont, who had also been at the party, told the San Francisco Police Arbuckle had raped and assaulted Rappé. The evidence was severely lacking, though that did not stop the district attorney in search of fame himself from charging Arbuckle with a crime and the newspapers from quickly convicting him. Soon the press was filled with lurid tales Arbuckle had assaulted Rappé with a Coca-Cola bottle.

Arbuckle faced three trials. The juries in the first two could not arrive at a decision, and in the third, he was acquitted. But the ordeal nearly killed him and the Hollywood studios made him the fall guy for an industry then under intense investigation for its alleged moral failings. Though he later directed films under a pseudonym, he never acted in the movies again.

Spurred on by the growth of tabloids and gossip columns, Hollywood stars, as well as luminaries such as aviator Charles Lindbergh -- who was the first true global superstar following his successful solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927 -- were forced to live out their lives in public.

Lindbergh detested it as much as Baldwin, though he was not prone to public fits of anger. And before the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Lindbergh used his celebrity power to further his campaign to keep the U.S. out of the war.

No one, of course, is forcing Alec Baldwin or any other actor to be a Hollywood star, and behaving poorly in public, whether you are famous or not, is a personal choice -- as Baldwin concedes. Baldwin could quit the business, as actor Shia LaBeouf seemingly has done in the wake of accusations he plagiarized a short film and comic books he has authored.

But despite the frustration and anger Baldwin expressed in the New York Magazine article, he won't. Money is only part of the reason. The fact is, fame is as intoxicating as any drug.

In the 2011 film, My Week with Marilyn, with Michelle Williams in the starring role as Marilyn Monroe, there is a telling scene near the end of the movie. The young Brit, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), who has fallen in love with Monroe, wants to rescue her from the apparent misery her fame has caused her. "You don't have to do this," he implores her. In that moment, she looks at him as if he is a lunatic. Give up being Marilyn Monroe, she says contorting her face, that would be impossible.


Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2014 A15

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