Celebrities: They’re NOT Just Like Us!

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jennifer-lawrence-oscars-2018-academy-awards.jpgThe magazine US Weekly has a feature titled, “Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us.” These pages feature photographs of famous people doing ordinary things, such as walking dogs, pushing baby strollers, and picking up dry cleaning. And while the photos show a decidedly less glamorous glimpse of these celebrities, it should be obvious to all of us that celebrities are not “just like us.” Otherwise, paparazzi would not find the need to snap pictures of them strolling down the street with their giant Starbucks drinks.

Last night the glitterati of Hollywood were out in full force to attend the most prestigious – and at 90, the oldest – entertainment awards ceremony in the country: the Academy Awards. As the decked out and bejeweled A-listers sauntered down the Red Carpet, onlookers in the stands cheered wildly for their favorite actors, singers and the like. Unlike the somber black that women donned for the Golden Globes as a #MeToo statement, last night’s nominees and presenters were adorned in bright reds, pinks, golds, and other happy colors.

Female and minority empowerment were definitely the theme of the evening, and at times Jimmy Kimmel got perhaps a bit too earnest about the industry’s attempts at fairness and inclusivity. Still, there were some refreshingly wonderful moments, such as Best Actress winner Frances McDormand’s somewhat kooky acceptance speech and her insistence that all female nominees stand up with her to show the world how far women have come in Hollywood.

As always, the musical numbers were overwrought and showcased the usual mediocrity of the Best Song category. My sister was apoplectic that The Greatest Showman‘s “This Is Me” lost out to the lame “Remember Me” from the Disney animated movie Coco.

I liked the fact that there were no sweeps by one movie this year, and I was fairly amused by the return of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty to have a do-over of the calamitous Best Picture announcement from last year. I guess even celebrities are human, as are the suits at Price Waterhouse Coopers.

Human, yes. But I can attest to the fact that they are somehow a little different from us. For years I lived in Los Angeles and saw many famous people in those nine years, including Michael Jackson, Tom Hanks, Brooke Shields, Martin Sheen, Jack Lemmon, and on and on. In L.A., it’s not cool to go crazy over a celebrity sighting or approach a famous person for his or her autograph. We act as if they are just another ordinary person, but inside we are like, “OMG, OMG, it’s George Clooney!”

Celebrities are different, not just because of their wealth or the fact that they can’t walk down the street without being recognized. They are different because their roles create larger than life personas through their music or their acting performances. That is why the big movie studios used to guard the public image of their stars with ruthless tenacity.

And that is why we turn out in huge numbers to get a glimpse of these luminaries as they walk the Red Carpet. It’s why we tune into an overlong but magical spectacle called the Oscars. And it’s why, detractors notwithstanding, the Academy Awards will endure to celebrate their 100th anniversary and beyond.

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On Writing

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I’m currently reading Amy Tan’s newest book, Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir. In it, Tan describes the inner workings of her process as a writer. She details the struggles, the loneliness, the uncertainties that accompany a writer’s life.

I have always considered Amy Tan one of my most admired writers. Her stories of motherhood, childhood loss, and the Chinese experience are deeply moving and, it would appear, deeply felt by Tan herself. Indeed, she describes how her life experiences have informed her fiction, sometimes at a subconscious level.

It’s a writing cliche to say, “Write what you know.”  For Amy Tan, that dictum seems to hold true. While her stories play out in other times and places, the emotional themes of love and loss reflect the tragedies Tan experienced in her own life.

Over the past three years, I have merely dipped my toe into the writing life. My twice weekly blog posts have helped me express my beliefs, vent on politics, and, most importantly, delve into my past and present life experiences. Like Tan, my urge to write comes from a need to explore and make sense of the joys and tragedies in my life in order to understand myself better.

It also helps to realize that a successful and critically acclaimed writer such as Tan struggles mightily with her writing. She dissects every sentence and discards whole chapters – sometimes even whole novels – in an effort to write something worthwhile.

The writing life is a solitary and difficult one, one without many signposts to show the writer she is on the right path. In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield encourages artists to press ahead, creating and expressing themselves on a daily basis no matter what, knowing that the jewel of a good idea will emerge if we can push past resistance and feelings of inadequacy and inauthenticity.

As a new year approaches, I plan to use the insights of Amy  Tan to renew my writing efforts and to learn how to use adversity to inform my work in a deep and meaningful way.

The Art vs. the Artist

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Revelations of sexual misconduct have roiled the entertainment industry, among others, in recent months. The allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and intimidation against producer Harvey Weinstein seemed to have unloosed a dam in Hollywood, and numerous directors, actors, and other entertainers have been accused of using their positions to abuse women.

In light of the accusations, networks have been cancelling TV series and specials, and no doubt the fate of some feature films hangs in the balance. I’m heartened by the change in attitude towards sexual impropriety in the workplace; it’s long overdue. But I wonder how to balance our admiration for the talent and artistry of a person with the ugly reality of his behavior in real life.

For decades there has been debate about such figures as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen and the degree to which we should ostracize their work out of protest at their sexual misdeeds (although in the case of Allen, many people see nothing wrong with his dating and eventually marrying his ex-wife’s adopted daughter. I would not be one of those people.) Heavyweights in Hollywood have always stood up for these men, even though Polanski had to flee the country on a statutory rape charge. But the question is, should we not see Chinatown, The Pianist, or Rosemary’s Baby – or indeed even recognize their greatness as films?

Sometimes the rejection of an artist’s work is based on unambiguous factors. Leni Riefenstahl, for instance, used her directorial talents to create propaganda for Hitler and Nazi Germany. It also doesn’t take much hemming and hawing to denounce D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a film that glories in the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. But what about the well-known anti-Semite Richard Wagner? His Nineteenth Century operas and other classical music are renowned works of art. Should we protest any productions of his work today, knowing what we know about his bigotry and xenophobia?

Over the years people have boycotted entertainers for political reasons. In fact, it seems like the entire world of the arts is fraught with politics these days. In fact, recently I had to stop and consider whether someone might be offended if I gave their child a book written by Bill Nye, the Science Guy. But short of objecting to the content of a specific book, movie, or other work of art, I’m not sure I want to let my personal opinion of an artist affect my appreciation of their work.

I don’t have the answers here. It seems to me that works of art should be judged on their own merits. Yet I would be hard pressed to attend a Louis C.K. performance these days. And should I finish binge-watching House of Cards or shun the series in protest over Kevin Spacey’s lame excuses and rationalizations for preying upon young men? Do time and distance make an artist’s work more palatable? I just don’t know.

Still, I am glad to see the cult of celebrity being shattered a bit to allow victims the ability to confront abuse and intimidation. After all, actors, directors, comedians, musicians and other artists are only human. They should be held to the same laws and standards as other humans, famous or not.

Whose Art Is It Anyway?

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The-2BBean-2B-1--1I’ve been seeing numerous articles about art in public spaces and the various controversies that go along with such visible displays. Coming from Chicago, a city rich in the arts, I grew up accustomed to iconic works of art on display throughout the downtown area.

As a Chicagoan, you might give directions referencing this art, such as, “Turn right at the Picasso and head south to the Chagall.” Or your point of reference might be Millennium Park’s iconic “Cloud Gate,” affectionately known to Windy City denizens and tourists as “The Bean.” Love them or hate them, these works of art have become part and parcel of our city landscape.

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Recently a famous Alexander Calder sculpture was removed from the former Sears Tower, now grudgingly known as the Willis Tower. Art lovers wondered what fate lay in store for such a well-known and beloved piece as this work titled “The Universe.” At the same time, there has been some talk of redeveloping a square designed by Mies van der Rohe that has been home to Calder’s bright red “Flamingo” sculpture since 1974. Such discussions and actions bring up the question, To what extent do public works of art belong to the people?

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Art has the power to inspire, invigorate, and sometimes divide people. Not long ago, the statue of “Fearless Girl” was planted directly across from “Charging Bull” in New York City’s financial district – with mixed reviews. Many women see “Fearless Girl” as a challenge to the largely male domain of Wall Street. The sculptor who created “Charging Bull,” however, sees it as an affront to the work he had installed there originally. He has tried unsuccessfully to have “Fearless Girl” removed.

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The controversy over these works shows that public art is so important that the artists who create it give up some control once their work becomes part of the public domain. I’ve read that Anish Kapoor, the creator of “Cloud Gate,” objected to the location of the sculpture and dislikes the “stupid” nickname given it. Likewise, it can seem trivializing to sit next to the exquisite “Four Seasons” mosaic by Marc Chagall and wolf down a hotdog. I remember having a strange feeling while visiting Beijing’s Forbidden City. These ancient relics looked so prosaic with people just lounging around on their steps and showing very little respect for or interest in them.

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At the same time, there can be no greater tribute to artists and to the power of art than in the passionate way the public embraces such works as “Flamingo,” “Fearless Girl,” and Cloud Gate.” That unnamed Picasso sculpture that has been vilified over the years has nevertheless become part and parcel of Chicago’s Daley Center Plaza, and without it, and other iconic works of art, our city and our world would be greatly diminished.