In 1997, I was just out of college, having gone straight to graduate school and moved to New York where I knew almost no one. I had one friend from college who’d come here to try to be an actress who was living in this dorm-style residence for women where I’d also lived briefly in college and I remember going to the lobby to meet her and feeling like I was some girl from the fifties destined to be a shopgirl while pining for life on Broadway.
One weekend that summer, I went to see two movies that stuck with me for very different reasons. The first was Neil LaBute’s first movie, In the Company of Men, which was then making something of a stir for the way it shows bad man doing bad bad things – basically, a bunch of corporate assholes doing asshole stuff, one of whom fake seduces a deaf woman in order to dump and humiliate her. I haven’t seen it since then – I imagine I would find it fake-daring, as I do so many of these films that “dare” to show people as completely and flatly evil – as if that were any more psychologically insightful than a Disney cartoon. Inevitably these characters are still charismatic because they are being played by attractive movie stars good at making themselves liked, so these performances are seen as “brave” and “complicated,” making them “more than monsters,” etc. Probably if I saw it now I would note the ridiculousness and offensiveness of the premise that a woman who happened to be deaf (and who of course also happened to be beautiful) would be so desperate as to fall for this ploy, inexplicably having no friends or romantic prospects of her own. In any case, I don’t remember who I saw the movie with, but I remember afterwards we both looked at each other and said something like, ok, we each have to go home now and take twenty showers with bleach.
The second movie was Mike Leigh’s Career Girls. Its world was as grounded and measured as LaBute’s was absurd. I don’t remember a lot of the plot but I remember the dynamics between the two main characters, college friends whose bond and struggles the movie charts moving back and forth over six years in their twenties filled with crappy jobs and desperate doomed romantic obsessions. I especially remember the game they would play of “Miss Bronte, Miss Bronte,” turning to a random page of Wuthering Heights for the “answer” to a pressing question. (Roger Ebert beautifully ends his largely positive and somewhat perplexed review by apply this trick to understanding the movie. It works.) And I remember the amazing face and performance of Katrin Cartlidge, who died way too young and was also breathtaking in Breaking the Waves. I do remember that I saw this one with a female friend who I could tell was also very affected by it, in probably painful ways, and saying, ok, time to go home and read the Brontes. I got home that night and turned on my little clock radio to set the alarm and heard someone weeping because Princess Diana had died. I turned it off and thought, but the Brontes! Later that week I had an argument with a friend about why people were sad about the deaths of famous people they had never met, which in my young self-righteousness I saw as grandstanding and parasitic. It didn’t occur to me that I hadn’t been moved by the news because I’d been too busy being moved by fictional people.
Three times in my life I have been moved by the death of someone famous. Of course there are many many people I admire whose loss saddened me, but most often it’s an abstract rather than visceral reaction. It’s not the thing I couldn’t understand when people felt it about Diana, thinking about them something in the way I would about someone I had known. Two of these were recent: James Gandolfini last year and Philip Seymour Hoffman this week. Partly this is for obvious reasons: they were such commanding presences, and ones whose performances I’d spent so much time with, that it was hard to imagine that force just disappearing. Interestingly, both were most famous for the dark characters who are often delicately referred to as “complicated” – meaning they do really terrible shit and meaning I might likely have reacted to them with the impatience I had with LaBute’s movie, but I didn’t. I do wonder what they might have done if we didn’t have this way of associating the powerful physicality they both had with violence or deviance. By far my favorite role of Hoffman’s was Phil Parma, the kind nurse who engineers a reunion between Jason Robards’ dying patriarch and Tom Cruise’s misogynist “motivational speaker.” What if, I wonder, more of our best writers and artists thought that damaged people who do what most damaged people do – struggle, drink too much, take it out on themselves – were as interesting as revealing, time and again, that people who do terrible things are also damaged?
The other death that moved me was Heath Ledger’s. In this case it wasn’t because of any of his performances, but because of something that had happened a few months before. It started as a funny story – my first good New York celebrity story despite being a decade since that night when Diana died and I just wanted to read the Brontes. At the time I was volunteering at Housing Works bookstore in Soho. One day Heath came into the store. People started to whisper – was it really him? His companion, a woman with an Australian accent, asked if we had a copy of a certain book. I explained that since the books were all used and donated, we didn’t have database, but mentioned the section where she might find it. When I pointed to it, she asked if I could walk with her. I explained that I was working the register. And then – at least the way I remember it – Heath said – why don’t you look yourself – and gave me a look of sympathy. That’s right I thought. Heath and I are having a moment. It’s me and him against her. It reminded me of what people always said about Bill Clinton – the making you think you are the only one in the room thing. Eventually he bought a couple hundred dollars worth of mostly elegant hardbacks. I remember one of them was Chomsky – one of the linguistics ones. He said “you have a beautiful store.” He joked about whether his credit card would work. I think I have enough on that one. There it was on his American Express – H Ledger. It didn’t work at first, so I rubbed it on my shirt. A week later he came in again, this time with his daughter. A couple months later, he was gone.
Sometime after that, I read what is probably my favorite short story, Miranda July’s “Roy Spivey.” It begins like this: “Twice I have sat beside a famous person on an airplane.” The first part of the story is the narrator’s account of the odd conversation with she has with the second of these, a movie star. At the end of the flight he explains that they won’t be able to talk when they get off. They come up with a code: he will say “Do you work here?” and she will say, “no.” But when the time comes a flight attendant interrupts. I work here, she says. I will help you. Then she rolls her eyes at the famous man, as if she was commiserating with him about people like her. This is the kind of imperceptible but all-important shift short story writers often try and fail to give weight too: the little shifts in our alliances, the circles we draw of who is inside and who is outside. The narrator wants to mark that her connection was real, but it was too late. “His eyes were mute. He was acting.”
In a brilliant n+1 essay, Christopher Glazek talks about the psychic space taken up by those who die while young and beautiful, thinking about how Joaquin Phoenix’s response to his brother River’s death has resonated with his own experience of his brother’s mental illness. I realized while reading that if I had seen My Own Private Idaho and Running on Empty before rather than after River’s death, his would have been the first to have shaken me, the way it did so many about my age.
The idea of separating an artist from his or her art can mean a lot of things in a lot of different contexts, most of which I think are largely impossible, even if desirable. This is especially so in the case of movie stars, who live inside the instruments of their art. At the end of July’s story, the narrator finds the movie star’s number after many years and thinks about how the idea of their connection has promised to save her. At the end of Glazek’s essay, he describes why we cannot help but read our lives through those of the stars, especially the damned stars, no matter how complicit or parasitic that may make us:
When art fails to provide catharsis — when the movies won’t resemble reality, or admit their own unreality — the tabloids take over. Here, at least, the world is half-acknowledged, if not transcended. Recognition, of course, is not the same as resolution: the only thing like life is life, which is so much longer than a movie. The story seems never to end; the suffering does not stop.