Sunday, February 15, 2009

Celebrity meltdowns: Joaquin Phoenix on Letterman

Seeing Joaquin Phoenix's strange performance on David Letterman about a week ago set me thinking about the pathologies that fame can give rise to. Phoenix refused to answer most questions beyond 'yes' and 'no' and appeared bemused, befuddled and deeply uncomfortable (but not exactly disorientated, as has been reported). Letterman was fulsome in his praise for Phoenix's performance in the film Two Lovers but stands condemned for his brutal encouragement of the audience's sometimes contemptuous laughter.

Okay, so Phoenix may be on drugs, or having some kind of nervous collapse, or both. If so, like Britney before him, he is forced to undergo his trials in the public eye -- surely a magnification whose implications we can't begin to guess at? There were a couple of things that this strange interview -- one wonders why it wasn't pulled at the last minute -- made me think about.

Nowadays the famous are likely to be those who lack talent but seek fame, the drug we all scream for -- the tired example of Paris Hilton is perhaps the most obvious. It's easy to forget that many, though not all, actors and actresses are, or were before they got onto the Hollywood treadmill, artists first and stars second. Like successful authors who must relentlessly sit on an endless series of panels at writers festivals to spruik their wares, they may well be shy, retiring or simply highly strung.

The self-confessed depressive Guy Pierce and the short-tempered Russell Crowe spring to mind, while Judy Davis in her heyday was famously perfectionistic. The tragedy of Heath Ledger is still fresh in the public's mind, but even at his most stable he appeared uncomfortable, shy and self-deprecating in interviews. It's now a truism that the legendary Monroe dwelt in a bottomless pit of insecurity. Cate Blanchett is perhaps one of the few stars who is allowed to be an artist first and a celebrity second.

Clinical psychologist and television personality Pamela Connolly, who made the psychological effects of fame the subject of her PhD thesis, believes that the famous become traumatised by an idealised version of themselves, constructed by the media, that they cannot possibly live up to. If this is true, such an effect would surely stir up any pre-existing psychiatric condition or issues arising from a difficult or abusive childhood.

Phoenix's odd appearance on Letterman might seem to bear this out: he's an attractive man, but the shaggy dog look does nothing for him. Was he trying to distance himself from an image that had started to tyrannise him?

Perhaps Phoenix could benefit from a session or two with Connolly. She makes full use of her talents in the television series Shrinkwrap, which aired in Melbourne on the ABC during the summer non-ratings period. Each program featured Connolly carrying out a public version of a psychotherapeutic session on a celebrity or public figure, including Sarah Ferguson, Sharon Osbourne and the stubbornly cheerful Stephen Fry.

I adored this show, largely because it was everything Andrew Denton's now-defunct talk show, Enough Rope, was not. The success of Enough Rope relied on Denton's sharp wit and his willingness to exploit his interviewees to get confessions and cheap emotions out of them.

Connolly of course is no stranger to television, veteran as she is of the comedy shows Not the Nine O'Clock News and Saturday Night Live, but her questioning has different motivations. She is genuinely interested in how people tick and how they came to be how they are but she is also on the side of the frightened child within them, sometimes relentlessly but always patiently so. And she knows that this is good television because when you dig down most people's stories are inherently interesting and exciting of our empathy.

This is why everything about this show seems oddly old-fashioned: the low-key lighting, the lack of an audience or special effects. Sometimes while watching I felt I was in a parallel universe in which the capacities of television were used in the ways its makers might have hoped for (and that the ABC is still legally obliged to do): to inform and educate as well as entertain. I kept thinking about those moody BBC Shakespeare productions.

And what's interesting about this is that it takes a while for the subject to submit to Connolly's digging and for their personal story to take off: you need a modicum of patience to get the most out of it. It's both odd and pleasing that the show has been made possible by the evil twins of trash culture and reality television: the show relies and rides on the assumption that we all want to eat celebrities and would-be celebrities alive, but instead it allows us to see them as vulnerable and needy human beings, just like the rest of us. And it also invites those of us who are not psychoanalytically aware to look at our own 'inner child' with a tolerant and even loving eye.

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