I’ve just finished reading Walking With Ghosts, by the Irish actor Gabriel Byrne. It’s a compelling, beautifully written memoir, combining warmth and pain and wit.
One of the passages that struck me particularly was Byrne’s description of the catastrophic personal effect of the roaring success of his 1995 film The Usual Suspects.
The cast was at the Cannes Film Festival. The audience gave the film a ten-minute standing ovation. A famous producer bear-hugged him and told him he was now a star. Girls approached him with come-ons. This, surely, was the moment of which every actor dreams.
But Byrne was experiencing a rising ‘feeling of dislocation’. Back in the hotel room to which he fled, he felt consumed by terror, as if ‘unravelling inside’. He stayed there for several days, feeling disastrous, until light and calm gradually seeped back in.
It should be noted that this was not Byrne’s first brush with success as an actor. There had been quite a lot of that before The Usual Suspects. But it perhaps felt like a moment when success – the enjoyable reward for work done – was decisively shifting into celebrity – the treacherous point at which the individual becomes a kind of walking magnet for every projected emotion in a crowd, whether admiration, obsession or resentment.
Richard Burton had warned the author about the corrosive effects of fame while on a film set many years earlier. ‘It is a sweet poison you drink of first in eager gulps,’ Burton had said, ‘Then you come to loathe it.’
It’s an interesting time to read this, because the coronavirus pandemic has sharply – albeit temporarily – reset what was an increasingly bizarre relationship between the public and the notion of celebrity. I can remember a distant point, more than twenty years ago, when fame was broadly linked to the display of exceptional talent. Eminent scientists and doctors might often have been sold short by its focus, since it had a greater tendency to adhere to those in the arts or sports. But it was generally defined by achievement.
Then two changes happened. Those feted for a particular talent often found the media becoming ever more stalkerish. No detail of their domestic life was too small for scrutiny. ‘Celebrity magazines’ exploited an eager market for photographs of famous people popping out to buy milk, for example, or sitting on the beach. If they looked attractive and happy, fine, and if they looked terrible and out of control, all the better: aspiration and schadenfreude could comfortably rub shoulders in the pages of a single magazine.
At the same time, a new, hungry class of celebrities arose, unbuckled from achievement. Their selling-point consisted of voluntarily offering up details of their private lives, intimacies of the kind that had to be forcibly wrested from the more established celebrities. They were often the stars of reality shows, chiefly known for being visible. But when visibility itself is the raison d’être, what is there to fall back on when it wanes?
The rise of the Internet and social media has democratised celebrity still further. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, many users and ‘influencers’ have now become their own brand, publisher and PR person, flogging heavily curated lifestyles. Yet while we all thrive on some engagement and encouragement, a dependency on the dopamine hit of public praise does not always seem a recipe for happiness.
The coronavirus and lockdown rapidly deflated the reverence for celebrity per se. The well-being of friends and family became more important than the desire to be entertained. When people in Britain clapped in public, it was for NHS workers. The rather cringe-inducing recording of Hollywood stars singing lines from John Lennon’s Imagine was met with widespread derision. The priorities of Trump’s presidency – the popular appeal of which partly derived from his reality-show fame on The Apprentice – looked increasingly unhinged as US deaths from Covid-19 rocketed. And the failed libel case brought against The Sun newspaper by Johnny Depp, once the highest-paid male actor in the world, exposed an unenviable landscape of addiction and dysfunction which money and fame had partly enabled. It seems the younger Byrne was right to be instinctively disturbed by the potential lunacy of stardom.
That said, what many of us are now missing is the modest theatre of everyday life. The simple act of going out to work, to a restaurant, party or pub, often involves a small construction of the public self: a bit of make-up, hair-styling, dressing-up. It anticipates the possibility of fun, storytelling or unexpected conversations, an innate pleasure on the lit-up stage of life. It used to fill me with joy, for example, to see my 97-year-old grandfather slapping on aftershave before Sunday church, clad in his best suit, or to glimpse those immaculately coiffed elderly ladies who gossip imperiously over coffee in sunny town squares in Spain.
The little theatres of our lives are heavily restricted now. Maybe we’ll appreciate them all the more when they reopen. And perhaps we’ll remember, at last, to value the texture of our own existences over a glittering illusion of someone else’s.