The glitz and the grime

The glitz and the grime
HEDONISTIC HIGH: Philip Seymour Hoffman as author Truman Capote in Capote for which he bagged the Academy Award in 2005
Last week saw Hollywood at its dysfunctional best. No sooner had the world woken up to the news of Woody Allen being charged by one of his estranged adopted daughters Dylan Farrow of sexual molestation when she was seven — she is now 28 — in an open letter to The New York Times, news of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death of drug overdose shocked film lovers all over the world.

Hoffman was only 46 and had endeared himself to worldwide audiences with his stellar performances that culminated in his Academy Award win in 2005 for his depiction of author Truman Capote in the film Capote. While the charges against Allen brought back memories from more than 20 years ago when he married his partner Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn — he was 56 and Soon was 19 — that led to his acrimonious separation from Mia and besmirched his reputation, Hoffman’s death came as a rude shock because he had a long innings ahead of him.

When it comes to experiments with drugs, heroin has been in the forefront in crushing some of the best talents, both from the film and the music industries. Heath Ledger who acted in the critically and commercially acclaimed Brokeback Mountain and immortalised the ‘Joker’ in The Dark Knight, fell prey to the substance in 2008. During the late 60s and early 70s, when the American youth was reeling under a heady counterculture mood, spurred by anti-Vietnam war protests and the ‘Flower Power’ movement that spawned the hippie culture, talented young musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin overdosed on heroin and succumbed before they reached 30.

Untimely death adds a glamorous aura to a celebrity and makes sure that he remains in the collective consciousness of his fans forever. James Dean’s death in 1955 in a car accident just after he finished shooting for the cult film Rebel Without a Cause, which was only his third feature, immediately turned him into a youth icon. John Lennon’s killing by a crazed fan in 1980 or the suicide of Kurt Cobain in 1994, the lead singer of Nirvana at the age of 27 immortalised them into cultural icons, which anyway, they deserved to be.

Showbiz and scandal have always been strange bedfellows. Fame and wealth are a heady combination that seems to bring out the deep seated desires, mostly unwarranted, that in ordinary circumstances people try to repress, suffering from a sense of guilt for harbouring such thoughts, conditioned as they are by society. But for those fortunate souls, touched by the magic wand of fame and fortune and fuelled by box office returns and frenzy of fans, ordinary yardsticks don’t seem to apply. Maybe it’s the tremendous creative energy that they embody which finds its sublimation through practices that are inimical to ‘ordinary folks’ who are in regular professions. Aided by a lifestyle that shelters them from prying eyes and the liberty that such a lifestyle allows, it is easier for celebrities to step across the threshold of conformity and indulge in hedonism to the detriment of health, career and occasionally law.

Much before Roman Polanski fled the US in 1977 to escape prosecution in an unlawful sexual act case involving a 13-year old girl, Charlie Chaplin, unarguably the most famous screen personality, was known for his shenanigans with under-aged girls on his private yachts. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a celebrated silent-era comedian who introduced Buster Keaton and mentored Charlie Chaplin, was accused of raping and killing a young actress called Virginia Rappe in 1921,but was ultimately acquitted because of hung jury. Others have been more discreet and stayed within permissible limits, or made sure they were not reported even if they overstepped legal boundaries. It’s always the unfortunate ones who got caught.

Compared with their western counterparts, Indian celebrities have been quite tame in their transgressions, despite occasionally driving over sleeping pavement squatters and killing endangered species, or flirting with unlicenced arms from a misplaced sense of bravado. Extra-marital affairs don’t account for indiscretions anymore, and the general tendency is to play safe, given their unpredictable shelf lives. Their only indulgence seems to be arrogance, yearning for popularity and big bucks, whether they are deserving or not.


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