It’s celebrity time again. The Golden Globes have been and the Oscars are coming. This is a “vintage year”, say Hollywood’s hagiographers on cue. It isn’t. Most movies are made to a formula for the highest return, money-fuelled by marketing and something called celebrity. This is different from fame, which can come with talent. True celebrities are spared that burden.
Occasionally, this column treads the red carpet, awarding its own Oscars to those whose ubiquitous promotion demands recognition. Some have been celebrities a long time, drawing the devoted to kiss their knees (more of that later). Others are mere flashes in the pan, so to speak.
In no particular order, the nominees for the Celebrity Oscars are:
Benedict Cumberbatch: this celebrity was heading hell-bent for an Oscar, but alas, his ultra-hyped movie The Fifth Estate produced the lowest box-office return in years, making it one of Hollywood’s biggest ever turkeys. This does not diminish Cumberbatch’s impressive efforts to promote himself in the role of Julian Assange – assisted by film critics, vast advertising, the US government and, not least, the former PR huckster David Cameron, who declared: “Benedict Cumberbatch – brilliant, fantastic piece of acting. The twitchiness and everything of Julian Assange is brilliantly portrayed.” Neither Cameron nor Cumberbatch has ever met Assange. The “twitchiness and everything” was an invention.
Assange had written Cumberbatch a letter, pointing out that the “true story” on which the film claimed to be based was from two books discredited as hatchet jobs. “Most of the events depicted never happened, or the people shown were not involved in them,” WikiLeaks posted. In his letter, Assange asked Cumberbatch to note that actors had moral responsibilities, too. “Consider the consequences of your co-operation with a project that vilifies and marginalises a living political refugee . . .”
Cumberbatch’s response was to reveal selected parts of Assange’s letter and so elicit further hype from the “agonising decision” he faced – which, as it turned out, was never in doubt.
Robert De Niro is the celebrity’s celebrity. I was in India recently at a conference with De Niro, who was asked a good question about the malign influence of Hollywood on living history. The 1978 multi-Oscar-winning movie The Deer Hunter was cited, especially its celebrated Russian roulette scene; De Niro was the star.
“The Russian roulette scene might not have happened,” said De Niro, “but it must have happened somewhere. It was a metaphor.” He refused to say more; the celebrity star doesn’t like giving interviews.
When The Deer Hunter was released, the Daily Mail described it as “the story they never dared to tell before . . . the film that could purge a nation’s guilt!”. A purgative indeed – that was almost entirely untrue.
Following America’s expulsion from its criminal invasion of Vietnam, The Deer Hunter was Hollywood’s postwar attempt to reincarnate the triumphant Batman-jawed white warrior and present a stoic, suffering and often heroic people as sub-human oriental idiots and barbarians. The film reached its dramatic peak during recurring orgiastic scenes in which De Niro and his fellow stars, imprisoned in rat-infested bamboo cages, were forced to play Russian roulette by resistance fighters of the National Liberation Front, whom the Americans called Vietcong.
The director, Michael Cimino, insisted this scene was authentic. It was fake. Cimino had claimed that he’d served in Vietnam as a Green Beret. He hadn’t. He told Linda Christmas of the Guardian he had “this insane feeling that I was there . . . Somehow the fine wires have got really crossed and the line between reality and fiction has become blurred.” Cimino’s brilliantly acted fakery has since become a YouTube “classic”: for many people, their only reference to that “forgotten” war.
While he was in India, De Niro visited Bollywood, where his celebrity is godlike. Fawning actors sat at his feet and kissed his knees. Bollywood’s asinine depiction of modern India is not dissimilar to The Deer Hunter’s distortion of America and Asia.
Nelson Mandela was a great human being who became a celebrity. “Sainthood”, he told me drily, “is not the job I applied for.” The western media appropriated Mandela and made him into a one-dimensional cartoon celebrity, tailored for bourgeois applause: a kind of political Santa Claus. That his dignity served as a façade behind which his beloved ANC oversaw the further impoverishment and division of his people was unmentionable. And in death, his celebrity-sainthood was assured.
Keith Vaz: for those outside Britain, the name Keith Vaz is not associated with celebrity. And yet this Labour politician has had a long and distinguished career of self-promotion, while slipping serenely away from scandals and near-scandals, a parliamentary investigation and a suspension, having acquired the sobriquet Keith Vaseline. In 2009, he was shown to have claimed £75,500 in expenses for a flat in Westminster despite having a family home just 12 miles from parliament.
Last year Vaz’s home affairs select committee summoned the Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, to discuss the Edward Snowden leaks. Vaz’s opening question to Rusbridger was: “Do you love this country?”
Once again, Vaz was an instant celebrity, although, once again, not the one he longed to be. He was compared with the infamous American senator Joe McCarthy. Still, the sheer stamina of his endeavours proves that Vaseline is no flash in the pan; so, he is the Oscar Celebrity of the Year! Congratulations, Keith, and commiserations, Benedict; you were only just behind.