Ask someone on the street to say the first word that comes into his mind when he hears the name “Winona Ryder.”
It’s not that difficult to predict the answer – “shoplifting,” right? Does anyone find it more than a wee bit disturbing that most people who either occasionally watch television or read the paper know about Ryder’s recent shoplifting scandal? The whole issue is just one more example of the recent – and highly unfortunate – deification of celebrities.
Why does society revere entertainers? I’m a sometime actor myself, I know the business pretty much as well as anyone can at my age, and I know that acting takes work – but it doesn’t take any more effort than any other job. Less than many, in fact. But most people blow it out of proportion. Walk into any acting class and listen for a few minutes. Guaranteed, the teacher will say several times, “Be yourself.” That’s it – the actor’s big secret. After all, most characters that an actor plays are ordinary people.
What makes a great play, movie or song? Consider: Willy Loman of Arthur Miller’s great American tragedy Death of a Salesman, Stella and Stanley of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, the title character of one of William Shakespeare’s most masterful plays, Hamlet, and indeed all of the protagonists of all the most renowned plays ever written, share a common attribute – they are human, tragically flawed. Audiences can relate to them. The same goes for other forms of entertainment. Schindler’s List and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, both of which made the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Greatest Movies list, deal with the way ordinary men act in extraordinary circumstances. And just try and think of ten popular songs whose lyrics don’t concern ordinary people coping with everyday life.
This is the job of the actor, singer, entertainer – to glorify common men and women, to show audiences the way to handle an ordinary existence. After all, the art of acting began in ancient Greece as part of a Dionysian religious rite; the profession was far from glorious. In Shakespeare’s day, actors were often highly regarded for their talent, but their main function was to “speak the speech,” to act and portray characters as realistically as possible. They were never considered to comprise the height of society – the idea that the general public might take a deep interest in the actual lives of actors to so great an extent as many do today would most likely have caused great amusement among Elizabethan audiences.
Yet somehow the function of “performance artists” has changed over recent years. Of course it’s due, at least in part, to the rise of movies, Hollywood and television, which make entertainers of various kinds much more prominent in the public eye. All of a sudden actors come under more scrutiny; apart from the (once so important) question: Can she act the part?, additional concerns have come into play: Does she look and sound the part? Does she have sex appeal? Does she have “idol” potential? Increasingly, show biz is a world populated by beautiful people. An actor with an “interesting” look or a few extra pounds plays comic relief – always.
Apart from being gorgeous, these folk receive astronomical salaries, big awards and lots of recognition. Although they play ordinary people, they don’t seem to be content with being ordinary themselves – and can anyone blame them? Nobody hands out Tonys for “Best Entrepreneur of the Year.” Nobody gets an interview with Jay Leno in front of millions of people for doing a particularly excellent job teaching Latin to high school juniors. Yet these are the types of people that entertainers are supposedly “glorifying.”
I’m reminded of a song lyric from the musical Chicago: “When they pass that basket/Folks contribute to,/You put in for Mama,/She’ll put out for you.” They exalt us, we exalt them. Share and share alike. Isn’t paradox fun?