When it comes to shallowness, I’m with Oscar Wilde. He was obsessed by the counterintuitive idea that outward appearances are much more intriguing than people’s inner lives. “Beauty is the wonder of wonders,” he wrote in The Picture of Dorian Grey. “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”
The superficially luminous Carey Mulligan echoed the same sentiment recently in her Vogue magazine cover profile about The Great Gatsby, the much-anticipated Baz Lurhmann adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, due out next month. In the film, Mulligan plays Daisy Buchanan, a character based on Fitzgerald’s famous-for-being-famous wife, Zelda, whose gorgeous, drunken madness obsessed and ultimately inspired the author to literary greatness.
Zelda had a curious self-awareness despite her lack of depth. “I seem always curiously interested in myself, and it’s so much fun to stand off and look at me,” she once said. Mulligan cleaved to this fascinating lack of substance in her performance of Daisy. As she told Vogue, “It’s that kind of feeling: I’m-so-little-and-there’s-nothing-to-me, watch-me-have-nothing-to-me. She feels like she’s living in a movie of her own life. She’s constantly on show, performing all the time. Nothing bad can happen in a dream. You can’t die in a dream. She’s in her own TV show. She’s like a Kardashian.”
How perceptive of Mulligan to say so, and savvy, too: Her quote was instantly reposted around the celebrity-gossip blogosphere – and not because it’s wise (which it sort of is) but because even the most ephemeral Kardashian news equals Internet pay dirt.
There is something instructive in Mulligan’s effort to appreciate, or at least understand, the hidden depths of shallowness. Her observations on Daisy reminded me of our own boy Justin Bieber, also in the news this week, for his ill-considered comment in the guest book at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. “Truly inspiring to be able to come here,” he wrote. “Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a Belieber.”
Just like Zelda Fitzgerald, Bieber’s comment shows a curious, and not entirely sane, level of self-interest. Odder still is his ability to cast himself as the star of every drama, even the life of Anne Frank. “Hopefully she would have been a Belieber.” Presumably he meant to add, “if she’d had the chance.”
Hmm, yes, you can see his point. Had the worst genocide in history not happened and had time travel been possible, Anne might have chosen One Less Lonely Girl as her signature karaoke tune, instead of being murdered by the Nazis. How cruel history can be.
It’s easy to feel contempt for someone like Bieber – he is rich, talented, beautiful and fantastically silly – and I think for the most part we should try to resist the temptation. Like so many young celebrities before him, he is a man-child stumbling through the surreal, skin-deep dreamscape of his own fame. His comment was shallow, but don’t forget, he has spent most of his life as a pop star. Shallow is what we pay him to be.
And maybe shallow is not so bad. Pop stars, movie idols, reality-show celebs and the like serve an important function in our society, and that is to publicly gratify our most basic desires – for unlimited sex, money, drugs and even self-destruction. Watching them rise up and implode is collectively cathartic; even better, it won’t destroy our minds and marriages.
Following the unbridled chaos of, say, Lindsay Lohan or the celebrity superspawning of the Kimye baby frees the rest of us to live more quiet, thoughtful lives. Like Fitzgerald with Zelda, or the world with the Kardashians, we can watch these strange, empty, beautiful people, so we don’t have to be them. And that is a huge relief.
I once had dinner with a respected British actress and artist, not a “movie star” but someone most intelligent people would recognize even if they couldn’t place her name. She had recently worked with Tom Cruise. Before I could stop, I heard myself asking her that most embarrassingly breathless of questions: “So what was he like?” Instead of dispensing some cliché about how lovely or thoughtful or arrogant or awful he was – the sort of pat anecdote one is expected to construct out of a brush with a member of the superfamous – she just looked at me and sighed. “Celebrities like that, they aren’t really ‘like’ anything,” she said. “The glare of their fame sort of cancels them out. There’s almost nothing to them. It’s as if they’re invisible.”
It may have just been a very diplomatic way of avoiding my question, but I have always thought her answer was an incredibly astute explanation of how too much publicity can reduce its recipients to a strange and beautiful nothingness. Like Fitzgerald’s Daisy, their lack of substance becomes the most fascinating thing about them.
To blame Bieber – or Cruise, or LiLo or Kimye, or Zelda before all of them – for their own shallowness isn’t just wrong; it’s supremely hypocritical. We love them for their mad vapidity, their bright, sparkling nothingness. Their lack is our gain.