The cover story on Scarlett Johansson in the May Vanity Fair – now online for subscribers – is already drawing fire for being too gooey about the fantastic good looks of its subject. It opens with its writer, Lili Anolik, admitting her own star-struckness, her weakness in the presence of fame, and her enchantment with the star’s great beauty. “She looked ravishing, radiant, sublime, good enough to eat … And as I joined the small throng that had gathered to watch, throwing subtle elbows to secure a better position, I realized that I was acting the opposite of cool, that I was acting totally and completely gaga. I realized, too, that Scarlett wasn’t just a movie star. She was a movie goddess, the purest strain of movie star.”
It’s this kind of rapturous, almost hysterical writing about the superhuman qualities of stars that gets magazine writers in trouble. Canadian Stephen Marche was ridiculed for growing similarly mystical about the effects of Megan Fox on his psyche when he wrote a profile of her for Esquire in January. His praises of her beauty – comparing her face to “the patterns of waves crisscrossing a lake” and “an elaborately camouflaged butterfly” – were said to be overwrought and sexist.
Of course they were; he’s a guy. But Anolik is not. So is her adoration of a woman’s sexual charms also sexist? In fact, she addresses her gender head-on, saying that in the presence of such godlike charisma: “You become a man, even if you’re not one. You gawk. You gape. You leer.”
This admission – which I find rather interesting, the kind of thing you don’t hear people admitting to very often – has brought some scorn down on Anolik’s head. There is already a backlash to this profile. “Vanity Fair Is Latest Magazine To Reduce Scarlett Johansson Into A Sex Fantasy,” reads the headline at online Hollywood gossip mag The Wrap. The complaint is that it’s Johansson acting that should be analyzed, not her sexual charm.
But what, actually, is the difference? Do we not want our actors to have massive sexual charisma?
Anolik’s self-analysis is actually de rigueur in the contemporary celebrity profile. Magazine writers are in a bit of a pickle when it comes to these pieces. The reporters picked to do the star piece are generally the best in the business: These articles are the best paid, and so they are assigned to the clever and successful. Those clever writers must establish that they are at least a little bit intellectual – that they are aiming not just to tell you why Scarlett Johansson broke up with Josh Hartnett but something about the nature of celebrity itself. They want to be seen as sociological as much as prurient. Hence all the writerly self-psychoanalysis, and all the poetry, about what it’s like to be screened by publicists and sitting in on makeup sessions in the presence of great beauty. It’s about the puzzling draw of fame.
Even the cerebral New Yorker tried its hand at a Johansson profile last month, and buttressed all the current conventions of the genre. Witty film critic Anthony Lane spent a lot of time appreciating Johansson’s new move, the creepy sci-fi Under The Skin (adapted from the brilliant Michel Faber novel). But he also couldn’t resist poetic paeans to the actress’s sexual pull. Noting that she is pregnant (and that her publicists have forbidden questions about her pregnancy, in a paradoxical effort to restrain speculation about her personal life), Lane writes: “Would it be construed as trespass, therefore, to state that Johansson looks tellingly radiant in the flesh? Mind you, she rarely looks unradiant, so it’s hard to say whether her condition has made a difference.”
Lane came under fire, too, even after praising her acting talent, for such a capitulation to mere sex drive. Pervy old guy, just like Marche, etc.
I am puzzled by this sanctimony. The indignation presumes that there is something genuinely substantial that we can learn from the personality profile if it avoids reverence about superficial things, such as beauty. What exactly do we want to know about Johansson? What she reads? Because that would tell us something about her character in Under The Skin? No, it wouldn’t. Come on. And what informs her character in a movie isn’t what readers of Vanity Fair want to know in the first place. They want to know why she broke up with Hartnett.
Do we want to learn more about Johansson’s politics? Do we want to argue with her about the ethics of doing business with companies who work in the occupied territories of the West Bank? Johansson’s tone-deaf handling of the SodaStream controversy – in which she dropped her ambassadorship of Oxfam in order to keep her profitable endorsement deal with a manufacturer – shows us that it is not for her understanding of international politics that we revere her. What do we want from her exactly?
Here is a fundamental conflict in educated society: We are not supposed to value beauty so highly, and yet who can defend against its sheer power to move, its rhetorical force? Of course we want to know what constitutes her charisma, this magical beauty; this is the great mystery and the great prize, and it is through beauty that we will not only understand ourselves – what weakens and arouses us – but glean some tips on how to reproduce it. It is partly through current ideas of visual beauty that we will understand the artistic moment, the draw of cinema itself. What the hell is wrong with beauty? We don’t mind beauty when it’s in poetry, do we? Do we call it superficial there?
Lane, like all profilers, addressed the powerful flexibility of a star’s beauty in his New Yorker piece. “After all, film stars are those unlikely beings who seem more alive, not less, when images are made of them; who unfurl and reach toward the light, instead of seizing up, when confronted by a camera; and who, by some miracle or trick, become enriched versions of themselves, even as they ramify into other selves on cue.” He describes photographers who exhort the star to make herself expressionless for photographs. He quotes her as responding: “I rarely have anything inside me.”
This is why the celebrity profile has become such a personal canvas for writers: It is quite understandably a screen for projection of one’s own complexes rather than for deep analysis of another’s. Just like movies.