Ciao, kiss-kiss, it’s great to see you, [mumbles name indistinctly], you look soooo young! We’re running late, so instead of the 15 minutes I promised you’d have to read this, you have to read it in 12. But you’re a pro, you’ll make it work.
To save time, we’re going to team up the series Flack (Amazon Prime) and Call My Agent! (Netflix). The former is about Robyn (Anna Paquin), a ruthless PR agent in London. The latter is about a sexy cache of talent agents at a Paris firm, where icons of French cinema play spoiled-brat versions of themselves. These series are super-fun, monster hits, because how much do we miss celebrity antics at public events – like the time Madonna made all the Toronto International Film Festival volunteers turn around so they wouldn’t eyeball her as she walked by? Both shows, with their cokehead philanderers, accidental pregnancies and paternity scandals – and that’s just the agents! – sate our salacious tooth, which we need in These Crazy Covid Times™.
Okay, Flack is a tad … overheated. A PR person is much more likely to fetch Lauren Bacall a street-cart hotdog, or slip an alcoholic actor cup after cup of red “tea” (wine), or order every breakfast on the room service menu then send it all back uneaten – true stories – than she is to perform CPR on a male hooker hired by a closeted soccer star, as Robyn does.
In real life, there’s nothing unusual about banging on an actor’s pricey hotel suite door because it’s five hours past check-out time. Or dashing out to buy a Swatch for a mercurial director because he mysteriously, adamantly, needs the one with the white face and black hands. Or spending a solid hour with five colleagues, mapping the route Oprah’s limo could take from her hotel to a party one block away. (It’s also not unusual that she skipped the party altogether.) They don’t bat an eye about booking first-class, day-of airfare for a director’s girlfriend/stylist/spiritual advisor or renting a second Escalade just for a singer’s luggage.
All that said, Robyn’s advice – that a 17-year-old pop star should “accidentally” release a sex tape, that a straight soccer player should come out as gay to land endorsement deals, that an actress caught with facelift bruises should accuse her spouse of beating her – is straight-up terrible, career-ending and probably illegal. But verisimilitude is not exactly the point of Flack. Imagine the writers’ room: “I guess we could have a scene where a publicist delivers Tylenol to a teen idol who’s skipping his date with a Make-a-Wish child because he ‘got the flu’ after partying all night. Or, and I’m just spit-balling, we could have Robyn screw a celebrity chef and then cook up a breast-cancer scare for his wife.”
Call My Agent! is more adult, more realistic, more French. A father steals the rights to a hot novel from his daughter; an agent stages a party at Jim Morrison’s grave to convince a director that Sigourney Weaver can credibly romance a younger actor. Everyone swans around in fabulous coats – I would love to be the PR rep for Coats this TV season – and murmurs lines such as, “We sell desire,” and, “My director will not betray your book, she will transcend it.” They’re ruthless, but only to defend their talents’ visions. Mostly, they mist up with pride for capital-C Cinema. It’s fabulous, and I really, really mean that.
But you’re a grown-up, so I can give it to you straight. With all the love in the world, these series, juicy as they are, feel a teensy bit 2002. Much as I adore hearing Robyn’s slinky, sharky boss (Sophie Okonedo, having all the fun) declaim, “Journalists are the monkeys; we grind the organ,” the power of PR people isn’t what it used to be. Today’s big stars are either opting out, doing occasional Zoom interviews from the controlled set of their living rooms, or they’re dictating their own narratives, à la Beyonce, who lands Vogue covers without giving interviews.
In fact, the very concept of handling stars feels like wrangling dinosaurs. Mostly, the triumphs and transgressions of today’s celebs play out on social media, through strangers’ cellphones, in real time. Scandals – Armie Hammer’s cannibal accusation, Kellyanne Conway’s family chaos, Tom Cruise’s on-set rant – are crowd-sourced from social media posts and responses. The juice now is all raw material, unverified innuendo bubbling from Insta accounts such as Deux Moi. Old media, including tabloids, aren’t breaking stories – they’re catching up.
There’s no spin, only mea culpas that all follow the same script. No one is managing Seth Rogen’s Twitter feud with Ted Cruz. Young stars don’t need a flack to guide them; they’re steeped from birth in the vernacular of social media. The gatekeepers have been overrun.
As my dear, darling pal, the gossip expert Shinan Govani, reminded me, gossip isn’t even about stars anymore. “The bulk of the chatter, the day-to-day churn, is Bachelor contestants and Bravo reality celebs,” he said. A-, D- and Z-listers have merged.
What people want are human narratives – lust, betrayal, greed, chagrin – and if Gwyneth Paltrow isn’t providing them, YouTube sensations such as Kimberly Loaiza and James Charles are. Seasoned celebrity journalists might not know their names, but their 30 million followers do. With or without a PR person.
Fame is and always will be a short flame. What makes Flack and Call My Agent! seem sweetly nostalgic is the notion that anyone could ever control it.
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