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September 26, 2007

A celebration of celebrity? Celebrity: The Photographs of Terry O'Neill - Terry O'Neill and A. A. Gill

Posted by A S H Smyth

Celebrity: The Photographs of Terry O'Neill
by Terry O'Neill
introduced by A. A. Gill
Ted Smart / Little, Brown, 2003
Hardback, £25

As anyone who opens a newspaper or watches television must be aware, we live in an age where celebrity is conferred, rather than earned. An age where people are referred to as "celebrities" without any mention of how they got there. But was it ever thus? And will it always be?

In the light of the wave of TV talent shows creating "stars" overnight, I have tried to work out a precise distinction between hard-won renown and fleeting fame; between popular acknowledgement of one's achievements and fame simply for being famous; between being recognised for one's works and merely being recognised in the street. And I couldn't really do it. Too many grey areas.

For starters, there are plenty of people I think little of - David Beckham, Elton John, Tom Cruise - who have indisputably achieved recognition by the sweat of their brows. But is that celebrity? It can't be the whole deal. Each of them is a celebrity, no doubt; but why are they celebrities when others are not?

There are those who have achieved much (and much renown) and who are not celebrities. Paddy Ashdown, for example. Michael Ignatieff. Christopher Hitchens. Personalities, certainly; but not celebrities.

And then there are lots of others who were long gone before the Age of Celebrity (as Gill calls it) began, before the photo-hungry magazine era of the '50s. And those whom I do like, and who've astutely used the instruments of celebrity - Classicfm, for example - leaving me feeling like they've been tricked into selling out to the publicity machine when actually their work was plenty good enough to stand on its own.

Is this just snobbery on my part, perhaps? Is it fine if you're on Eastenders, but not if you're a classical musician? Hm… Well, it worked for Nigel Kennedy. He's in Celebrity.

But what worked for Kennedy (Nigel, but also John F as it happens), doesn't work for any old over-achiever. To be granted access to the pantheon of celebrity you need something else. Something beyond your achievements. Celebrity, of course, is all about image. More accurately, it's about images.

As Gill narrates, the Age of Celebrity began when paper became cheap and litho printing developed to enable colour images in magazines:

Old-time stars came from Hollywood and the aristocracy, but there just weren't enough of them to go round. The market was expanding and insatiable. We couldn't invent pop stars and starlets fast enough. Market forces made celebrity.
In other words, celebrities began to be churned out because they needed to be, and in much shorter time than any of them could have achieved legitimate fame.

The fixation on the visual image explains why so many celebrities are film actors. Celebrity is immortality: what more literal way to live on than in walking talking movies?

Celebrity doesn't exist in a world where the laws of mortality pertain.
The pre-eminence of the visual image is also an obvious reason why so few politicians have celebrity status, so few potters, so few poets. They produce much that endures, but what endures is not them per se. The immortality of the body is reserved, on the whole, for models, musicians, actors and a few sportsmen. Of course, it's not a big step from this to the assertion that anyone who has his photo taken often enough becomes a celebrity by default - which takes us back, inexorably, to reality TV and the likes of Jade Goody.

Gill points out that so much of celebrity echoes the ancient myths. Characters each have their special powers, or motifs: strength, beauty, cunning, guile, power, humour, misery, pathos. It seems to me that the classical allusion cuts the other way, too. The greatest hero of all, the semi-divine Achilleus, mirrors something found in this entire debate about the similarities and differences inherent in celebrities. They are like us, but different. They are different from one another, but similar. They live on because they are different, but sometimes at a cost (and a cost which, often, they must choose). They need to be sung about for generations, or they cease to be at all.

Humphrey Bogart's dictum, that

you weren't a star until they could spell your name in Karachi,
seems a little out of date. These days, I suspect you need to go a little further than that: I'd reckon you can't consider yourself truly famous unless they know who you are in rural China.

In Gill's estimation (he immediately acknowledges that no two people will agree on this) Brigitte Bardot was the first celebrity. She couldn't act, sing, talk intelligently; but, as they say in Bugsy Malone, she had "it". And "it", crucially, is something which can still be seen - if not defined - when

distilled and decanted on to light-sensitive paper....The fact that Bardot could do nothing - or nothing very well - confirmed rather than confounded her celebrity…. Celebrity is not necessarily the result of exceptional talent or skill. It is something else. Perhaps it's luck. Perhaps guile. Or just fate. The whimsy of the gods. Bardot had something ethereal. Something mythic.
Despite the preponderance of actors in Celebrity, very few photos are in character (the point presumably being to illustrate that celebrity is essentially inherent, not dependent on the support of great scripts or costumes). But staging, costume and direction are everywhere. Semi-ironic shots of Michael Douglas surrounded by over-done, LA swimming-pool largesse tie in with the films he was doing in the late '80s. Plenty of stars - like Zsa Zsa Gabor and Shirley Temple - pose with photos or paintings of themselves. A few subjects are in poses consciously pinched from other iconic photos, or from styles of portraiture (up to and including the crucifixion scene, in the case of Raquel Welch).

On screen, obviously, actors are not walking and talking as themselves… But Gill points out that, even in these out-of-character photos, the assumption of "truth" is itself nonsense. Pictures are trimmed, edited, or simply left out. Out of hundreds of shots taken in any given photo-shoot, only a tiny percentage make it into the page, and these are carefully chosen (by the subject or by an editor) to give a specific impression. Hardly the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.

Then there's the major factor of sex. Only a tiny proportion of celebrities are not stunningly attractive. The exceptions (who prove the rule) win instance kudos for being ugly - or "characterful" - and still getting away with it. Quite right too. Clive James once wrote that Hollywood only tolerates one bald male star in any generation. Telly Savalas, and… Dr Evil?

Apart from anything else, this illustrates how men can get away with more than women. For female celebrities, every photo - especially ones in which they are not willing participants - is a potential career-ender. Which is why you see more monkeying about (John Cleese) in male celebrity photo-shoots: Sean Connery's career will not be brought to an end by a hint of cellulite, or the wind catching what remains of his hair. Richard Burton could afford to be photographed wearing a bath hat, Olivier in a corset and stockings. It's not just aesthetic, either. Few women get away with the kind of turmoil in their private lives that the likes of Frank Sinatra or Robert Downey Jr. could shrug off (or even turn to their advantage).

Celebrity is, of course, fundamentally a conspiracy between media and subject. So Amis and Rushdie are included, and Jackie Collins (next to Joan); but not a thousand other famous authors. Image again. Before the single-reflex camera, says Gill, there was only fame. It was cameras and photographers who turned fame into celebrity. And so the best photographers became celebrities, too, a fact quietly acknowledged with a couple of shots that either include renowned photographers (Snowdon, Bailey), or cameras (Peter Sellers), or have celebrities (Kate Moss) surrounded by a crowd of '50s-style hacks. Enter the paparazzi, named for the scooter-riding photographer in Fellini's La Dolce Vita… a film about celebrity, of course, starring Brigitte Bardot.

Maybe the line between achieved fame and "mere" celebrity is best drawn in Gill's discussion of the difference in confidence between the concert pianist or ice-skater - whose skills can be witnessed and measured - and the pop star or actor. These latter, as celebrities, can be ditched at any moment, their status revoked simply by the fact of it being revoked (the same way many of them were made simple by being made). And that terrifies them.

You cannot be a celebrity without a loving audience, and an audience can turn on you for any number of reasons. In fact, O'Neill already questions whether the Age of Celebrity isn't coming to an end: we suffer such overload now that celebrity itself is subject to devaluation. If anyone can attain celebrity status by singing on reality TV, then why bother to be a serious star? Why not go out in a baseball cap and tracksuit? Why not look like a regular person?

O'Neill's tacit answer to the question is simple: do that, and you'll never end up in my book.

A S H Smyth is a freelance journalist, specialising in foreign affairs, conflict & security, and Southern Africa.

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