Tribeca Talks – Fame! I’m Gonna Live Forever – May 3, 2007
Actor Bruce Dern signs a copy of his new book, Things I've Said, But Probably Shouldn't Have: An Unrepentant Memoir, after the panel discussion.
Bruce Dern (BD) – Academy Award® and Golden Globe-nominated actor, Coming Home
Jake Halpern (JH) – Author, Fame Junkies
Robert B. Millman (RM), M.D. – Saul P. Steinberg Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Public Health at the Weil Medical College of Cornell University
Janice Min (JM) – Editor-in-Chief, Us Weekly
Josh Wolk (JW) – Senior Writer, Entertainment Weekly
(JW) Does fame make people nuts, or are people nuts about being famous?
(RM) Both are true. Think of Bill Clinton. He came from humble beginnings, but knew that he was ready for bigger things. When you do well it changes you and exacerbates narcissistic qualities. Some people get famous by accident. Narcissism can be developed in the first two years of life, but I also think it can be developed much later if for example you become an amazing athlete or actor and you think you deserve the attention. An example of a story about a narcissist- Once at a party, a guy was talking about how his finger nails needed a manicure and the next guy over talked about how he just had triple bypass surgery, but the guy with the finger nails thought he was more important. Another example – a baseball player. If a nine-year-old sees a baseball player walk into the room, he will look at the baseball player and not be interested in anyone else. The baseball player know that people are only interested in looking at him.
(JW) When you star in a movie, what’s it like when people look out for you?
(BD) I’ve played the nastiest bastards in film. I’ve been fairly approachable to it. I have seen it with people in my age group. I’ve been lucky to work with famous older movie stars who also worked on TV like Donna Reed. They treated fame as if it were nothing. Older stars were greater with it much more than my generation. We never get the adulation that musicians get. It’s not near as prevalent with guys that aren’t athletes unless you’re Tom Cruise or Robert Redford from my generation. In my generation, Redford and Paul Newman got the most attention. We all had to work our way up in our generation. I talk about a story of fame in my new book when I was at the Actors Studio with Marilyn Monroe who asked me if I would walk her across town to her apartment on Sutton Place. As we turned into Sutton Place, a lady looked at them and got into a cab and drove off. Marilyn was in tears and asked me if I knew who that was. It had been Greta Garbo. The reason Marilyn was crying was that Greta Garbo didn’t recognize who Marilyn was.
(JW) Are things worse now that they were before?
(JM) Celebrities have more exposure to the world now. They used to be able to go to the grocery story without someone like Perez Hilton blogging about it. Being a celeb now is a 24/7 job. You’re held accountable for your actions wherever you go. For example, what happened with Michael Richards and Mel Gibson last year. These stories broke on to the Internet really fast. Another example are female actresses/performers that have no real acting credits. An example- MTV reality show “Laguna Beach” star who dated Nick Lachey and got onto the cover of US Weekly (demographic is women 30 and younger). Fame has become their ultimate goal. They only live for the media. Young Hollywood gets pleasure out of fame. It’s extraordinary their drive to be famous. It’s more about who they’re dating and the clothes they’re wearing. They get a gratification that people think they’re pretty and popular. It’s as simple as that. Another recent example happened at a party where one celebrity just showed up who wasn’t even invited to have their picture taken on the red carpet and then left. Despite the often shaky relationships with celebrities and photographers, the worse outcome would be not to be photographed at all.
(JW) If a celebrity is unhappy, can fame make them happier?
(RM) You can never be satisfied. Your sense of yourself is so fragile. If something negative happens, your self-esteem plummets. You have an exaggerated sense of self-importance and a deeply dark sense of horror. Most people aim to be somewhere in the middle.
(JW) Can you tell us about this program where kids go to learn to be famous?
(JH) In my book, I talk about going to a convention in Los Angeles where parents take their kids to learn how to be famous. They didn’t let journalists in, but I was given a badge for agents and one five-year-old kid came up to me handing me his headshot and then a whole bunch more kids did the same. After this program, I called up a child psychologist and asked why American kids are like this and he told me that I had a skewed sample, so I did a survey about fame with 700 teenagers. One question I asked was do you pick fame over intelligence and most picked fame. In some schools, there are self-esteem curriculums and when they get out of school they think they’re all stars.
(RM) It’s a normal stage in development. Adolescents think the world revolves around them. Hopefully kids get out of it, but that kind of narcissism is normal.
(JH) There’s this test called a Narcissism Personality Index that was given to people of all age groups. No group scored higher than teens.
(RM) Fame is different than narcissism.
(JH) What came first? The chicken or the egg?
(JM) I think your survey that asks the teens if they have a choice between fame and intelligence is interesting because a lot of celebrities didn’t even graduate from high school. There seems to be a celebration of stupidity in Hollywood. For example- Jessica Simpson being unable to perform simple tasks is what really made her famous. These are great attention-getting devices. The road to fame is wide open, but being stupid is one way to get there.
(RM) Fame, not intelligence, gets you into places.
(JH) But you hope that intelligence would lead to fame.
(JW) What do we want from celebrities? Do we want to put them on a pedestal and tear them down? Are we more in a hurry to see these things play out?
(RM) People can go up to celebrities because they are just like us. We read about them because they’re talked about as if they are family.
(JM) You can bring up people like Anna Nicole Smith at a dinner party and everyone feels like they have something in common. People want connections to celebrities. There’s both worship and contempt for them. It’s a way to feel better about ourselves. Celebrities are willing to expose their personal lives. TV ratings and box office receipts are lower than they’ve ever been. The entertainers’ personal lives are becoming more popular then the entertainment.
(RM) It’s difficult to be a celebrity, in their defense. If you’re a celebrity, the people around you want to always be with you. Everyone has to recognize your great work all the time. You become more isolated, because you don’t relate to them. You become empty and isolated and think everyone is using you. Jealousy is always inevitable with celebrities.
(JW) Is it possible if you’re a huge celebrity to navigate your lifestyle away from this?
(RM) Some become reclusive like Greta Garbo. Some take the fake humility road by acting like a nice person, but really being a killer.
(BD) At events, sometimes when you get out of the car, outside is your entourage. I always felt without them, I’m nowhere. I appreciate them. You can tell who will go down the red carpet by looking at them.
Q: How is it that celebrities have a knack screwing up profitably? Is there any end in sight?
(RM) Often, they’re not doing it on purpose. They don’t believe the world can hurt them, even though they’re paid well.
(JM) The lack of repercussion for screwing up is interesting. It’s just another thing to deal with on your road to stardom. For example, DVD sales of Seinfeld skyrocketed after the Michael Richards’ incident. The outcome is gratification, not punishment.
Q: What are some positive aspects of fame and how do you attribute fame to luck, perseverance, and talent?
(RM) An example – an athlete who grows up in the projects has to think he’s got it. They have a sense of themselves early to get where they are. Another example is Bill Clinton. He was born with a sense of need.
(BD) I’ve always likened it to a marathon. None of us think about racing until 16 miles into the marathon, then you ask yourself, “Can I catch you?”
(RM) People who get famous may only have a moment of fame and then may go down because of narcissism and go down a painful trip.
(BD) Artists are about their body of work, not an individual piece of work.
Q: How do publicists and tabloids create fame?
(JM) You can’t really manufacturer fame. A lot of publicists push to get their actor clients through, but still can’t always get what they want. The quality that Hollywood values about these actors is what makes you want to know more about them.
(BD) You have to ask yourself, why did you come to Hollywood or New York City in the first place? Was it to better your craft or to get fame? People who get better with their craft get it over people who come just for the fame.
(JH) There’s a statistic where people in the 1950s were asked if they thought they were an important person and about 12% answered “yes,” and that same question answered today yielded about an 80% “yes” answer.
(JM) At the Oscars, the real competition is who’s best dressed, not the awards.
Q: How do you take criticism?
(BD) I guess it’s necessary. I remember the negative reviews word for word. I enjoy critics that white lie just enough to allow people to decide to see the film or not. I find it important. If it’s fair, it’s good. We all need criticism. We need it more from the audience than from other actors.