The late ’60s and early ’70s were the golden age of reporters following famous people around and writing down embarrassing things they said. “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” is the most famous of these bits of postmodern journalism, and as well-known as it is, it is always worth another read. Nearly five decades after its publication, the celebrity profile is at a low ebb, torn between two forces: the journalist’s ego, and the star’s image control. In 2013, the journalist is never strong enough to pull rank on the star.
That tension is what led us to last week’s abominable Esquire profile of Megan Fox. The highlight is the lede, a half-witted description of ancient Aztec rituals that we excerpted here. That the 250 word digression on ancient Aztec sacrifices is too long to print in full is a testament to the fact that it is too long. But more than overlong, I think it’s easy to make a case for it as the worst lede of January.
Reading it, it’s easy to visualize the interview. Fox’s sabre-wielding publicists have backed the reporter into a corner, where they break his will with a lengthy, repetitive chant about image control. It feels like poor Stephen Marche promised his editors a cover story, found he would get no more than a half hour alone with Fox, and was forced to pad out his interview with narration about ancient rituals that have absolutely nothing to do with his subject. The transcription of that part of the conversation would probably read:
Marche: So, uh, you know the Aztecs?
Marche: They had this thing where they would, uh—gosh you’re pretty—where they would pick the prettiest kid in town and be nice to him for a year and then cut his heart out. So, you can relate to that?
Fox: It’s so similar. It totally is.
Bam! That’s 300 words right there!
You can tell how healthy a celebrity profile by how heavily it relies on the journalist’s voice. If nothing else, a profile should capture the way a star speaks. Getting to the heart of someone’s humanity in a half hour—in a day—is probably impossible. If we’re lucky, we can capture something about the way he or she talks, moves, or laughs. That’s a lot easier when your subject is Lee Marvin.
This 1970 profile of Lee Marvin is one of the best bits of classic celebrity journalism I have ever read. Nearly the whole story is quotes, and every one is a gem.
“I need a beer,” Marvin said. “Who’s gonna get me a beer? I’m gonna get me a beer? I feel like a beer. Hell, I need a beer. Where are my glasses?”
A few lines later:
“Where’s that – - – - ing beer, baby?” He dropped the book on the rug. “Look, if I want to develop an image, I’ll do it my own – - – - ing way.”
In 1970, there was no one in America who didn’t know what Lee Marvin looked like, what Lee Marvin talked like. The genius of a profile like this is that it shows him behaving exactly how we expect, but going ten times farther than we could have imagined. That guy really wants that beer. He really wants that steak. It’s easy to get halfway through the article before you notice the byline. Holy shit—Roger Ebert wrote this?!
Obviously, Marvin gave that interview without a publicist there. He was making his image his own fucking way. Or rather, he was protecting it. His image was of a man who didn’t give a damn, and he sold it to Rog. Drunken indifference doesn’t sell any more—not in sports, film, or the arts. There may be actors out there as fun as Lee Marvin, but they spend millions each year to make sure we never find out.