Friday, May 15, 2009

Ignorance is Bliss vs. Knowledge is Power

Over at Noir Girl, Casey's post about Carmen Miranda got me thinking about how classic film fans watch movies. There are the times we watch films for substance, looking for stories that speak to our own personal experiences or enrich their lives by exploring the human condition in ways they hadn't done before. Other times we watch for enjoyment, for an escape from our everyday world and into another existence. Some of us lean towards the substance, others lean towards the enjoyment yet we all find our own comfortable balance between the two. We approach films different types of knowledge or lack thereof. We come armed with an arsenal of information either about the film, its stars, the director or the genre or we come completely pure and naive ready to experience something new and different. Again, a lot of us lean towards one or the other side but we find balance between the two.

In one of Casey's comments she says "the films are the ice cream, the lives of the stars are just the sprinkles on the top. That's the way it should stay." I've read a few posts by other classic film bloggers and they pretty much align with Casey's viewpoint which is that certain knowledge about the lives of stars stains the purity of enjoyment when watching the films. I don't really agree with this concept but I can understand it. Reading about Loretta Young in two separate biographies about other stars made me not like her so much and thus I have avoided her films. However, I didn't like her much to begin with so the knowledge just enhanced that. On the flip side, I've read sordid details about the lives of Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Robert Mitchum, Norma Shearer, etc. and it hasn't affected how I watch their films. I still enjoy them immensely on screen. I can see where that might not work for everyone. Joan Crawford is forever tainted by that one famous line about wire hangers.

I am far too nosy and inquisitive to not learn about the lives of classic film stars yet is it right for me to dig up the dirt? Should I honor their legendary careers by avoiding their personal lives? If so, why should I? If they did bad things, why should I overlook them? What about those stars who were genuinely good people? Should we avoid them too? Jimmy Stewart was raised in my estimation after reading Marc Eliot's biography of him. Stewart gets the bad rap of being a womanizer (total myth) and dirt-digging Eliot couldn't even find much to tarnish Stewart.

Now I ask you dear readers, would you rather know or not know and why? I would love to hear your thoughts.


  1. Given that acting (like any creative endeavor) draws from the actor's personal life and upbringing, I think we can always benefit from a better understanding of who they were. If Carmen Miranda did make these funny, stylish, happy movies while dealing with an abusive husband and addiction, that only makes her talents that much greater. It's naive to equate an actor with the roles they play onscreen, and even more naive to dismiss the historical context of their lives and choice in roles. Brazilians really did have a complex relationship with Ms. Miranda, not to be summed up by either "they loved her" or "they hated her," and I think we viewers can gain a lot from knowing that.

    I can't think of a single film star I've avoided because of what's happened in their lives off-screen. In fact, the only person who's work I've avoided for those reasons is a director (Roman Polanski), and obviously the reasons his personal life concerns me go way beyond a simple bad personality.

    Of course, if someone wants to watch the movies for what they are--stories--there's nothing wrong with that. But you'll always have a deeper understanding of the movie by analyzing the people who were involved in it and the society it was created in. I'm thankful that there are biographers and film historians out there that are making that information available to us.

  2. I think you can go either way and should just do what comes natural.

    Depends on the film too. In your excellent write-up of "Giant," we wouldn't want to hear about the complicated personal lives of Rock, Liz or Dean inside the post, but in other cases the life of the star may be more relevant.

    If Jimmy Stewart's sex life doesn't fit into a post about It's a Wonderful Life, well maybe it will in one about Rear Window, or maybe you just do a post on Jimmy Stewart himself.

    The cool part is it's your blog, so it's your call.

    If the commenters scream, well, either the hell with them or adjust accordingly. No?

    Keep up the awesome job,

  3. I had this same conversation with my sister with regards to Woody Allen films, which she refuses to watch given his less than squeaky-clean history in real life.

    My stance is that allowing your personal feelings toward an artist to interfere with your experience of their work is sort of like violating the fourth wall as an audience member - you are not allowing yourself to to be swept up in the movie magic, the suspension of disbelief that you can actually like or loathe a character independently of how you might feel about the actor.

    Some people are not capable of separating that out, and probably wouldn't benefit from digging too deeply in to the biographical details.

  4. I like learning more about stars, even if what I'm learning is bad, because more often than not it doesn't change my opinion of their movies. Though, like you, learning good things about someone does often improve my view of them. The only thing I dislike is when people make "documentaries" about movie stars that just seem to exist to tarnish that persons' image, like the writer had a vendetta or something. It's also tough to know what to take seriously or not since so many of these people are long gone, and have no one around to argue their side of the story. (LIke when Joan Crawford's daughter wrote Mommie Dearest, she was already dead. But when Bette Davis' daughter wrote a mean tell-all, Bette was still alive to counterpoint the accusations. That sometimes could make all the difference!)

    ps. Totally agree with you on Loretta Young, totally!!

  5. My quirky take is that I'll watch anything by anyone as long as I know they were never mean to animals!

  6. I usually first become enthralled with a certain actor or actress by viewing them first in a film and when their talents have me interested enough, I then make a natural progression toward exploring their personality and the way they live(d) their lives.

    To be completely honest, if it turns out that they were not such nice individuals; if they were self absorbed, rude, cruel, ungrateful, etc., I do tend to like them a tad less but, I am able to continue enjoying their films and brand of artistry its just that, how can I word this? Perhaps from then on, they just kind of leave a bad taste in my mouth..

    Then again, Lucille Ball, who is my favorite actress, was known for being tough to work with/for and that only endears her to me even more but, she ran that studio nearly singlehandedly so at times, you have to be a little tough or you'll never succeed and, she obviously did something right so, I guess what I'm saying is that, like many things in life, my view of any actor or actress based on their personal life depends on the circumstances surrounding why they were the way they were and, it may shade their performances for me slightly however, never enough for me to avoid their bodies of work altogether.

  7. I think the reverse of your question raises some interesting points for discussion: should we judge a person in reality based on their appearances in films?

    Arnold Schwarzenegger has consistently portrayed meatheads and violent, unthinking types, and has since became a prominent political figure. Would he have gained this status were it not for the public persona he developed through action films: a tough, instinctive leader suited to the political right? He certainly isn't a great man privately - the misogynistic nature, the steroid abuse, etc.

  8. Heather- I like your take on Carmen Miranda for sure! I always wondered if people avoided Roman Polanski as what he did was pretty bad and he never paid for it.

    Cliff - I agree, the life of a star is not always relevant. I almost always separate from the movies they show unless they are directly linked. Like Montgomery Clift pre and post accident. There is quite a difference. Thanks for your support!

    21st Century Cave Painter - I can see that not everyone can separate the two. Some people are just sensitive and I think that's when ignorance becomes bliss.

    Kate - Oh the many many problems with nonfiction literature. It has the capacity to brainwash as it presents "truth" where as fiction doesn't make any false claims. A really good biography should be balanced and non-judgmental. Let the reader decide for themselves. But that isn't always the case and as you say some people like to drag stars through the mud.

    King - Oh that's interesting. Anagramasci said he couldn't sympathize with Susan Peters since her accident involved killing animals. I can see some people not looking too kindly on folks like Bing Crosby who were known child beaters.

    Krista - Oh I didn't know that about Lucille Ball. It makes total sense though, she was such a strong spunky independent woman. I admire her greatly. There are several stars who leave a bad taste in my mouth. Right now it's Merle Oberon as I learned recently that she was very cruel to her mother. But I'll still watch her films.

    Chris - Very interesting! I guess the same could be applied to Ronald Reagan although the two men were very different. Actors certainly can be typecast but their fame makes them recognizable and gives them an edge especially in politics. But I guess that only really applies to contemporary stars as the lives of classic ones have already come full circle.

  9. While I despise modern day celebrity gossip, I must admit that I love reading biographies and autobiographies about the classic stars. My reason is the same I read biographies about directors, actors, and so on. I do think an individual's personal life has an impact on their creative life.

    That having been said, I do think film fans have to be careful which biographies they read. I think some are poorly written and others I swear the writers are making things up. A perfect example of this is the one that claimed that Errol Flynn spied for the Nazis prior to WWII. Very poorly researched. While I think there's no doubt Flynn liked teenage girls A LOT, I don't think he was ever a Nazi spy...

  10. The people you named whose life stories didn't ruin your take on their movies (Bette Davis, all have played rough and tumble, no nonsense characters on film, and may be well known for that characterization.

    Anything off screen wouldn't really hurt their reputation that much with the current viewing audience.

    Loretta Young, however, plays very nice people onscreen, so it might be a bit of a downer to learn something sordid about her, which ruins the film.

  11. Wow, we've really started something here! You make several fascinating points. I actually do enjoy learning about the lives of the film stars, but from the stars themselves in autobiographies - not from modern authors or commentators who are trying to make a name for themselves. The whole tv spot with Rita Moreno just seemed like Rita projecting her own opinions on Carmen's life and that is what upset me. I can take the fact that Carmen had a sad life, and knowing that fact makes me appreciate her all the more as an actress. I was considering it and I think Rita's comments would have been easier to take if they had been tempered with some of Carmen's accomplishments. Her comments gave me the feeling that she wanted the viewers to feel guilty while watching Greenwich Village. As if the events of Carmen's life should color the way we watch her films.

    Like Kate, I've been burned with the tv bios that are mud fests or melodrama on steroids. TCM does the best tv bios, but even they push it sometimes. For me, finding out knowledge about the classic stars is all about who to trust.

    btw- I don't mind at all that you disagree with me. :) Stimulated discussion is a good thing!

  12. this is a tremendously fascinating post, and the replies *most* enlightening!!

    Personally, I've always felt it a good thing to be able to like the art without necessarily having to like the artist. I'm a ravenous reader of hollywood biographies--I love to get, as critic David Thomson puts it, "the whole equation." But I also believe it necessary at times to put a crowbar between someone's personal life and the work they did on screen.

    Thank god normal white-collar workers like myself and the other billions like me on the planet don't have our output at work judged by how we conduct our private affairs!


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