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You Don’t Know Jack

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By William Deresiewicz


 

We know what movie stars look like to us: icons of physical perfection, paragons of talent and fortune, numinous beings, Greek gods for beauty and bliss. Celebrity is modern divinity. We keep their altars in our living rooms (those would be the things with the remotes), place their holy books by every checkout counter (I mean the ones with the glossy covers). I’m always struck by this especially in places like Walmart or Walgreens, where the miasma of minimum-wage despair is particularly thick. From the fluorescent depths we cry to thee. Save us, Angelina! Lift me up, St. Jude!

But what do we look like to movie stars? I was watching Jack Goes Boating, a little film from a couple of years ago. Amy Ryan and Philip Seymour Hoffman play a couple of ordinary people struggling to find love in New York City. Except they aren’t just ordinary. Ryan’s character is stunted, socially incompetent, unloved—no one’s ever cooked her a meal, she admits—an obscurely wounded creature who seems, in some kind of creepy way, to invite sexual assault. Hoffman’s is even worse, lugging his rubbery flesh around, hiding his hideously patchy scalp beneath a woolen cap, fearful as a baby, pathologically insecure, grotesque.

Then it hit me. This is what ordinary people look like to Hollywood. Impossibly beautiful is the norm up there; when they think about the rest of us (whom they never actually see, of course, or at least notice), they picture people like Jack and his girlfriend: subhuman, pathetic, deformed—losers barely capable of functioning in the world. They look down on us with pity, like spectators at a Special Olympics. They throw us a crumb by supposing that, yes, with great efforts of self-improvement (which is what happens in Jack Goes Boating), we, too, are capable of eliciting affection, at least from our own kind.

There is no middle ground in Hollywood’s imagination. Either you’re Brad Pitt or you’re Jonah Hill (Moneyball). George Clooney and Ryan Gosling on the one hand, Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman on the other (The Ides of March). Patton Oswalt, John C. Reilly, Wallace Shawn—obese, pockmarked, squat. William Macy, Steve Buscemi. For women, it’s worse, because even the losers have to be attractive. Amy Ryan is Hollywood’s idea of what it looks like to be unlovable. Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler, Cyrus) is its image of a woman who is over the hill.

It’s a visual medium; I expect that leading men and women will be gorgeous. But please, up there: a little respect.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which will be published in August, is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.


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