Fame is public nudity. For some this means the willful exposure to the unforgiving power of the elements solely for self-aggrandizement. For others it is an imposition dictated by chance or personal accomplishment. Whichever the case may be, if you cannot face the crowd, never make them proud. The consequences are life changing for some, deadly for others. Understanding our fascination with fame teaches us more about ourselves than about famous people themselves. Two famous artists who had a lasting impact on my life will face the spotlight today.
The King of Rock, Mr. Elvis Presley, is the first one deservedly called to center stage. Long before the days of music streaming, record stores were my musical treasure trove, a never-ending source of sonorous wonderment. The trips to the record store on weekends provided me with vinyl records to fill the silence of my afternoons. The first record I ever purchased was a collection of Elvis Presley´s greatest hits, my seminal introduction to rock and roll. Not only did his music galvanize the spirits of a young child, it electrified my muscles into an uncontrollable motion, not aptly described as dancing, but at least a true demonstration of sincere excitement. A small broomstick served as an imaginary microphone and occasional guitar while I sang along. The notion that music was powerful enough to literally move a human being was a novel concept to me.
Both a baritone and a tenor, the impressive, soulful vocal range and primal power of Elvis´ voice elicited an admiration never before awarded to any other musician. The worst decision some musicians ever made was allowing Elvis to cover their songs. Elvis always made the song entirely his own. Forgotten was the original recording and Elvis´ rendition became the definitive version of world renown. A Bridge Over Troubled Water, Sweet Caroline and Blue Suede Shoes are prime examples. Who remembers they were originally recorded by Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Diamond and Carl Perkins? His version of Amazing Grace remains the definitive rendition in my humble opinion.
Despite being unimpressed by his movies, his shows were the most impassionate musical performances I had ever seen. For an impressionable boy, Elvis was not just a musician you wanted to listen to; he was someone you wanted to be. Though the concept of a sex symbol was foreign to me, it was impossible not to notice how women swooned over him during his performances. Soon my Pee Wee Herman haircut was a distant memory of the past, as I combed my dark hair like Elvis and later had sideburns in my teenage years. My newfound look was an enormous success with my grandmother, apparently reminding her of a past that remained so present. The notion that an accomplished musician could influence a boy´s appearance speaks volume about the physically molding power of fame. Though my physical appearance became a reflection of my admiration for Elvis, emulating his dressing style was a practical impossibility. The clothes he wore looked ridiculous on anyone else. Somethings only Elvis could do. The rest of us had to abide by the rules of common sense.
This was the extent of his influence on my life. Elvis had long passed away by the time I first played his record as a child. The legacy he left me was his songs and the recordings of his concerts, none of his movies ever touched my heart. Neither was I privy to some of the troubling details of his personal life. The contradictions are so rife they trouble the mind. The same man who imparted such heartfelt emotion to timeless love songs was incapable of maintaining a long-lasting relationship with a woman throughout his lifetime. Despite being a sex symbol of unadulterated masculinity, he passively allowed his manager Colonel Parker to run his life. His manager made a series of questionable decisions that not only adversely affected Elvis´ career, but also compromised his physical, psychological and spiritual wellbeing. Even more troubling, the adamant personification of virility, who always smiled at life, succumbed before the allure of drugs. In the end, the man who sang myriad soulful gospel songs with divine fervor became a serial philanderer imprisoned in Las Vegas, the graveyard of his youthful spirit. Fame erected this wall of contradictions separating his public persona from his private self, and fame publicly tore it down.
If fame introduced Elvis into my life, it also exacted a price too costly even for the King of rock and roll. The same source of boundless riches was also the source of his ultimate penury. His mysterious, untimely and ignominious death did not affect me personally, for it predated my very existence, but it is a shame that in the cemetery of fame there should be a mausoleum dedicated to Elvis. Many worship celebrities because of the money, sex and power fame provides, but they forget the high price exacted on their lives. Elvis was a masculine role model for an impressionable child, but one oblivious to the dark side of fame that considerably shortened and defiled the life of a music icon. With these parting words, the King has now left the building, a beloved actor and comedian has taken center stage.
The day laughter succumbed to pain, and joy succumbed to tears, over was Robin Williams´ reign, silent was the world of cheers. The man had taken a final bow, leaving the stage of life long before his time. He was my favorite comedian, and I grew up laughing with the best of them: Laurel & Hardy, Bill Murray, Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Didi Mocó, Lenny Bruce, John Candy, Rodney Dangerfield, Eddie Murphy and Albert Brookes. I watched them in movies, on television, in recordings and standup. They all made me laugh. None compared to Robin Williams. He was the only one who made me smile in times of pain; he was the only one equally accomplished as a dramatic actor. The fleeting laughter elicited by his TV appearances, standup comedy and award show ceremonies were all silenced by time, but the joy he brought to my life in his dramatic roles stayed the day. Even when he was serious, he was still funny. His smile was more caring and humane than most I have seen. He instilled in me a sense of humor even in times of pain.
In “Good Will Hunting”, he played the role of a psychologist who became a surrogate father to a troubled orphaned young genius. Though his character had lost his wife and was struggling with the immense existential pain of her loss, he managed to set aside his personal demons to assist a young man in desperate need of direction, helping him reach an enormous potential that could easily have gone unfulfilled. Robin´s smile on screen was a thin veil that never disguised the lingering sadness silently conveyed by his eyes. Though he won an Oscar for his performance, it remains questionable whether he was acting at all or simply being his naked self on screen for a fleeting while. The same man, who brought such a strong sense of purpose and direction to the life of a young troubled genius, also contended alone with the abyssal void left by his wife´s death. Was this not the same role Robin played in real life? Setting aside his personal demons to focus solely on the emotional state of other human beings, he elicited laughter and brought a modicum of happiness to his audience.
In “Dead Poet Society”, he once again played the role of a father figure and mentor, this time to a group of young boys at an elite boarding school. The same warm caring smile graced the screen, now on the face of an English Teacher. Though his eyes exuded greater hope than in the previous role mentioned, the same lingering sadness made itself translucent. His sense of humor in this movie was more refined, subtle and endearing. Despite the suicide of one of the characters, he brought great hope to his students by challenging them to grasp the true meaning of poetry, questioning the very purpose of life itself. Though none of life´s most important questions were answered, simply setting another human being on course to find greater existential meaning is a significant contribution to one´s life. This is the role of a true Teacher, but Robin William made it the responsibility of an actor.
In one memorable scene, he asked his students what meaningful contribution they would make to the world: what would their verse in life be? This scene so moved me that I first tried my hand at poetry. That every human being carries an artistic spark was already a firmly held belief, but the requisite courage to express myself poetically was lacking. Robin´s performance awakened me from my stupor and opened up an entire avenue of self-expression that was personally liberating in ways not previously envisioned, helping me find a small measure of joy in moments of pain. The subliminal humor, of what in principle was a dramatic scene, was only exceeded by the applicability of the poetic message to modern life itself. The strength of his performance elevated an actor to the role of a mentor and teacher. Particularly to anyone who has ever studied at a boarding school, the humor of that scene is not to be understated.
In another memorable scene, he exhorted his students to find their own individual voices in life, amid a heartless world that required blind conformism to arbitrary rules often dictated by the harsh realities of a market that treated people as goods, not as human beings, bringing the very concept of citizenship into question. Once again, the refined, subtle humor and delivery in that scene is not to be understated. More than simply elicit a transient smile, his performance planted important existential questions of lasting impact that forced one to think. The same is true of the day tragedy struck.
When a man bearing such a compassionate smile took his own life, this tragedy gave me ample reason to consider the true importance of human existence, placing my own personal problems into proper perspective. To delve into Robin Williams´ personal life and analyze his medical history would be disrespectful and unnecessary. That he tasted enough of solitude as a child, struggling with mental illness and drug abuse as an adult is well known. That some of the funniest and most sensitive people in the world are also the saddest is a lifelong observation others may feel inclined to impugn, not me. Learning to read someone´s eyes is probably one of the most important skills in life, for they sometimes say what lips dare not speak. What his eyes spoke to me was well understood. The extent to which fame contributed to his underlying problems is a matter for speculation, although a reasonable person would suspect as much.
Paradoxically, the same fame that brought these two immensely talented artists into my life also played a role in their tragic early demise. Fame amplified two voices that would otherwise go unheard by audiences across the world, but it also magnified the problems in their lives. Fame denudes the artist in the public eye and divests inhibitions not to be disposed. How this comes about is the true story to be told. A society centered on mass consumption packages, markets and sells the artist as a piece of merchandize, whose value oscillates according to the volatility of personal tastes. When merchandizing a human being does not silences his real voice, it silences his heartbeat. None of this is new, as clichés never are. This is precisely the problem.
When fame becomes a meat grinder destroying some of the most sensitive artistic souls, what is said of a society that passively watches this spectacle repeatedly unfold? What does the infamy of famous people really reveal about our own selves? Maybe they are not the only ones subjected to public nudity. Hypocrisy has a way of revealing itself by what we choose to condemn in others, while ignoring in ourselves. Hypocrisy also reveals itself by what we actively or tacitly condone. As recent scandals have made clear, sexual predatory omnipotence has become a prevalent maleficence, particularly amongst certain gatekeepers of the so-called show business industry, preying upon vulnerable human beings simply trying to ascend professionally. This compromises the professional, artistic and moral integrity of all parties concerned. It is utterly unacceptable. By setting abysmally low standards for others, we only compromise ourselves. If fame is the ascendancy to a sky where everyone longs to be, are famous people not a reflection of those admiring from beneath? If fame is public nudity, it divests our clothes as well.