×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Hollywood Knew Private Photo Leaks Long Before the 2000’s

The posting of pilfered intimate celebrity photos last week was a reminder of the anomaly of stardom: A star’s entire life is directed to attracting attention to himself or herself — until that moment when they suddenly announce “leave me alone.”

While we civilians understand why stars are upset when their private photos go viral — especially when someone steals them from their phones — what most of us don’t get is why they posed for them to begin with. Rampant narcissism, it seems, keeps intruding on privacy.

Yet this is hardly a new conundrum. Marilyn Monroe’s naked photos became a pocket industry. I was once offered photos supposedly taken by Charlie Chaplin of one of his underage “dates.” I hastily declined.

A huge stash of star photos was allegedly included in King Farouk’s mythic library of assorted porn — the portly Egyptian monarch was the biggest collector in the world, though he claimed the Vatican library inadvertently ran a close second. Farouk’s photos ultimately fell into the hands of Alfred Kinsey as part of his research on sexual behavior.

So while reps for Jennifer Lawrence, Kirsten Dunst and Kate Upton might protest that their privacy was violated, “violations” of this sort have been going on forever. If anything, the motivations seem tamer this time — more like exercises in titillation and geek mischief, not extortion, as in previous generations.

In the 1940s and 1950s, scandal sheets like Confidential and Whisper routinely threatened to publish salacious photos of stars like Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter or Guy Madison. It was considered certain career death for a romantic lead to be identified as gay, and usually a payoff made the photos disappear. Still, reps for Cary Grant and Randolph Scott were furious when the story went public that they shared an apartment in Hollywood, and photos appeared that seemed to document their (fully clothed) domestic bliss.

Mike Connolly, a gay gossip columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, relished torturing Hunter with items about his presence at all-male pajama parties and dances. In that era, it was a violation of the penal code for men to dance with other men in public places.

Studio publicists were skilled at countering these allegations with hastily arranged marriages, such as Hudson’s to Phyllis Gates, which occurred shortly after the release of “Giant.” Photos of these events were aggressively circulated to the press.

Some 40 years later, some the elements of scandal had changed, but not others. Rob Lowe became the inadvertent star of stolen videotapes as a result of his encounter with two girls at a political convention (one was 16 years old) and a second incident in Paris. An agile and witty interview subject, Lowe managed his own crisis control, and escaped with no apparent lasting career damage.

Given their celebrity, why do stars allow themselves to get into such situations? Sometimes it’s a question of artistic seduction. The great photographer Helmut Newton once told me he could not remember being turned down by a star for a photo shoot, even when the set-up was risque. To be sure, some of his photos are masterful, albeit prurient.

But the main motivation for stars’ willingness to let such photos be taken is simple narcissism. Despite their public protestations, the reality is that they like being looked at. They like looking at themselves. They just don’t like the public to horn in on their fun and not pay for it.

Popular on Variety

More Voices

  • Martin Scorsese Irishman BTS

    Will Martin Scorsese's Marvel Comments Hurt 'The Irishman's' Oscar Chances?

    “What a snob!” So said an Academy member when I asked about Martin Scorsese’s recent New York Times opinion piece in which he doubled down on his criticism of Marvel movies. The Oscar winner became director non grata among superhero fans last month for telling Empire magazine that Marvel Cinematic Universe films are “not cinema.”  [...]

  • Lulu Wang The Farewell

    Refusal to Compromise Hasn't Hurt 'Farewell,' 'Lighthouse' Filmmakers' Oscar Chances

    Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” is based on a true story about her own family. Observing a Chinese tradition of not telling elders when they’ve been diagnosed with a fatal disease, Wang’s relatives reunited in China in 2013 to visit with her grandmother after the family learned she had incurable cancer. Her grandmother was kept in [...]

  • Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan,

    'Little Women' Takes Giant Step Into 2020 Oscar Race

    If Wednesday night’s SAG-AFTRA screening of “Little Women” was any indication of enthusiasm for Greta Gerwig’s take on the classic tale, the cast could find themselves mainstays on the awards circuit. It was a full house — and then some — at the DGA in West Hollywood. The venue was overbooked and several people were [...]

  • Jo Jo Rabbit Once Upon a

    Why Younger Actors Could Be Crashing the Oscar Nominations

    Tatum O’Neal was only 10 years old when she became the youngest actor to win an Oscar in 1974 for her work alongside her father, Ryan O’Neal, in “Paper Moon.”  Besides O’Neal, the only other young Oscar winners have been Anna Paquin, who at age 11 went home with the supporting actress Oscar for “The Piano” [...]

  • Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron.

    Charlize Theron Could Win Second Oscar for Playing Megyn Kelly in 'Bombshell'

    Charlize Theron walked on stage before a screening of “Bombshell” at West Hollywood’s Pacific Design Center on Sunday night and announced to the crowd, “I’m about to s— myself.” The Oscar winner had good reason to be nervous. The screening of the Jay Roach-directed drama about the fall of Fox News boss Roger Ailes was [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content