People have always craved gossip about movie stars. In the age of Hedda Hopper and Photoplay, the gossip was generally orchestrated (and often just made up) by the studios, as a way to control the stars’ images
Today, in the age of TMZ and InTouch, the power of gossip has shifted. In one way, stars now manage and manipulate their own images. In another way, they’ve lost all control, as they fight to live inside a digital-media fishbowl of scandals and paparazzi images that ricochet around the planet.
For fans, the tidal wave of gossip — some accurate, much of it fake — has swelled exponentially; so has the anything-goes voyeuristic luridness of it all. Yet something else has expanded as well: the sense that the off-screen stories we’re reading about — “Ben and Jen, still together!” “Mila’s baby bump!” — are no longer just an extension of the stars’ images. Those stories have become a kind of real-life movie, one that’s frequently more addictive than the movies themselves. (Quick, which movie would you rather see: “Batman v Superman,” or “Jen Is Pregnant Again, and Ben Swears He’ll Quit Drinking and Gambling?”) The tale in the tabloids is now threatening to become the tail that wags the movie-star dog.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, Brad Pitt had a major new film come out — “Allied,” a WWII romantic espionage thriller in which he stars with Marion Cotillard. Is there still a big audience for a movie so knowingly old-fashioned that its first half is set in Casablanca? Thus far, the box-office grosses for “Allied” have been … OK.
That aside, here’s another movie we can all agree is a smash hit: “The Breakup of Brangelina.” Have you seen it yet? It has everything! A great love story — between the two sexiest people in the world — that turned into a messy divorce; rumors of adultery, substance abuse, eating disorders, and a mental breakdown; and a custody fight! The riveting climax hinged on an accusation of abusive behavior, which the courts determined to be groundless. (Quick, would you rather see this movie, or “Allied”?) For a while, “The Breakup of Brangelina” was even playing on a double feature with something called “Brad and Marion: What Really Happened on That Set?” That one may have been entirely made-up, but if we’ve learned anything from the presidential campaign, it’s that we’re now living in a media looking glass where things that aren’t true take on the ring of reality, even after they’ve been debunked.
Will the tabloid stories that have swirled around Pitt for the last six months influence whether or not audiences go to see “Allied”? The rumors of an on-set liaison, however spurious, might actually be an audience lure, in that Liz-and-Dick-on-the-set-of-“Cleopatra” way. But the more vital issue is that Pitt, who often shuns love stories, is now attempting to market himself as a romantic star. Is the audience of women who will seek him out in that kind of role going to be as big, right now, as it would have been a year ago, before the coverage of his divorce splattered him with mud?
My unscientific answer is: maybe not. Then again, however much the success of “Allied” is influenced by the perception of that other, gossip-driven Brad Pitt movie, the real question is this: For those who buy a ticket to “Allied,” will their awareness of tabloid scandal influence how they view Pitt as a fantasy figure? Movies, after all, are illusions that convince us, in a spectacular and nearly counterintuitive way, that they’re real. We don’t just want to be swept away — we want to believe.
Pitt is a superb actor (one of my favorites, in fact), but the question for audiences is whether they can completely give themselves over to experiencing him in a role that is now competing with the role of his life.