A friend of the great Russian poet Mandelstam once referred to ‘the profession that’s the opposite of yours’, probably meaning a secret police agent. But Mandelstam naturally assumed his friend was talking about an actor.
Common sense would suggest he was right to make that assumption. Someone who can effortlessly slip into multiple personalities is unlikely to have a strong one of his own; someone who regurgitates the products of other men’s minds has to be able to suppress his own, and powerful intellects wouldn’t stay suppressed for long. Just imagine, say, Immanuel Kant playing Hamlet, putting his soul into the Bard’s immortal line ‘Sein, oder nicht sein…’, and you’ll know what I mean.
Naturally there are exceptions. For example, I hear from my friends who know him that Edward Fox is an intelligent man. I’ll take their word for it, but then there are exceptions to everything. I’ve even met well-spoken footballers who don’t have to pause after every other word to suppress the ‘f’ filler that would normally slot in there. Exceptions are exceptions, and rules are rules.
So much for the theory — now comes empirical validation. I grew up with my grandfather, a highly respected stage actor. Whenever he and his colleagues had a free evening, they’d crowd into our tiny place, drink and amuse themselves in all sorts of boisterous and crude ways. They’d bend over my pram, dripping sweat on my swaddled body, and teach me words that in those days only appeared in large unabridged dictionaries. Thus long before I could walk I knew how to describe a person’s maternal progenitor in terms suggesting intimate familiarity with most sexual variants.
When I grew up I found no forensic evidence to contravene the first pram-acquired impressions. By then the star dust covering famous actors had been blown off by close acquaintance, and I realised that my sainted grandpa and his friends weren’t just eccentric but, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid and vulgar. I’m aware how unfashionable it is to generalise, and I know I’ll burn in PC hell, but various large groups of people do tend to have much in common. So I suspect that many, though far from all, actors share at least one of those characteristics, and possibly both.
Nothing one reads about them in the press goes a long way towards dispelling this shameful preconceived notion. Take Sean Penn’s recent comments on British foreign policy in the South Atlantic, which stirred much indignation not just in the British press but, more important, among residents of the Falklands, which Mr Penn, displaying a fine command of geopolitical nuance, referred to as the Malvinas.
My first reaction wasn’t so much indignation as good-natured indulgence: I simply considered the source, which I knew only too well. Add Sean’s likely deficiency in the upstairs department to his well-documented adulation of Hugo Chavez and to the visceral hatred for Britain which is a trademark of many Hollywood actors of Irish descent, and all one can say is ‘there, there, no need to get excited, there’s a good boy — have another jar, my old son.’ Arguing against Sean and his colleagues would hardly be sporting.
Why actors and other celebs feel entitled not only to their own opinion, but also to an audience, is the really interesting part. In the past, one had to earn the right to speak in the agora; these days people assume that those who are good at something are good at everything.
Now Penn is an excellent actor, but it’s not his talent that puts him on the public platform. It’s his fame. Even those who barely know, or can appreciate, how good an actor he is, know he is a celebrity — and this is all that matters. If he next decides to pass judgment on the conflict between quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, physicists will cringe, but the public will listen and nod.
Fame is these days divorced from attainment, and the two coincide only fortuitously. Thus we routinely get celebrities like Nancy del’Olio, whose sole claim to renoun is based on her amorous links to Sven-Goran Eriksson and Sir Trevor Nunn. I wonder what Nancy thinks about the Malvinas, wouldn’t you like to know? On second thoughts, never mind that. She probably thinks the word stands for lousy wine.