November 13, 2005

The perils and pleasures of celebrity adoration: Or how Rachel McAdams is saving my life

By: Michael Brendan Dougherty

In The Shawshank Redemption, the falsely imprisoned Andy obtains posters of movie stars — Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe and Raquel Welch. Everyone understands why these images are comforting. We know intuitively how they speak to the male imagination in a way that is equal parts innocent and puerile. The scholastic philosophers knew well that the eye desires beauty, just as the ear desires sonority and the mind desires truth. And Rita Hayworth was hella-blazing! These images nurture a male fantasy life in which the woman he longs for is so transcendently Perfect with a capital-P, she inspires automatic devotion, her beauty demands great chivalric deeds, her very loveliness transports him into a plain of existence in which he, too, has been made perfect. She would never, like a real woman, ever become bored or boring — she would never nag or be subject to irrationality (however temporary) or a bad hair day.

Girlfriends and wives understand this part of the male psyche. It is the stuff of Sunday evening conversation, while watching a movie:

“Would you leave me for Halle Berry?”

Ha ha! you think.

“No, I want to know, would you leave me for Halle Berry?” she insists.

She is setting a trap. If you answer “Yes,” you are disloyal and shallow, but answer “No,” and you are crazy or a liar.

You think quickly on your feet and name a few of her flaws.

“Of course not! Her hair is out of control, she is a diva, she was in Catwoman, and her arms are flabby. Do I have to bring up Swordfish?” It is important to criticize the features of this celebrity that you regularly compliment in your significant other. Eyes, hair, legs, not-being-featured-in-Swordfish — whatever. Make it believable and all is well with the world. You can go on admiring your Catherine Keeners, Shakiras, and Natalie Portmans.

This is all pretty standard stuff. But there are ways of screwing up — of harming the delicate balance between fantasy and reality. Andy didn’t have these problems with Rita, Marilyn, and Raquel because his wife was dead. Your girlfriend or wife is wonderfully and fearfully alive — so beware of the following pitfalls in your harmless adoration of celebrity beauties.

Your Girlfriend/Wife Hates the Celebrity.

In my own case: Scarlett Johansson. Being a sucker for hipster flicks like Lost in Translation and Ghost World, a flattering Esquire celebrity profile, and hard consonants — it was only a matter of time before I made playful hints about Scarlett when a movie trailer or interview on the television occasioned it. For some reason, knowable only to other women, my girlfriend loathes Scarlett Johansson. At first I was a typical thick male and believed we were engaged in playfully jealous banter, the type that is meant to elicit a small dramatic re-creation of courtship, in the threatened denial and then reaffirmation of loyalty and affection. This sort of thing always ends in a kiss. Unfortunately, as I came to discover, we were engaged in a theological debate with potentially eternal repercussions. Theological debates usually end with the launching of inanimate objects (blankets, shoes) and threats of excommunication (“Swear you reject Scarlett and all her perfidious works, or else”). We don’t talk about her anymore.

The Celebrity has Red Hair (Lucille Ball excepted).

I really can’t explain this one.

You Develop a Secret Relationship with the Celebrity.

Another pitfall in otherwise entirely innocent celebrity adoration is meeting the celebrity before she becomes famous, dropping a good line on her, obtaining a kiss on the cheek and cell phone number — which you call to discuss politics and her upcoming tour with Sting through Europe — and not mentioning any of this to your girlfriend until it slips out of your gin-soaked breath while you are telling John Carney (brother of AFF’s Tim) about a piece you are going to pitch to Brainwash about the perils of celebrity adoration. Such was my case with Nellie McKay, whom I met after a small performance at the now-defunct Time Under Fez Café in downtown New York a few weeks before Atlantic Records placed her between the Johns (Mayer and Mellencamp) on their roster of artists. Her debut album met with universal critical acclaim. My girlfriend also hates her music. I’ll probably see her next opposite Alan Cumming in The Threepenny Opera on Broadway next year or on The View when her next album is released.

Enter Rachel McAdams

Rachel McAdams is, according to sports columnist Bill Simmons, the Dwayne Wade of Hollywood. If I cared about the NBA anymore, I would be able to explain that to you. On the quality of her work in Mean Girls and The Hot Chick I feel unqualified to offer comment, as I would never admit to having watched them. But it was on one of those evenings of young love spent half-mangled on a couch with my girlfriend that I discovered her: the porcelain skin, made all the more perfect by the two beauty marks on her neck, the dimples, and perfectly curled hair. Yes, I was being forced to watch The Notebook. Extensive anecdotal research reveals that at least two of my friends have also been pressed into service watching this chick flick. I don’t remember the details beyond that the story took place in the South and Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks were not in it. All I remember is the way those mid-century sundresses swung on her.

This summer I happened to catch Wedding Crashers, in which Ms. McAdams’ character finds herself again wearing sundresses and generally looking fabulous. The well-documented hypnotic power of the silver screen combined with other, more elemental forces to further confirm and deepen the screen-crush. Maureen Dowd says, “Deep down, all men want a virgin in a gingham dress.” Sure enough, at the moment the crowd is supposed to emotionally attach itself to the prospect of Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams falling in love — she is wearing a gingham dress. That fantasy life of chivalric deeds swept over my consciousness, the soundtrack to the film kicked in, and I was transported to a mid-Atlantic beach, clothed in a breastplate of argyle sweater, shod in Jack Purcells, with her.

For some reason, my girlfriend who inhabits the real world really likes Rachel McAdams. She recently surprised me by buying Allure magazine, which had a feature article on Ms. McAdams. She is said to buy $1 necklaces and shop in thrift stores for vintage Dior. How endearingly modest! How down to earth. She dances in the bathroom to “Such Great Heights” by The Postal Service. (Just like my Platonic ideal form dream-girl, who is in heaven, would!) Rather than playing games with boyfriendly loyalty, my girlfriend has flat out said:

“If you had the chance to marry Rachel McAdams, I would understand.”

As I do not live in Hollywood or in McAdams’ native Ontario my relationship is probably safe. And the entirely normal, even healthy, admiration for beauty that celebrity adoration can be continues without the risk of being kicked out of a couch for an innocent comment, or clipped with a shoe for mentioning “she who must not be named.” Not only is Rachel McAdams all the things I have said, but now I can credit her with saving my life by initiating détente between the loyalties and duties of real life, with the unavoidable fantasies and whims of the typical male fantasy life.

(If you are reading this, Rachel, my number is 845-494-8061, really it is.)

Michael Brendan Dougherty is Books Editor at The New Pantagruel and we still don’t know why he named his blog <Surfeited with Dainties.