Friday, December 4, 2009

On Sid Caesar, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tiger Woods and the Nature of Fame

I'm about six years late on this one, but I finally got around to reading Live From New York, the oral history of Saturday Night Live. I'd held off for so long largely because I have very little interest in either A.) SNL, which always seems to me like a show where very funny people engage in patently unfunny things, and B.) Oral histories, which when done well can be extraordinary, but often seem, from a writerly perspective, like a cop-out. But this book was far better than I imagined it would be, and because of the dirt about Chevy and Belushi and Aykroyd and Farley, and not for the description of Sid Caesar's dietary quirks (though that may have been my favorite single passage in the entire book)...but because at its heart, it wasn't really about the show at all (if anything, it's far too fawning in that regard). This was a book about the delicacy of the creative mind, about the difficulty of working for a demanding and inscrutable boss, and about the warped and suffocating nature of fame itself. And in that vein, to my surprise, the best quote came from Gwyneth Paltrow, who, late in the book, shares a theory that famous people, once they become famous, once all the mundane difficulties of human existence are cleared from their path, actually stop growing. And this, of course, made me think of that Tiger Woods, and the phone call heard round the blogosphere.

See, I disagree with Joe Posnanski on this one. Joe listened to that phone call, and he heard vulnerability; Joe feels that this was Tiger sounding frightened, perhaps even defeated. But I hear something completely different, because I know if I had to make that phone call, I would be stuttering and stumbling and begging and pleading. In fact, I don't even think I would have the chutzpah to make that phone call, which is probably heartening to my girlfriend, since it means I also don't have the chutzpah to accumulate a harem in the first place. But Tiger made that call, and he spoke with clarity, and even as he is pleading--even as he says You got to do this for me--he sounds, to me, like a man who believes he is entirely in charge. He still thinks he can control the situation; he still thinks he can get away with his transgressions. And this, I think, is what Paltrow meant about people not growing (and I also realize this is something that happens to non-famous people, as well, but it seems to happen more consistently among the glitterati). Because Tiger, while he was technically famous since childhood, didn't become epically famous until his early 20's, right around the time Charles Pierce wrote this seminal piece in which Tiger flirts and tells dirty jokes and presumes that he is utterly in command of the situation, until Pierce turns the tables on him in print.

That was a lesson for Tiger, but the lesson he took away was that he had to retreat further into the bubble of his own fame; the lesson he took away was not that he needed to grow up, but that he needed to hide himself away, to exact control over every situation, the same way he'd done on the golf course since toddlerdom. If there was a singular lesson Earl Woods imparted to son, it was that the only way to command a situation was to take complete control of it, to will one's thoughts into action. And I know I'm starting to sound a little like Lucy Van Pelt, but maybe it's as simple as this: Tiger tried to put up a facade, and he led us to believe that his maturity on the golf course reflected his blossoming maturity in his personal life...but in that regard, he'd stopped growing a long time ago.

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