Let Us Now Praise Famous People
Garbo wanted to be alone and was, thank you, on the Upper East Side. Others say they do: some mean it, some don’t. Eighty-nine-minute Smash His Camera considers media-fueled celebrity culture, the fleetingness of fame, privacy and First Amendment issues. Overriding all, it is personally guided by, and follows the footsteps of, “the Godfather of U.S. paparazzi culture,” Ron Galella.
The questions raised cannot be answered in Leon Gast’s documentary any more than they can by the three lawyers who agree to disagree thirty-odd years after they contested one another in the Jackie Kennedy Onassis business.
On the cusp of eighty, Galella still plies his trade of ambush guerrilla photojournalism, though now elbowed by the hordes that he himself spawned. The talent of the current crop of famous for being famous is not considered, only that the demise of the all-controlling studios of yore contributed to the unleashing of the frenzy for sightings of the celeb du jour, getting into full swing with the Taylor-Burton Cleopatra and parodied in La Dolce Vita.
Since the subject cooperates and comments -- who films him when he crashes secure events? -- a verdict will depend on reaction to him and, less, his adoring fellow rabbit-freak wife Betty Burke Galella. The film is balanced in giving a rainbow of others’ evaluations. Even so, early on, there are suggestions in a reference to and view of the couple’s Tony and Camela mansion in New Jersey and in his snipping hedges to get an unobstructed lens on Katharine Hepburn.
Annie Liebovitz is not brought up, for her beautiful people portraits are consensual and posed. Weegee is mentioned, ambiguously, as doing for the dead what Galella does for the quick. Some heads praise and others damn his work. Among detractors is Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who instances Avedon and Walker Evans as artists as distinct from those whose camera portraits are gimmicky and ephemeral.
A defense of Galella’s work, or a social comment, is the recognition that has come in exhibitions in major world museums and galleries. For many moviegoers, however, what they will take away from this documentary is the fickle finger of ephemeral fame, as twenty-somethings are at a loss to identify megastars of the not-distant past at one such exposition: “Brigitte . . . BarDOHT? Mmmm, Bobbie . . . uh, Kennedy?”
Another of the Camelot clan, Jackie, is the focus of Galella’s interest, or obsession, and of whatever privacy v. public domain concerns are introduced if not resolved. There is, of course, the encounter with bellicose Brando’s fist, illustrated with stills enlivened by Dick Cavett’s account and wonderful incomprehensible imitation of the surly star’s unintelligible Method mumble. Lawyers counseled holding out, but Galella took Brando’s first offer, enough to cover a rewired jaw and reinstalled teeth. In accepting less, he wanted it understood that “money is not what I’m about,” even as he haggles over chump change with his put-upon printer and hard-nosed businesswoman Burke notes that her husband will not spend a dime when a nickel will cover.
The celebrity crunch has become psychologically and physically dangerous, as in the flash-bulbed red-carpet affairs shown. Then there are questions of ethics, let alone legality, with “Ron’s Rules” and bribes and falsified credentials to crash a Jackie Robinson awards bash for Robert Redford to present “Bob” with his book and take photos along the way.
The heart of the film is the 1967-‘70s chase of Jackie, stalked in everything but a sexual sense, along with John-John and Caroline, before and after a front-page legal battle, resultant injunction for him to maintain a set distance, and his counter appeal that this hindered his making a living. His contention that she recognized, and so smiled for him in the most striking of the huge Jackie file, is unprovable and improbable. Whether on Fifth Avenue or in a Grand Ballroom or schmoozing with film crews for information, Galella is on another planet, oblivious to the feelings and havoc around him. He is most cogent in his home darkroom or, with young “archivists,” the extensive valuable basement collection of catalogued photos. Outside even the pervasive tabloid mentality, this man named after actor Ronald Colman pursues his purpose, and the public eats it up.
(Released by Magnolia Films; not rated by MPAA.)