PS Picks: The Evolution of the Celebrity Profile

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Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider star in Last Tango in Paris.

Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider star in Last Tango in Paris.

This PS Pick originally appeared in The Lede, the weekly Pacific Standard email newsletter for premium members. The Lede gives premium members greater access to Pacific Standard stories, staff, and contributors in their inbox every week. While helping to support journalism in the public interest, members also receive a print magazine subscription, early access to feature stories, and access to an ad-free version of PSmag.com.

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The Evolution of the Celebrity Profile: The celebrity profile has changed, man. Not to sound too wistful, but things used to be different. I recently stumbled upon a 1957 New Yorker profile of Marlon Brando and it got me thinking—about access, about hagiographies, about what it means to write a profile.

Truman Capote wrote this particular profile, almost entirely centered around some indeterminate number of hours that Capote spent in Brando's hotel room while the star pontificated on a wide variety subjects: how much he hated working on the movie that the piece was ostensibly promoting, philosophy, how God damn hard it is to get up in the morning. The profile is jarring in a modern context, first because of the extremely racially and culturally insensitive language that made it into the final copy, but also because of the blunt and cutting language that Brando uses to describe directors, co-stars, everyday people. Nothing worse than having the big star of your movie—in this case Joshua Logan's Sayonara—say that he doesn't think the movie is particularly good, or, frankly, really worth his time.

Nowadays, there's an inescapable feeling of narrative control that comes with the profiles of our biggest stars. Open up any issue of GQ and you're sure to find a story about how Gal Gadot is even more badass and beautiful than you thought—but she's still just like us—or consider a recent Esquire profile of Tom Hardy that centers entirely around how we, as a public, will never know the real Tom, just the public one. It is a product of a more reputation-driven age that even stories that are supposed to seem revealing are often nothing more than an exercise in performance—this actor does social media differently, this musician doesn't care about the hazards of smoking, and dig into what this athlete had for dinner.

It's a strange thing, but still the roots come from that bygone era of more access and less control. The Brando profile is no less hagiographic in some ways than the pieces of today. In the framing of Capote's prose it almost sounds as if Brando is, indeed, a Superman. Someone who walked off a small farm in Illinois and transformed into unassailable acting talent, whose prowess and energy would be unmatched in mortal men.

But there is room for something new, and it comes out of something that is perhaps counter-intuitive to journalistic notions. Taffy Brodesser-Akner's New York Times Magazine feature on Gwyneth Paltrow's "wellness" company Goop has it. The story deftly handles complaints about Paltrow's work and persona, but the moments where it really soars are when Brodesser-Akner turns the viewfinder inward and refracts the polish and practice of the star through an all-too-relatable lens—did I forget to say goodbye to my kids, I'm late for my flight, oh shit I've really gotta pee. While the stars may control their narratives now more than ever, it opens up room for this most personal style of writing. One that admits, yes, the stars are not just like us, and that's all right.

This PS Pick originally appeared in The Lede, the weekly Pacific Standard email newsletter for premium members. The Lede gives premium members greater access to Pacific Standard stories, staff, and contributors in their inbox every week. While helping to support journalism in the public interest, members also receive a print magazine subscription, early access to feature stories, and access to an ad-free version of PSmag.com.

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