(Corrects time since Jackie Kennedy's death in seventh paragraph, name of Capital One Bank in 12th.)
If you're like me -- and I'm not advising it -- you sometimes read the reaction to an article before you read the article itself.
That's how my pity party for celebrity got started early Monday when I saw a New York Post article with the headline "Alec Baldwin is over NY and his pals, too," which was a commentary on a first-person piece in New York magazine by Baldwin himself. The Post featured a picture of the actor, hair mussed, in full glare, presumably directed at one of the many photographers who camp outside his West Village apartment hoping to capture just such an image to sell to TMZ.com.
The Post was bidding a giddy "hasta la vista" to Baldwin, who declared himself ready to decamp for Los Angeles, where, living in a gated community, with hot- and cold-running drivers, you can avoid human contact of the sort that brings out the worst in him. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out, bud, is how the Post sees it. LA's loss will be New York's gain. Or, as the Daily News put it, "Alec to New York: Drop Dead!"
I was ready to pile on. My reaction was: There he goes again. Baldwin's anger-management issues are so famous that each eruption is covered as if Pope Francis had reverted to riding in a limo.
The Post listed every time Baldwin had blown up over an incursion into his personal space. Doesn't he realize that as a celebrity in the Post's circulation area, he doesn't have any personal space? It was a long list that missed one of the more interesting clarifications in Baldwin's piece. The star refuted the stinging indictment against his wife, Hilaria, who was accused by a Daily Mail reporter of tweeting at James Gandolfini's funeral. She didn't and he has the time stamps to prove it.
Like the Post, I could have missed the real story. If I encounter the spin before the original, why bother with the actual text when I already have enough to tweet about it? But I went to the New York magazine cover story, all 5,000-plus words of it. No matter what you think of Baldwin, it's a confessional, raw piece full of insights about the digital and electronic swamp we're so mired in we hardly notice it anymore. All faces are now equal, from Snooki tanning to Miley Cyrus twerking to Justin Bieber drag racing. There has been a huge shift since Jackie Kennedy Onassis walked the streets of Manhattan. After she got a restraining order against one particularly persistent paparazzo, she was able to roam freely.
The two decades since her death has brought a camera and blogger to every corner and turned us all coarser and ruder, wedding us to our screens for constant titillation, dependent on the people who fill them with Baldwin sightings. Perhaps these pathologies of fame in Manhattan were one of the demons bedeviling Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The prevailing reaction to Baldwin's article is that he's like the venture-capital billionaire Tom Perkins, who compared the rhetorical slights inflicted on the rich to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. Or he reminded people of the bloviating liberals who vowed to move abroad should George W. Bush be elected president. But the piece gave me a better understanding of what Baldwin is up against. I would be just as angry if a photographer shoved a camera in my daughter's face, but I'm not a larger-than-life actor who can let off a string of R-rated epithets. I'd just stew over what I could have said.
Baldwin wants us to take a minute to focus on what we ignore: the jerk who provokes the bad conduct. And he goes introspective to do it: "And I’m trying to understand what happened, how an altercation on the street, in which I was accused -- wrongly -- of using a gay slur, could have cascaded like this."
There allegedly were two homophobic outbursts. One was calling the reporter who attacked his wife a "toxic little queen," and the other was against TMZ.com reporter Harvey Levin, who insisted that the muffled sound on a video was Baldwin using a gay slur. Baldwin says he didn't and that he never uses the word. He enumerated his LGBT bona fides, but to no avail. The Gay Department of Justice, led by Anderson Cooper, convicted him. He's in the slammer for life.
Baldwin tries to clear up his disputes with Shia LaBeouf, his co-star in a Broadway production (hard to choose sides there) and his firing from MSNBC. About the latter, he says he wanted to avoid interviewing the usual suspects and, although a raging liberal himself, found the conformity of opinion at the network a bit much. Pussy Riot had more leeway at the Sochi Olympics.
He's paid mightily for every outburst and then some. He lost a contract with Capital One Bank. He gave all the proceeds of that deal -- more than $14 million -- to charity. He lost funding for his public radio show. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, too, is keeping a distance.
Does everyone get their news from the Daily Mail and TMZ? The media give the punk behavior by their colleagues of sorts a pass to cement the narrative that allows the viewer to feel superior to Baldwin, the payoff of most celebrity gossip.
If only Baldwin had an editor, some critics say. Rarely do we get anyone willing to say what's on their mind. It's riveting. But it won't win him any friends, gay or otherwise, in the liberal community. He knocks all of them. Follow the paparazzi to find out if he has lunch in this town again.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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