Thursday, March 11, 2010
You want to hate him. But then you get to know him, and he gets to know himself, and you wonder if Vampire Boy might just turn into the man who teaches a generation of jaded sex symbols how to be movie stars we love.
By separating his surprisingly modest personality from his gratuitously oversexed persona, Pattinson has obliquely demanded that he be taken seriously.
A funny, unexpected thing happened to me on a recent Saturday in New York: I literally ran into Robert Pattinson, and he left me... starstruck. He had to earn it, though, as I tend to cow neither to celebrities nor the young male heartthrob kind. I'd met the actor at an event for his new film Remember Me, which comes out Friday, but an accidental encounter with him and his entourage in a hotel corridor — where the stench of sycophancy lingered like stale piss — got things off on the wrong foot. About twenty minutes later, Pattinson and a not-quite-as-rank entourage greeted me and a handful of other journalists. I didn't expect much. His vagina allergies aside, the world's most conspicuous vampire since Dracula is notoriously shy, and Remember Me wasn't especially good. What was left to discuss?
A lot, as it turned out, most of which hinged on the basic separation of persona from character, of public from private, of myth from man. Not that Pattinson himself, as one of the world's most in-demand men, would dare reduce his life to such binary terms. Instead, he went on and on about his limitations. "If I could do supporting roles in things, then I'd love to do that," he told me. "But it's difficult to get supporting roles because it would be really weird most of the time. 'Well, there's the guy from Twilight playing the parking warden,' or something." He smiled and laughed beneath that notorious shock of hair, not quite swearing off ambition as much as suggesting the cost of self-importance was simply too steep to pay — even for a twenty-three-year-old who made $18 million last year. He was down to earth about being stratospherically famous, and it was... refreshing.
Now I don't know what exactly I expected from Pattinson, but it definitely wasn't this kind of canny profile management. In a day and age when other young sex symbols seem to grapple with the burden of perspective, Pattinson transcended his brooding pulchritude with modesty and charm. "What can you do?" he seemed to ask. It's a shame he couldn't infuse Remember Me with some of that lilt, but ultimately, the movie needs it much less than the general culture around Pattinson. And by general culture I mean feeding frenzy from middle school gym class to the upper reaches of Hollywood studios and, yes, to the lives of ordinary grown men who like going to the movies.
Indeed, Pattinson might do well to host some sort of seminar for his colleagues: Persona Control in the New Age of the Sex Symbol. From his co-stars in the Twilight franchise to the megastarlets and overexposed princes around whom increasingly more of Hollywood orbits, you can sense the resentment of what fame has wrought. I often find them bristling and pouting their ways through surreal everyday scenarios like the one above, consumed with anger and fear that they can have anything they want except what they really want: to be taken seriously. But as an outsider, it never occurred to me to take someone like Robert Pattinson seriously at all — until he relinquished the compulsion to convince me. That was the star move, and don't be surprised to see it adopted by an entire generation of would-be stars once they realize that, if they want to survive this racket, they have no other choice.
>For starters, take Kristen Stewart, biting her lip in protest — as per usual — on her way to the podium on Oscar night. Pattinson's Twilight co-star was all gorgeous, coiled sulk — a hilarious counterweight to co-presenter (and her other Twilight co-star) Taylor Lautner, whose plasticine perma-grin defied Stewart's public existential crisis. Lautner may seem all looks and no brains, but at least he knows when to live in his abject superstardom. Not so with the nineteen-year-old Stewart, who despite growing up in Hollywood and having acted half her life still insists on playing the outsider. But what, exactly, are young women like her defending against? Ask anyone who's worked with Stewart and they'll tell you she's too stubborn, too ambitious, and too sensitive to sputter out-of-control — to throw away the talent that she's clearly displayed in smaller films like The Cake Eaters and Adventureland. In fairness, I can't imagine the pressure of being tethered to her Twilight siren, Bella Swan, for years to come, either. Yet this contrived distance between the Stewart who'll soon appear as a young Joan Jett in The Runaways and the one who'll throw herself at Pattinson and/or Lautner this summer in Eclipse has stretched too thin to support the young woman in the middle. Discomfort in one's skin is one thing. Snarling entitlement is another.
Maybe Megan Fox, at twenty-three, can save herself from the same fate. Much has been made of her apparent motivation to corner the market on sex symbolism and voice of a generation, but I'm one of the few people who'll stick up for Jennifer's Body, which purposely enlisted her to demonstrate the steep costs of sexuality for sexuality's sake. That she played along with it (and pulled it off, I swear) was a testament to the "serious actress" Fox can be — the clever young woman who spotted and took the opportunity to redeem her own myth. The problem is that Fox spent the entire run up to Jennifer's Body explaining the joke to death, complete with the angry punch line, "I am a serious actress." Whereas once she couldn't outrun the Transformers franchise fast enough, now she appears to realize it can enable both contrast and freedom in her career. She may have missed this with Jennifer's Body, but she'll do better going forward. Or at least as well as the current face of Emporio Armani underwear and the pistol-packing prostitute in this summer's mega-comic-movie Jonah Hex can do without blaming everyone else for turning her into a cartoon. Professor Pattinson would tell her to just own it, and he'd be right.
Again, I don't pretend to know what it's like to negotiate this terrain at such an age, and I definitely wouldn't ascribe this complex to beautiful young women alone. After all, though they're a little older (and should thus know even better), you can't escape the likes of John Mayer and Ashton Kutcher swooning at their sounds of their own voices. Mayer is Mayer, knowingly edgy enough to infuriate but too much of a self-righteous pussy to commit — just another blame-the-media type, even if one of the media is Twitter and he's burying himself 144 characters at a time. Kutcher's not as bad (is anybody?), though I love that he thinks Twitter gives him some leverage against those who'd dare to compromise his public citizenry. "It's a beautiful environment," he said recently. "You can take the control back in your relationship with the media. You can dictate your own view." Yes, Ashton, because your encounters with Lady Gaga or your upcoming film Killers — a romantic comedy with that other persona-embattled young thing, Katherine Heigl — demand only the purest standard of dissemination.
But just in case the lessons of Pattinson are lost on them all, there may yet be hope for youth. Watch and see what happens with Greta Gerwig, the indie darling whom Noah Baumbach recruited as the female lead in his upcoming Ben Stiller dramedy Greenberg. She already has acquired a sort of mini-legend from her concerted, clothes-allergic "Mumblecore" efforts like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends. But Gerwig's presence opposite Stiller — and her charm in the promotional realm over the last month — may portend a new kind of model for the accessibility of the earthbound hottie. Which also brings to mind Alice Eve, whose She's Out of My League directly addresses that very accessibility with a schlub played by Jay Baruchel; Eve has done just fine expressing her concerns about objectification without all the baleful moans and mopes.
And of course, there's Pattinson himself — that new ambassador of extraterrestrial beauty — who seems to get how fleeting, how absurd, how extraordinary it all really is. Oh, and how to make it work. Shouldn't we all be so lucky?