(Magnolia) Ron Galella, Betty Galella, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Marlon Brando, Dick Cavett, Robert Redford, Liz Smith, Neil Leifer. Directed by Leon Gast
It’s no secret that our society is celebrity obsessed. We eagerly devour every kernel of information about them; who are they seeing, where are they eating, what are they wearing. We are in a feeding frenzy for images of those whose lives we want to lead.
Stirring that frenzy are the paparazzi, photographers who make a living stalking the rich and famous, taking candid snapshots, and often using unethical or even illegal means. One of the first of these and most notorious is Ron Galella. He works mostly out of the New York area – he was a fixture at Studio 54 back in the day. His tactics were considered outrageous in the 70s and 80s when he was at his height, although he still continues to take pictures today.
Galella is a shameless self-promoter, and one gets the distinct impression that he considers himself as much a celebrity as some of his subjects. He was most famous for his stalking of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; their relationship bordered on the psychotic obsessive on both sides, he in getting pictures of her, she with stopping him by any means necessary which often had something to do with lawsuits. She finally won a restraining order from the photographer, requiring him to stand no closer than 150 feet, which he was known to violate from time to time. His most famous photograph remains one of her, crossing a street on a windy day, an enigmatic smile on her face and her hair ruffled by the breeze. It’s an extraordinary shot, one that Galella justifiably considers his Mona Lisa, and is one of the most enduring images we have of the former First Lady.
Inevitably when discussing the paparazzi the conversation must turn to the conflict between the First Amendment rights of the photographer versus the right to privacy of their subjects. Of course, you know I’m going to weigh in on that score. When you venture out into a public place, you cannot have the expectation of privacy. That goes for the non-celebrity as well as the celebrity. If you go out to grab a bite to eat and someone snaps your picture, it doesn’t matter if you’re not looking your best and you don’t want to be photographed. People have the right to take pictures in public places.
It is only when the paparazzi take pictures of celebrities in their homes or yards that I have issues; after all, a person presumes they have privacy in their own home. It isn’t public property, it is private property and the expectation of privacy is in force there. Galella once took pictures through a hedge into the front entranceway of Katherine Hepburn (I think); the star was notoriously reclusive, so Galella felt it was acceptable to go to extreme lengths to get his shot. To me that was over the line; it was rarely done in Galella’s day but it is much more commonplace today, particularly with the advent of telephoto lenses that can take reasonably clear shots from hundreds of yards away.
Okay, I’m off my soapbox for now and back to doing what you’re here to read about – the documentary. Gast does a pretty balanced job of providing discussion from both sides of the fence. Some support Galella, particularly people like gossip columnist Liz Smith who in some ways has a vested interest – after all, her livelihood depended on much the same need for celebrity information. However, Galella has plenty of critics, such as Neil Leifert who deplores the tactics used by Galella and those who have followed in his footsteps, as well as Thomas Hove, a critic who feels his photography is without merit and will lose its relevance at roughly the same rate that his subjects do.
That is borne out somewhat when a young woman tours an installation of Galella’s photos and clearly hasn’t a clue who many of the subjects are. The question becomes are those photos still art or does their status as art depend on our knowledge of the subject? That really is the crux of the matter and Gast does a good job of bringing it up in the right way.
Gast, for those who don’t know him, is a superb documentarian, with the highly-acclaimed When We Were Kings to his credit. This isn’t quite up to the standards of that classic, but still is a highly thought-provoking look not only at the quagmire that comes from supporting the First Amendment (one talking head refers to Galella as its price tag) but at the over-the-top character who I suspect wanted to be as much a part of the show as his subjects were and are.
WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating insight into the ongoing debate between the First Amendment and the right to privacy.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Galella suffers from an excess of self-promotion.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few instances of foul language and some nudity, albeit in an artistic setting. Nothing here that most teenagers haven’t dealt with before.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After having his jaw shattered by a single punch by Brando, Galella took to wearing a football helmet whenever he was photographing the mercurial star.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A photo gallery especially selected by Galella.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3644 on an unreported production budget. As a theatrical release, this didn’t make any money; however the movie has already aired on HBO and may well have recouped its production costs via that route.
FINAL RATING: 6/10