Hero disappointment rears its ugly butthead

Published 9:45 am Friday, May 21, 2010

“No more Woody Allen movies!” my roommate Jenny declared one afternoon in 1992.

“What? Not even the early funny ones?” I asked panicking.

No, Allen was outlawed, but I didn’t know why. As Jenny unleashed the whole unseemly Allen/Soon-Yi Previn affair, I imagined monosyllabic gasps of disbelief escaping my mouth in white typeface on black title cards: “No. What? Whoa. Huh?”

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None of it made sense to me. “Soon whom?”

“Soon to be his wife, kind of his step daughter, that’s whom.”

Gershwin would always sound a little dirty to me now.

I’d forgotten about Jenny’s Allen ban until recently as I sat in the theater watching Roman Polanski’s, “The Ghost Writer.” Two sides of my brain fought each other throughout the well-crafted film. “That slimy Polanski,” one side yelled while the other whispered guiltily, “Polanski, you’ve still got it.” I was experiencing one of the challenges of the 21st century zeitgeist: how to separate indisputable talent from moral turpitude.

In 1977, Roman Polanski was arrested for the sexual assault of 13-year-old Samantha Geimer. After pleading guilty to a lesser charge, he fled the United States and has lived in Europe for 33 years. He was arrested by the Swiss in September and is fighting extradition to the United States through the Swiss courts. Meanwhile, he remains under house arrest without bail.

The director is only one of a cast of celebrity players whose behavior falls far beneath his talent.

These false heroes with true tragic flaws appeared when the first caveteen drew the first cavecelebrity on the first cave wall and started history’s longest buzz kill: Hero Disappointment. No matter how many headlines scream of criminal or merely aberrant behavior, we can’t quite grasp that athletic ability, the power to entertain, or the moxie to run for public office and win doesn’t guarantee that talent and decency are mutually inclusive. We end up feeling let down and angry, and kids all over rip posters off their walls.

I am one of the lucky ones. I didn’t experience the fall of a famous hero until the Allen affair in my 20s. Maybe that’s because my idols fell squarely on the bland side. Shaun Cassidy sex scandal anyone? No, thank you very much. Dorothy Hamill taking side bets on the long program? With that haircut? As for my giant Glen Campbell poster, I always found it a little suspicious this, “getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know.” Sounds like a shakedown to me. Nevertheless, his face stayed on my wall with the others until I outgrew them. I can imagine today’s 9-year-old unrolling his latest superstar obsession and thinking, “Well buddy, how long are you going to last?”

My inner Polanski conflict came full circle this week when I read an interview given at Cannes by, who else? Woody Allen. Defending Polanski.

Allen lamented, “He has suffered. He has not been allowed to go to the United States. He was embarrassed by the whole thing.”

Seriously, Woody? Embarrassment and exile are punishment enough? Should we hold that standard to everyone who commits such a crime? Poor, sad Oscar winner, under house arrest in the Swiss playground, Gstaad, that’s got to be almost as bad as hiding out in the Gslums.

Sometimes I miss the days when the public was shielded from celebrity peccadilloes. It made it a lot easier to like them and appreciate their work, but in a world of tweets and 24-hour news cycles, we’ll never see those days again. If we continue to place famous personalities on pedestals, we need to remember that those pedestals are surfaced with the oily slickness of our expectations, and sooner or later many will slip off our moral high ground. Could it be time to start picking heroes from a new talent pool, the one where parents, teachers, mentors, clergy and regular people swim into the deep end every day trying to pull us to a place where our feet stand firmly on the ground?

Three years before the Geimer incident, Polanski made a film depicting a culture where moral compasses spin deliriously with little consequence. Walking out of the theater, this 1974 film’s most prophetic line kept running through my head, and when my husband, Graham, asked what weighed on my mind, all I could think of to answer was, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

St. Paul resident Alexandra Kloster appears every other Friday. She may be reached at alikloster@yahoo.com and her blog is Radishes at Dawn at alexandrakloster.com.