If you cast your eye around the cosmos of entertainment journalism, you’ll see that the Stars, They’re Just Like Us! era takes many forms. It’s there, of course, on the covers of gossip magazines, with their cozy titillating headlines (“Brad’s secret agony!” “Kourtney thrilled to be pregnant!”) that make it sound as if they’re talking about one’s errant sibling. It’s there in the stalker-camera style of TMZ, or the fake-intimate banter of the nightly infotainment shows, in which stars frequently do more acting by pretending to be the interviewers’ best friends than they did in whatever movie or television series they’re selling. But up until now, movie critics have been exempt from seeing their reviews converted into personalized air kisses.
Last week, I saw something that I’d never seen before, and it had me chuckling through my dropped jaw: a two-page ad in The New York Times for My Week with Marilyn, in which all ten of the critics quoted referred to the movie’s star, Michelle Williams, simply as…Michelle.
“Michelle is extraordinary,” writes Lou Lumenick of The New York Post. “Michelle is luminous,” says Peter Travers of Rolling Stone. Travers, of course, has written a lot more embarrassing quotes than that, but within the ad in question, even The New Yorker’s anything-but-frivolous David Denby enthusiastically joins the first-name kissy-party brigade, saying, “Michelle makes the star come alive.” I assumed, as I read these quotes, that at least some of them had been doctored – and, as it turns out, all of them have. Denby wrote that “Williams makes the star come alive.” Lumenick simply refers to “Her extraordinary performance…” And so on.
The publicity team at The Weinstein Company – guided by Harvey? I mean, by Weinstein? – obviously devised the “Michelle…Michelle…Michelle!” ad as a kind of penny-ante hall-of-mirrors trick, thinking that it would somehow be legitimized, and maybe even seem kind of sly, since Marilyn Monroe is one of the few legendary stars who really needs only one name. And so by referring to “Michelle Williams” as “Michelle,” it would emphasize how much like Marilyn she really is. That they both have names starting with M helps. I’m not sure that it would have had quite the same effect with “Scarlett.”
So this was an anomaly, a one-of-a-kind wink-wink quote-whore joke. And in fact the ad, which ran a week ago Friday, didn’t run in yesterday’s paper. Perhaps a number of the critics who were made to sound like Ted Casablanca complained. (I certainly would have.) But it strikes me that The Weinstein Company, who are nothing if not visionaries of marketing (especially at awards time), may, by orchestrating this shameless ploy that barely seems to have panned out, have inadvertently opened the door to a whole new universe of movie-quote psychosis. For really, in a world where referring to actors, musicians, and even politicians by their first names is now an eminently respectable media trope, who’s to say that the blurb whore of the future won’t be writing things like “George gives the performance of his life!” Or “Meryl is Maggie Thatcher!” Or maybe “Tom and Sandra are extremely wow and incredibly close to Oscar!” Do you see how this kind of thing gets addictive? So addictive, in fact, that even though The Weinstein Company pulled back after that first, fabricated “Michelle rocks!” quotefest, I’m not sure, as the Academy Awards voting approaches, that Harvey and his team will be able to resist at least one more mini-binge of Michelle-is-breathtaking ooh la las.
The message of all this may come down to nothing more than: The Weinstein Company will try anything. (That’s one of the reasons they so often win.) But let’s be fair – they’re not exactly alone. The squirmiest attempt I can recall to make critics the focus of a movie ad came during awards season at the end of 2000, the year of Almost Famous. To celebrate Cameron Crowe’s great, scruffy rock & roll road movie about the early ’70s, the publicity department at DreamWorks had the inspiration to concoct an advertisement for the trades in which reviewers who loved the film would each be represented by a photograph of him or herself from 1973, the year in which the movie takes place. I kid you not: They literally asked us to haul out a shaggy-haired, smiley-faced period photo of ourselves. I was asked to participate…and declined, out of sheer embarrassment at the prospect. But also because appearing in an ad like that one seemed to be crossing a line, not just of taste but of collusion.
Well, a month or so later, the ad did run. And I was shocked to see all the critics who had eagerly, and masochistically, given the studio their goofy ’70s photos. I won’t embarrass them now by naming them, but I do wish I could ask them: Was becoming almost famous worth being on a first-name basis with the hype?
So what’s the most shameless movie ad you’ve ever seen?
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman