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Sean P. Means: Celebrities try to quit being famous — as if they could

Published March 6, 2014 5:12 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

So what does it mean to be famous?

Being famous means that if you mispronounce someone's name during a very public event, it becomes an Internet meme.

Being famous means that if you pose for the cover of Vogue, a website will offer $10,000 to see the unretouched photos from your shoot — and someone will snap up the bounty.

Being famous means that if you attend a friend's memorial service, some publicist will send out photos of you — pointing out what brand of handbag you are carrying.

Being famous means photographers follow you to yoga class, or on an outing with your kids, or getting into your car the next morning in the same dress you wore to a premiere the night before.

Being famous means millions of people — from Twitter posters to Joan Rivers — can comment freely about your clothing, hairstyle and whether you tripped getting out of the limo.

And being famous means that if you react negatively when any of the above happens, you are perceived as a poor sport and a spoiled celebrity — and you feed the insatiable publicity machine for another news cycle.

It's a wonder anyone would want to become famous, given all the annoyance — not to mention the stalkers, freaks and weirdos who want a piece of a celebrity.

In recent weeks, two well-known celebrities — actors who have appeared in movies and television, but have become equally known for their off-screen antics — have made declarations that they want off the merry-go-round of fame. In so doing, they show that they either can't or won't leave the spotlight so easily.

Shia LaBeouf was known as a child actor, starring in the Disney Channel series "Even Stevens" and the Disney movie "Holes." He then found grown-up fame, notably in the "Transformers" franchise and as presumptive heir to Harrison Ford in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

In the past decade, LaBeouf has gotten into occasional legal troubles and was in a 2008 car crash that severely injured his left hand. Last December, he was accused of plagiarizing "Ghost World" author Daniel Clowes' work — an accusation that sparked a flurry of odd behavior that some have characterized as an art project.

Last month, LaBeouf appeared at the Berlin Film Festival to promote his work in Lars von Trier's sexually explicit drama "Nymphomaniac." It's not easy to upstage the notoriously controversial von Trier, but LaBeouf did it.

First, at the press conference, LaBeouf made a cryptic statement about seagulls (which, it turned out, was plagiarized from a Ken Loach movie) and walked out after one question. Then, on the red carpet, a tuxedoed LaBeouf wore a paper bag over his head with the words, "I am not famous anymore" scrawled with a black marker.

Meanwhile, back on this side of the Atlantic, Alec Baldwin made a public declaration that he was done with public life.

Baldwin has been a great actor, with dynamic roles in "Glengarry Glen Ross," "State and Main," "The Departed" and "Blue Jasmine," among others. Also, on TV, he was spectacularly funny — and won two Emmys — as Jack Donaghy, boss and foil to Liz Lemon on "30 Rock."

Over the years, Baldwin has had run-ins with paparazzi and reporters. The worst of these, when he was accused of uttering an anti-gay epithet at a TMZ videographer, led to Baldwin leaving his short-lived gig hosting a talk show on MSNBC late last year.

His response was to appear on the cover of the Feb. 24 issue of New York magazine — in a first-person essay headlined "Good-Bye, Public Life."

The article includes a defense that he didn't say the things he was accused of saying to that TMZ guy. "Do you honestly believe I would give someone like TMZ's Harvey Levin, of all people, another club to beat me with?" he asked.

But he also delivers an impressively bitter rant against TMZ, tabloid culture, MSNBC, The Huffington Post (for which he also wrote occasional essays), the media in general, and even, in a cosmic circle, Shia LaBeouf (with whom Baldwin tangled in rehearsal for a Broadway play, which LaBeouf quickly departed).

Baldwin then declares, "This is the last time I'm going to talk about my personal life in an American publication ever again."

Here's the cruel irony of fame, though: You may choose to acquire it, but once you do, you don't get to choose whether to keep it. That decision belongs to the public.

LaBeouf and Baldwin, of course, know this. LaBeouf knows he's not going to relinquish being famous by walking on the red carpet in Berlin. And Baldwin knows he's not going to quit public life by appearing on the cover of a magazine.

If either of them were serious about chucking it all, they would and could chuck it all. Sell the New York condo or the Hollywood Hills house, cash the royalty checks, move to some isolated part of the world and start a new life outside the limelight. Maybe raise goats outside Kanab or something.

What these guys want are the upsides of fame — the money, the exposure, the ability to choose projects — without the accountability.

Being famous is like having a superpower — and, as Stan Lee taught us, with great power comes great responsibility.

It's possible to use fame responsibly, for positive ends. The social activism of the likes of Bono, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Robert Redford, George Clooney and many others have shown this again and again.

Last week, Seth Rogen and Ben Affleck drew attention to major issues — respectively, Alzheimer's treatment and problems in Congo — by testifying before congressional committees. Affleck's deep knowledge of the Congo situation drew praise from, of all people, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

In the end, this is what it means to be famous: When you say something, more people will listen to you. Whether you choose to say something profound or something stupid is up to you.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.