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Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lars von Trier: When, and why, does a celebrity's bad behavior cross the line into unacceptability?

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Lars Von Trier
Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images

What makes a celebrity into a scoundrel? The answer may seem simple — do what Mel Gibson did! Or Charlie Sheen! Or Lindsay Lohan! Or Arnold! — but when you really think about it, the answer isn’t simple at all. A lot of celebrities do a lot of bad things. They cheat on their wives and husbands and girlfriends and boyfriends. They consume alcohol and drugs in volumes that would cripple a horse (I can think of one prominent actress who became a junkie just at the moment when she hit her It Girl fame, although it never did become public). They go to rehab, and then they relapse.

Most of this stuff, of course, occurs in private. But it isn’t just the media-wide airing of personal demons that results in a full-on celebrity meltdown. To really shake the public’s faith in you, you’ve got to do something that feels wrong in just about every way, something that takes a side of you we thought we knew and gives it a spin that makes us go, “Ugh! I wish I didn’t know that!” It’s not so much that you shock the public as that you decisively, and darkly, alter your image. You mess with the celebrity equivalent of the third rail, which is that special, mythical place where private behavior and public persona — art and life — merge. That’s when you’ve suddenly got a real problem.

The news that Arnold Schwarzenegger fathered a child ten years ago with his housekeeper probably wouldn’t have caused as big a media ruckus if he hadn’t ever been the governor of California. Politics, more than ever, may now be a form of showbiz, but we still hold politicians to different standards than we do entertainers. That, of course, is why Schwarzenegger kept the news secret until he left office; if he hadn’t, it might well have forced him out. The irony is that his status as a politician enlarged the scandal, but it’s his identity as a movie star that’s going to have to live with that oversize stain on who he is.

Most people, including me, would say that he deserves the stain, yet our moral judgment may be more arbitrary than we’d like to think. Twenty years ago, Robin Williams married his son’s nanny, and no one batted an eyelash. Is the Arnold situation all that different? In the case of Williams, we had no idea, really, how long that relationship had been going on — at the time, the attitude was: It was none of our business — and there was, of course, no secret child out of wedlock (at least, not during Williams’ first marriage). The real difference, though, may be that Arnold is married to a celebrity himself — a Kennedy, no less, which places Maria Shriver in the familiar, powerful role of long-suffering Kennedy victim-wife. Plus, Schwarzenegger had already been accused, several years ago, of making brutish advances on other women, so his current situation has a bit of a “last straw” quality.

But can he put the scandal behind him now that he’s trying to re-launch his movie career? Here’s why I think he probably can’t, at least not completely. Arnold is 63, so the prospect of his going back to being the kind of movie star he once was had something of a running-on-fumes quality to begin with. He was looking at doing another Terminator film (talk about squeezing a spent franchise dry!), and other comic-book action projects as well, but how long can a man in his sixties pretend, onscreen, to run around and kick people’s butts like he’s 20 years younger? Still, the proposed animated series The Governator sounded promising, and as The Expendables proved last summer, there may well be a market for absurdly fit geriatric action demigods who can tap our nostalgia for when they were in their prime. Arnold’s real problem is the kind of star he is.

“No one could believe that Arnold kept this from Maria Shriver for 10 years,” quipped Bill Maher in his HBO monologue last night, “because that would involve acting.” Arnold Schwarzenegger, because of his nature as a screen presence (pumped-up, larger-than-life, with that faintly absurd accent), has to play characters who are simple. Not simpletons, mind you, but men sketched in plus-size dimensions of cartoon nobility. When he does comedy, like Kindergarten Cop or Jingle All the Way, he’s a massively overscaled Good Guy, a hulk with a heart of gold. As an action hero, he’s a brooding monolith. Even in the Terminator world (which first cast him as a villain), he’s now on the side of righteousness. And because there are no shadings — none! — to an Arnold Schwarzenegger performance, our gut-level perception of him as a giant body housing a basically noble soul is the cornerstone of our response to him.

Now, suddenly, we look at Arnold and see…a stone-face domestic liar. Can he still do “light,” funny dialogue in which he pokes fun of his Teutonic Hercules image? Will we buy it when his eyes glow with righteous vengeance as he mows down baddies with a laser gun? Arnold, for the moment, has tabled his movie projects, but the dilemma he’ll eventually have to face is this: Can audiences still accept the essential nobility of Arnold the Barbarian if they now see him as a bit of a barbarian for real?

* * * *

I’ve heard of films being banned (usually by repressive governments), but filmmakers? At a film festival? When officials at Cannes announced last Wednesday that the Danish director Lars von Trier would henceforth be “persona non grata” at the Cannes Film Festival because of scurrilous comments he made (at a press conference for his film Melancholia) about Jews, Nazis, Hitler, and his own past, it had a faintly trivial scolding-the-bad-boy ring, as if he were being sent down to the assistant principal’s office. Since I’m a freedom of speech absolutist, my initial reaction was: The banning of Von Trier was a mistake — a punishment as problematic as the crime. But one needs to understand why the Cannes officials acted as they did. Anti-Semitism is illegal in France (a rather dicey thing to enforce, to be sure), and so the festival was acting in accord with national policy. And unlike Von Trier, let’s not mince words: What he said was anti-Semitic.

Here, for the record, are his complete comments, delivered in response to a question about his complicated past:

“The only thing I can tell you is that I thought I was a Jew for a long time and was very happy being a Jew, then later on came [Danish, and Jewish, director] Susanne Bier, and suddenly I wasn’t so happy about being a Jew. That was a joke. Sorry. But it turned out that I was not a Jew. If I’d been a Jew, then I would be a second-wave Jew, a kind of a new-wave Jew, but anyway, I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out that I was really a Nazi, because my family was German. Which also gave me some pleasure.

“So, I, what can I say? I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things — yes, absolutely — but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end. I’m just saying that I think I understand the man. He’s not what you could call a good guy, but yeah, I understand much about him and I sympathize with him a little bit, yes. But come on, I’m not for the Second World War! And I’m not against Jews. No, not even Susanne Bier. That was also a joke. I am, of course, very much for Jews. No, not too much, because Israel is a pain in the ass. But still, how can I get out of this sentence? I just want to say I’m very much for Speer. Albert Speer, I liked. He was also, maybe, one of God’s best children. He had some talent that was kind of possible for him to use during, um… Okay, I’m a Nazi.”

In his opening salvo (basically, that first paragraph), Von Trier, to me, comes off as a bit of a douche, clearly so competitive with his fellow Danish director Susanne Bier that he is willing to risk the “joke” of putting her down for what he thought of, at the time, as their shared heritage. The remarks are tainted by his contempt, by his smirk-that-may-be-a-sneer; they certainly count as a “provocation.” But if that’s all there was to it, I don’t think anyone would have cared. Much.

But the moment that Von Trier starts to talk about Hitler, he reveals himself far beyond the superficial bite of his “snarky” intentions. The way that he deliberately and impishly understates Hitler’s crimes (“I think he did some wrong things”), and then, in case we missed it, does it again (“He is not what you would call a good guy”), is more than a provocation — it makes a hash of history, and just at a moment when Holocaust denial, in places like Iran, has become an intense political issue. It also sets the tone for what Von Trier actually means when he says that he “understands” Hitler. It’s no crime, of course, to try to “understand” what goes on in the mind of an evil megalomanic. I would argue that, for a civilized society trying to come to grips with history, it’s essential. But in context, when Von Trier says that he understands Hitler, what he’s really saying is that he identifies with him (“I sympathize with him”). And that’s not a “provocation.” That’s the statement of a warped man.

The question, once again, becomes: Does Lars von Trier’s bad behavior, his toxic words, in any way reflect how we take in his movies? The simple answer, to me, is that they shouldn’t. I have not seen Melancholia, which Lisa Schwarzbaum, in her report from Cannes, heralded as a powerful work of art. When it’s released later this year, I’ll watch the movie on its own terms, and I’ll hope that it’s great, as I always do when I see a new film by Lars von Trier.

Yet the reason that the answer may not be so simple is that Melancholia aside, it’s been a long time, to me, since Lars von Trier made a great film, and what I wonder is: Is the side of him that is driven, in his prankish Professor of Outrage way, to make veiled hateful remarks at a press conference a side of him that is now getting in his way as an artist? In that photograph of him to the left, the letters have been blurred, but he’s got the word “f—” tattooed on his knuckles. Which makes you wonder who that message is intended for: the bureaucrats who would silence him, or — maybe just a little bit — his audience?

Last year, I went back, for the first time since it came out, to watch Breaking the Waves again, Von Trier’s staggering 1996 drama of love, insanity, catastrophe, God, and glam rock, and my feeling now — I don’t say this lightly — is that it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. There’s an emotional purity to it. It does contain a streak of perversity, of provocation, if you will (the heroine, played by Emily Watson, degrades herself before God to heal her afflicted husband), yet there isn’t a moment in the movie that’s facile or schematic, not a moment when Von Trier, with his lyrically ragged hand-held images, views life in this world, dark as it can be, as anything less than holy.

In the movies that he has made since then (Dancer in the Dark, which was like a remake of Breaking the Waves, only this time it was schematic; the ugly and tedious Brecht-wrapped-in-burlap misanthropy of Dogville and Manderlay; the grandiose domestic torture porn of Antichrist, a movie that was practically designed to be a success de scandale at the Cannes Film Festival), Von Trier has evolved into a different kind of filmmaker: a punk artiste who wears his sadism like an armband. Frankly, he now makes movies a little bit like a guy who wishes he was a Nazi. And so the real problem may not be that Von Trier spouted anti-Semitic provocations at a press conference. It’s that he may be an artist who is now more driven by hate than he is by love.

What do you think of the Arnold scandal? The Von Trier scandal? Does it influence your desire to see either of their movies? Or should art and life be, and remain, separate?

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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