DeGeneres built her brand as the Queen of Kindness. Turns out she's more complicated than that. And maybe that's our problem as well as hers.

By JD Heyman
September 21, 2020 at 04:05 PM EDT
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Credit: Illustration by Scott Anderson for EW

If you have the fortune or curse to work around entertainers, people will ask you what they are really like. Whoever the object of fascination is — Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé — that inquisition invariably starts with a naive but tricky interrogative: Is she nice?

Now, of all the qualities it takes to make it in Hollywood (good genes, talent, drive, narcissism), niceness doesn’t rank so high. We accept that successes in other professions can be prickly. There’s no great shock in discovering that a Picasso or a Zuckerberg doesn’t play well with others. We admire Michael Jordan and know he’s not buddy material. Not so with show people — particularly those who radiate the warmth that plays well on a daytime couch. Yet when Twitter yanks the scales off our eyes and we learn (again) that a Girl Next Door may, in moments, be a bit of an a—hole, we join in a chest-beating ritual of accusation, retribution, and holy vengeance.

So let us talk Ellen DeGeneres.

I come not to bury Ellen, nor to praise her. I come to explore her very-Hollywood predicament, which concerns the hair shirt, glue trap, and cudgel that is nice. We prize likability in megastars. Doris Day, Jimmy Stewart, Sally Field, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Chris Pratt, Tiffany Haddish — all possess a luminous everydayness that dissembles them as dears we’d grab a latte with. Ellen projects said magical realness from every radiant pore. But do grasp this: A genius for performing kindness for an audience is not the same as being unfailingly kind to everybody. The stars, in most meaningful ways, are not like us.

Credit: Ellentube

Like you, I’ve known Ellen for decades. Like you, I don’t know Ellen at all. Disclosure: I’ve stood in the same room with Ellen, and she has been as nicely behaved as a person standing in a room full of strangers ought to be. Sadly, this does not add up to a relationship from which searing psychoanalytic insight is gained. True wisdom in Hollywood is in realizing the difference between a star’s projected persona and her actual personality. Herein lies the misapprehension at the crux of L’Affaire DeGeneres: We’ve read Ellen as the image beamed at us through our screens, confusing the qualities that make her a star with the messy reality of her humanity. Her lapses are vexing, but if she must be blamed for something, it is for her brilliance at getting us to like her. It does not follow that because she presented an unblemished face of niceness to the world that she is its unerring soul.

The case against Ellen rests on hypocrisy; her prosecutors seek to break her on the wheel of kindness, for kindness was her brand. Among her multitudes, she allegedly contains not just folksy charm but the usual Hollywood stew of vanity, cluelessness, and assistant-torture. For years, “insiders” have dished that The Ellen DeGeneres Show is not the warm bath of good vibes depicted. Let the defense list mitigating factors: (1) Working on a huge TV show tied to its fragile namesake star can be intense; (2) Ample reporting suggests the business of making others laugh is hell; (3) Many famous comics are documented to have souls as black as Mordor; (4) Niceness has long been used to bludgeon powerful women who fail to meet an impossible standard of grace. None of this excuses treating the help like chum. Still, gathering digital kindling and dragging the accused off to the pyre, let alone calling for Billy Eichner to replace her, goes a bit far.

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Mob rage at celebrities reaches a fever pitch, when Robespierre will take no excuses and only the guillotine will do. (The heads of three producers did, indeed, roll following an internal investigation.) The star apologized to her staff, at first in a disembodied way, saying she “relied on others to do their jobs as they knew I’d want them done. Clearly some didn’t. That will now change, and I’m committed to ensuring this does not happen again.” When cuts were made, in mid-August, she issued this mea culpa: “I’m so so sorry for what this has become. I’ve left this to be a well-oiled machine, and I realize it’s not a machine…[it’s] human beings.” Ellen also reassured employees that it is just fine to look her in the eye. Yet the mob clamors for more, starting with “Yep, I’m a crummy boss...” They’re unlikely to get it. She’s been in Hollywood long enough to know that waiting for the fever to break is the best course.

Credit: NBC

As I’ve said, I know Ellen. I’ve seen her 1986 appearance on The Tonight Show, when Johnny made her the first female comic anointed with a seat on his couch. At only 28, that Ellen was remarkably true to the current iteration. There’s that plea for kindness, as well as her genius for undermining sincerity with a breathed-in punchline — “To me, life is very precious, it’s very special.… Everything on this earth should have a reason, should have a beneficial purpose. And I feel like everything does, except for fleas.” When she chatted with Johnny (another reputed clash of public warmth and private chilliness), he riffed on how hard stand-up was for women. Young Ellen shyly agreed. Her climb required toughness. It couldn’t have been so nice.

Credit: ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

And then Ellen became Ellen: a sitcom star who came out (though she never said those words on Time’s cover), and by so doing got actually, not semantically, canceled; the comeback artist who triumphed at the Emmys after 9/11; and finally, a megastar, pal to George W. Bush and Barack Obama, gay, square, happily married — Carol Burnett in designer sneakers. Just like a friend of yours, except a unicorn.

Somewhere in there, I assigned a writer to interview Ellen. By then, there was talk, so I waited with anticipatory glee for my reporter to be devoured. She returned alive, and with a different impression. Was Ellen nice or mean? Neither. She was deadly earnest. Her life had been colored by pain — parental divorce, sexual abuse, the death of a girlfriend — which spurred her to stand-up. In response to teen shootings and suicides, she’d adopted kindness as aspiration, policy, and theology. She believed in it because she’d felt cruelty. She never promised to be nice all the time. She claimed it as an evangelical ideal.

Credit: Jason Merritt/FilmMagic

Trying to live any ideal, every day, observed by hordes, is liable to get one hoisted by the pantsuited petard. While acknowledging there are worse things than being a pampered celebrity, we might suppose that being expected to act with unflagging kindness is maddening. Also, nothing in the celebrity toolkit prepares one to be a manager. It may well be that we have a new showbiz paradigm where egos are kept in check by social media and HR. That was not the Hollywood of last year, let alone 1986.

“When we were growing up, our parents somehow made it clear that being famous was good,” Ellen said in a 2012 interview. “And I mistakenly thought that if I was famous, then everyone would love me.” If you can read that sentence without feeling a bit sad, you have no heart. To seek love on that scale is not a healthy impulse, yet it’s an Everest Ellen tried to scale. She should do better, we all should. She may not always be nice, but she is deserving of empathy, and for articulating a worthy if impossible ideal, some admiration, too.

We don’t yet know if Ellen’s reputation for goodness is permanently tarnished with her fans or her employees. At 62, she can always take her millions and retreat to her Santa Barbara estate. But Ellen, as we’ve understood her, will always repent, return, and work hard to win you over. Nice or not, she is surely resilient. “Humility is not a virtue propitious to the artist,” wrote Evelyn Waugh, huge talent and nasty man. “It is often pride, emulation, avarice, malice — all the odious qualities — which drive a man to complete, elaborate, refine, destroy, renew, his work until he has made something that gratifies his pride and envy and greed. And in so doing he enriches the world more than the generous and the good, though he may lose his own soul in the process. That is the paradox of artistic achievement.” The Ellen we know would never accept that paradox. She would want to try, and try again, to be kind. That may be one of the very nicest things about her.

A version of this story appears in the October 2020 issue of Entertainment Weekly, on sale now and available hereDon’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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