'Smash His Camera' Interrogates Celebrity and Obsession

by Cynthia Fuchs

7 June 2010

Leon Gast's excellent documentary takes paparazzo Ron Galella as its subject, but also uses him as a way to ask more resonant questions, about celebrity and obsession.

To Know Her Habits

cover art

Smash His Camera

Director: Leon Gast
Cast: Ron Galella, Dick Cavett, Peter Howe, Liz Smith, Chuck Close, M.C. Marden, Graydon Carter, Neil Leifer, Betty Galella

(HBO Documentaries)
HBO: 7 Jun 2010

“I believe in what I do. I do not have any guilt. The people out there want a glimpse of her, want to know her habits, her lifestyles. Even if she’s private, the fact that she shields herself with an umbrella, that picture’s interesting. It reflects her personality.” Explaining himself, photographer Ron Galella isn’t precisely convincing. As he is also describing an episode where he’s followed Katharine Hepburn from her home to a downtown Los Angeles theater, he’s less revealing than mystifying. The sequence ends on a long shot of her walking with umbrella held open and down, to cover all but her trouser legs. It may reflect her determination to avoid the paparazzi, but honestly, how is this “her personality”?

This sort of question comes up a lot in Smash His Camera, questions about motives, about causes, and about responsibility. On one level, Leon Gast’s excellent documentary takes Galella as its subject (“Why are you doing a piece on Ron Galella?” asks Chuck Close during his interview). But on so many other levels, it uses him as a way to ask more resonant questions—about celebrity and class, obsession and delusion, the blurred definitions of public and private. Galella’s stories about himself—he’s providing a service, he’s making a living, he’s doing what he loves to do—are also stories about that audience he imagines.

It’s not always clear who that audience may be: during a 1981 interview, Tom Snyder asks Galella, “You ever think you’re feeding an appetite that shouldn’t be fed when you get some of these pictures?” The answer is standard, looking to profits and popularity to measure value, or at least provide a rationale: “Every paper has a gossip column,” Galella points out. But even if a market exists, the documentary wonders, how has Galella come to be one of its most notorious dealers, to embody its most disreputable aspects?

Photographer Lynn Goldsmith asks, “What kind of person does it take to photograph people who do not want to be photographed?” The answer provided for her by fellow photographer Harry Benson—seated at a table for a discussion set up for the film—doesn’t actually respond to the question, but deflects it: “Oh,” he says, “They want to be photographed.” Again, the reasoning for paparazzi’s apparent aggression or otherwise worrisome behavior—why they step over boundaries, why they insist on their rights, why they take risks—is linked to someone else’s desire. The audience wants it. The celebrity wants it. Fame is its own purpose, its own end and means.

The film looks at the two cases for Galella that made him famous too. The one about Marlon Brando—who punched Galella in 1973 and broke his teeth—is narrated by Galella, his assistant Paul Schmulbauch, and Dick Cavett, who was with Brando. Their story pieces don’t precisely mesh, but as fragments—supported and undermined by accompanying images—they are convincing. If the facts of the event are clear (Galella had stitches, then sued Brando), the effects remain ambiguous. A Geraldo Show segment suggests that his audience at the time thought Galella overstepped and even deserved the assault. Still, he means to give consumers what they “want.” Cavett sums up: “What went through my mind was this was the most thrilling moment of my life, one of the most violent, and certainly the stupidest.”

The second case is less “thrilling,” but violent and stupid in other, more insidious ways. Galella followed Jackie Onassis for three decades, he reports proudly, and she was his favorite subject. She took him to court, argued that he harassed her and her children, and won. As Peter Howe sees it, Galella’s pursuit was not merely professional (serving his audience’s desire), but premised on his own desire as well. It was, says Howe, “a personal relationship. It was a relationship that was conducted through the camera, but it was nevertheless a personal relationship.” Galella asks and answers his own question: “Why did I have the obsession with Jackie? I analyzed it: because I had no girlfriend and she was my girlfriend in a way.” As an analysis, this seems glib, but it may be perversely telling as well. But if you understand all such explanations as still more stories—about Galella maybe, but more plausibly about the culture that produces him—then you might imagine he’s been told this story and now tells it back. He’s hardly the only believer: as Liz Smith puts it, “I think in the end, she was posing for him more than we know. So she must have had a little feeling for Ron.”

If there’s no logic to such narratives, there is, again and again, that belief in desire—a desire to know and to possess. How does seeing—photographing, seeing “through the camera”—become knowing or possessing? And how do legal claims—Jackie’s lawsuit, which made headlines and had papaazzi shooting Galella—come to bear on who possesses what and whom? Neil Leifer, a photographer for Life and Sports Illustrated, locates a problem not only in what Galella does, but also in how he does it. “His tactics are despicable. I think of him as a stalker. You go to the end of the First Amendment and there’s Ron Galella sitting there.”

Indeed, Galella is within his rights, as First Amendment expert Floyd Abrams points out. “We protect him because we don’t want to start selecting who we protect and who we don’t protect,” says Abrams. “He’s really the price tag of the First Amendment.” The question is, who pays that price? And how?

Smash His Camera


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