Variety's The Movie That Changed My Life: 120 Celebrities Pick the Films that Made a Difference (for Better or Worse)
US: Feb 2009
Books about the curio interests and attitudes of celebrities are very rarely ever good. Just because a pretty face will light up the silver screen does not mean that they have anything terribly compelling to say about music, movies, art, literature, or any other subject for that matter. Whereas regular people win friends and lovers through their curiosities of opinion, celebrities can win over others just fine with abnormally milquetoast ideas.
Variety’s The Movie that Changed My Life is a perfect example of such a phenomenon. More than a hundred celebrities gab about movies they like, tossing out shallow bits of insight as to why these films are great works of art. Often anecdotal, the book reports on Tyson Beckford’s love of Scarface, Newt Gingrich’s inclination toward the cinema of John Ford, and Anne Hathaway wanting to be in All that Jazz.
While this may seem a good idea, most of these famous folk like the films they do for either no reason at all—“I saw it when I was young and thought it was cool”—or for a cookie-cutter one: “The Godfather is all about loyalty.”
And perhaps that is the appeal of the book. The stars and thinkers to which we look up are no more interesting than the average college freshman: the old “celebrities are people too” device exploited by tabloids worldwide. Unfortunately, it is as uninspiring to see Joan Rivers in sweatpants as it is to hear about her “riff” on Little Miss Sunshine. By the end of both tabloid and book you are forced to abandon your childhood idealism and confess that celebrities are rather trite.
What’s worse is that the premise of the book is undercut by its execution. What one expects to discover in a book called The Movie that Changed My Life are first person accounts of pivotal moments in the experiences of famous individuals. What one actually finds are overblown introductions about who the celebrity actually is—wait, who is Bob Baffert? Apparently a horse racing trainer extraordinaire—with small snippets of quotes from the celebrities about movies.
In fact, most of the accounts never mention their lives being altered by the films, leading the close reader to wonder if the celebrities had any idea that the title of the book would suggest grandeur or importance.
Sadly, in the TMZ-era this is what passes for investigative pop culture reporting. This is the logical endpoint of celebrity, where increasingly mundane offerings pass off as aura. People used to flock to try to find a Barrymore swimming in liquor. Now we are content to see Heidi Montag eating a pita. Oh, how our standards of parasitic behavior has fallen.
Perhaps this criticism is too harsh to level at Variety for this work, but The Movie that Changed My Life is certainly a slipshod product at the very least. One can only hope that poor sales will motivate either more carefully cultivated and focused compendiums or, even better, a turning away from the celebrity summa altogether.
There used to be a place for a mess of famous individuals thrown together and linked by a common theme, but the Internet has become a far better aggregator than text will ever be. The imperative, if print is to survive and deserve its place, is to move away from a mentality of wholesale presentation and find its niche in well-researched analysis and attractive design. Variety’s The Movie that Changed My Life fails on both fronts.