“When you’re an artist, you need an audience. You want people to love you. You just don’t want them to love you too much.”
Thanks to the ubiquity of social media, it’s never been easier for fans to connect with their favorite celebrities. In the past, if a devotee wanted to touch base with someone famous, they would have to sit down with a pen and paper and write several rough drafts until they’d composed the perfect letter expressing their admiration for the artist in question. They’d seal up the envelope and cross their fingers, hoping it would reach its destination. The lucky ones got a response in a few weeks. For others, the letter would go unanswered, and they’d never find out why. They’d just go on with their life, not concerning themselves too much with the sweet, embarrassing, or just plain weird thank-you note they had sent off into the abyss.
These days, things are much different. Find your celeb obsession on Twitter, fire off “i love u @TheRealElvira!!1!” in a hastily fingered tweet, and receive a response from them almost instantly in the form of a like, retweet, or ideally, an actual typed out message. (Elvira, it’s true, every word of it.)
At some point, however, things started to change. The fan’s power became too great, and their unhindered access to the inbox of any celebrity they chose, with just the click of a finger, had suddenly become weaponized. One of the greatest targets of these aimed attacks is the film world in general. Films themselves, but also the people who wrote, directed, produced, and starred in them. More often than not, it’s the new releases that get the worst of it, but even old movies end up in the crosshairs every now and then. And what it boils down to in almost every case is not that the fan simply didn’t like the film; it’s that they didn’t like it because it didn’t fit their idea of what it should be. They claim ownership of the film and in turn take its shortcomings as a personal offense. And then they lash out. It’s clear that the dynamics between fan and star are totally different now.
Recently, I rewatched Rob Reiner’s award-winning 1990 thriller Misery, based on the Stephen King story* of the same name. In the film, a mercurial nurse, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), rescues a man, Paul Sheldon (James Caan) from a snowy mountainside car accident. As luck would have it, Sheldon just so happens to be Wilkes’ favorite writer. He’s the author the entire Misery Chastain series, a set of successful Victorian-era romance novels which follow the sweeping adventures of the titular character. Naturally, Annie’s read them all – owns them all, too – and she’s committed every word and detail to memory. In many ways, it seems as though her real life is completely consumed by the fantasy world of Misery. Annie clearly cares about Paul as a creator, so who better to tend to the battered wordsmith than she, his biggest fan?
Anyone besides her, as it turns out.
About halfway through my revisit of the film, I was struck by somewhat of an epiphany. As her glowing admiration for Paul started to turn into unwavering contempt, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Annie Wilkes and the modern social media superfan.
After Paul has had a few days to mend, Annie asks him if it would be alright if she could read his latest unpublished manuscript that she also rescued from the car. The grateful Paul is immediately amenable to the idea. What Annie doesn’t realize, however, is this new material has nothing to do with Misery Chastain. Later that week, while spoon-feeding Paul, a visibly upset Annie tells him she doesn’t like his new story. She doesn’t like the language or the violence. She cannot wrap her head around why Paul would write about anything besides Misery. She grows increasingly incensed as she talks. A bewildered Paul defends the material, explaining that it’s the most personal thing he’s written in a long time. But Annie won’t hear any of it.
To make matters worse, Annie later finds out Paul – to prevent being pigeon-holed as a writer – has actually decided to end the Misery Chastain series altogether, hence the different direction of his new book. Enraged by the idea that Paul has “murdered” Misery, Annie forces him to burn his newest manuscript and to resurrect Misery. Fearing for his life, Paul does his best to force a new Misery Chastain story from his fingertips, but it isn’t good enough; not for Annie. She reads the few chapters Paul is able to muster, and immediately rejects them as being unbelievable. She throws them out and forces him to start from the beginning, yet again, until she is happy with the final result.
Annie’s behavior mirrors the same type of scary, petulant overreaction certain fans project at creators on Twitter everyday. Where Misery really nails the nuance is how oftentimes these fans, through sheer verbal jujitsu, will both laud and dismiss someone in the very same tweet. Trying to converse with them is impossible. It’s a no-win situation for the directors, writers, and actors on the receiving end of their assails.
On filming Misery, Reiner said, “You definitely see in this film why fan is short for fanatic. It’s tricky, because to some degree, getting attention is a real compliment. But if you go one step farther. . . When you’re an artist, you need an audience. You want people to love you. You just don’t want them to love you too much.”
So what does the future of the fan/celebrity relationship hold? How will social media play a part in it? I can’t predict the future. But it seems Stephen King can; he wrote Misery 30 years ago, and it’s proven to be eerily prescient. So maybe we should ask him.
*While King has stated that Misery is mostly about getting sober (“Misery is a book about cocaine. Annie Wilkes is cocaine. She was my number-one fan”), he was initially inspired to write the book after experiencing fan backlash over his 1984 fantasy novel, The Eyes of the Dragon. Readers who had expected another horror tale from King rejected what they considered a children’s book.