A few days ago, I saw the news that Alec Baldwin is being charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter for his part in handling the gun that killed DP Halyna Hutchins on the set of the film Rust in 2021. The statement from Baldwin’s lawyer in response was, “This decision…represents a terrible miscarriage of justice. Mr. Baldwin had no reason to believe there was a live bullet in the gun — or anywhere on the movie set. He relied on the professionals with whom he worked, who assured him the gun did not have live rounds.”
What might be more telling, however, was what Baldwin said in a television interview last year: “Someone is responsible for what happened, and I can’t say who that is, but I know it’s not me.” This is particularly disturbing not only because Baldwin was talking about having shot and killed somebody with a gun that he held in his own hand, but because he was also a producer on the film. I’d argue that’s where his primary responsibility lies; it makes him culpable for how the shoot was being run, which, according to news reports, directly led to this outcome: cutting corners in ways that forced crew to drive long distances after working long days, and forsaking necessary safety precautions of all kinds, in order to save time and money. It was a situation ripe for a dangerous mistake to be made.
And yet, I know exactly why Baldwin feels the way he does. I regularly work with actors on sets where they are treated like as a unique class of human being: the infantilized celebrity. The culture we’ve created around them means that Baldwin and people like him truly aren’t expected to take responsibility for anything, because other people will do it for them.
Perhaps the worst part of all this is that our culture seems to be okay with this — in fact, their response seems to be “Yes more please!” Because these days, we are minting celebrities like it’s going out of style, rather than getting more and more in every day. It used to be just actors, dancers, musicians, and other kinds of performers who at least could do something: perform. It came to include models, who I guess also have some ability to do something (yes, I’ve watched America’s Next Top Model), but mainly just have their genes to thank for making them freakishly attractive. Then I suppose it makes sense that it jumped from models to reality stars, famous I guess because they, too, are attractive, or have paid through the nose to inject and cut themselves to whatever is considered that at the moment, or maybe have a skill (Emeril, the Property Brothers), even if that skill is simply knowing how to get attention — through making a sex tape (Paris Hilton), or fighting in public (the Real Housewives of Wherever), or spending money in some obtrusive way and refusing to shut up about it (Donald Trump), or otherwise publicly behaving badly (really all of them). And with social media, that just spread and spread and spread, giving us “influencers,” for which, finally, the designation itself tells us that these are people who are famous just because they are famous.
This is all well and good for the rest of you, who just watch these people on your choice of media, but for those of us who are in essence their work colleagues, it kind of sucks. On a set where they are the star, it’s driven into your head in every possible way that famous “talent” simply are more valuable than anyone else. They are, indeed, far more expensive, and far less replaceable — because there’s a good chance the funding for that project is at least partly due to their presence on it. In that sense, it’s understandable why they are catered to on pretty much every level, with the nicest accommodations, everything they want or need brought to them, and any bad behavior they exhibit worked around, so that the only thing they are expected to do is show up (which means just getting in the car that has been sent for them, because they’ll be fed and go through hair, makeup and wardrobe when they get to work, no matter how late they are) and perform. If that. I regularly work with celebrities who haven’t learned their lines by the time they are supposed to walk into a scene and say them.
With a good actor, at least, when you get to watch them work, you kind of get it. The way they light up and transform themselves when they’re on camera, not to mention build, moment-to-moment, off of the performances of other actors and then adjust according to the director’s feedback, all while matching the action, hitting their marks take after take after take, and blocking out the presence of the 100+ people around them doing other stuff at the same time, is often genuinely astounding to me. And I know that achieving the emotional vulnerability that allows them to feel something — or many somethings at once — to the degree that it is expressed on their face and in their body with that kind of precision is only made harder by being famous. When the media and the people around you are constantly thinking and talking about you, judging you, telling you who you are and whether you’re the best or the worst or just irrelevant, how do you protect yourself from letting all of that make you insane and still manage to feel anything? So yes: giving actors the space and time and respect and support they need to do all of that is actually necessary.
But having to do that for someone who is famous basically because they look like their face is wearing a permanent instagram filter, or know how to…wear clothes? Do a little dance? Have an attitude? I really don’t know what the reasoning is with some of the influencers I’ve worked with, and yet they are now “the talent.” I will say, though, that as opposed to other reality stars, or, god forbid, pop stars, many of the influencers I’ve worked with do come to set and work their asses off. I don’t know if it’s because they are used to cranking out content every day to stay on top, or because they’re Gen Z and having a work ethic is just what they do. My fear is that it’s because they are new celebrities and they haven’t hit peak asshole yet — something that I’ve seen with a few actors who I’ve had the opportunity to work with over the years as their careers blossomed, only outpaced by their egos.
And regardless of why America makes people famous, once we invest them with that kind of power, they are just plain bad for us — and I mean all of us. This is particularly true because in a world where we worship the shit out of wealth, that power always goes hand-in-hand with money, one unholy bonfire inevitably feeding the other. Not only because celebrities always profit off of their fame, but because then everyone else swoops in to do the same, building a scrum around the rich and famous that separates them from reality even further as their wealth and fame increases. One need only look to the awful celebrities who we’ve somehow managed to entrust with running countries (Trump, Putin), or corporations that impact billions of people (Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, the Sackler Family), or platforms providing us with information (Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity), or defining what beauty is (the Kardashians), to see the devastating impact of all of that power combined with the near-total insulation from reality that comes from the chorus of yes-men and -women and ever-growing collection of penthouse apartments, exclusive beach villas, armor-plated limos and private planes that inevitably follow in the wake of modern wealth and celebrity. Somehow, in 2023, we’ve reached the complete opposite of the old maxim: with great power comes total lack of responsibility.
Let’s come back to Baldwin. My point is not that he shouldn’t be charged, because, everything I’ve heard from the crew on 30 Rock about his behavior to the contrary, he is not a child. But the truth is, for practically his entire career, everyone around him has been telling him that nothing is ever his fault. This system we’ve created, which spawns these monsters of uber-privilege and then brings them together in the high-pressure crucible of a film set with so many of the uber-average, for days or months on end, is ultimately responsible. And I’ll say it for the umpteenth time: it’s the system that has to change if we don’t want to see tragedies like this continue to happen. Take it as a cautionary tale for America (because don’t the movies always provide us that?), or just an example of what can result when a few people are so valued that they lose their perspective on who they are and the responsibility they have to those around them, sometimes only a few feet away: someone is always, always, going to get hurt, even if there are no guns involved.