Alec Baldwin: Making an Art Form of Getting Away With It


If you’re one of those people that can’t get enough of the Baldwins, then rejoice — as reported widely this morning, the actor may well be getting his own prime-time talk show on MSNBC. Conversely, if you’re one of those people who wonders how Baldwin seems to keep getting away with being an asshole, you may find yourself wondering just how this guy manages to be TV teflon despite being in the news for the wrong reasons, again and again.

Clearly everyone has their dickish moments, and as a society, we have a habit of getting awfully preachy and self-righteous when judging our celebrities for the same behavior in which we ourselves indulge. This isn’t really an attempt to do that. In fairness, I’ve never shouted at an air hostess for being told to stop playing Words With Friends, or gone on homophobic Twitter rants, or left a rambling answerphone message calling an 11-year-old a “thoughtless little pig” — but shit, we’ve all done things we’re not proud of, and the difference is that most of us don’t have journalists waiting to lap up every little detail and regurgitate them to the world.

The interesting thing about Baldwin is the way that he’s managed to prosper despite the fact that it being widely acknowledged that he’s, y’know, a bit of an asshole. He’s not Robinson Crusoe in this respect, of course — Hollywood is full of egomaniacs and the sort of behavior that’d get you a swift kick in the ass in other walks of life. But Baldwin doesn’t so much rise about his dickishness as embrace it and let it define him, making a career out of perfecting what we might call the Hugh Grant technique. When Grant was found in a car with Divine Brown in 1995, he unwittingly pioneered a new form of contrition — the roguish, sorry-but-not-really-sorry kind, where you give a rueful grin and a chuckle that says, “Hey, I know I’m a bit of a dick, but you still love me, right?”

Baldwin’s taken this idea and run with it, patenting a trusty technique of dealing with controversy — act like an asshole, make a grudging apology, make jokes about it, and sit back and bask in the adulation. This is a man who made a credit card commercial about the fact that he got thrown off a plane, whose character on 30 Rock was a seven-year-exercise in self-satire — look at me, I’m a gruff and often unpleasant boss, but hey, I have a heart of gold.

It’s a pretty effective way of getting away with being unpleasant, but it’s interesting to think about why it works. No-one likes an irredeemable asshole, but for whatever reason, the public seem to prefer someone who owns the fact that they’re unpleasant over someone who’s contrite about it. It’s been apparent recently in the divergent trajectories of New York mayoral candidates Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner — objectively, the former’s transgressions have been worse than the latter’s, but it’s Weiner who’s been publicly pilloried.

Why? The difference is that Weiner’s an increasingly pathetic figure, while Spitzer has been a manly man, standing strong and largely unrepentant in the face of scandal. As Roy Galtz argued convincingly on The Rumpus last week, “a special form of repugnance that stems from the sense that Weiner’s transgressions are just not masculine enough.”

So it goes with Alec Baldwin, who’s long since realized that a token apology and a decent serving of nudge-nudge-wink-wink humor is a far better way of getting away with being a prick than trying to pretend you’re not one. The result is that he gets called things like a “lovable madman” and catalyzes angst-ridden thinkpieces from people who apparently just can’t help but love him despite themselves.

Ultimately, Baldwin will probably get his talk show, and MSNBC will give him free rein to do whatever he wants. Still, as a society, it’s probably worth thinking about why we embrace people who are charming and charismatic, regardless of their merits as people. Baldwin’s a fine actor, sure, but perhaps we restrict our appreciation of him to that fact, rather than casting him as some sort of lovable rogue.