Greta Garbo is famously associated with a line she delivered in the 1932 drama Grand Hotel: “I want to be alone.” When she retired from Hollywood just a few years later, she embraced that sentiment in her private life: she refused to do interviews, she did not sign autographs, she did not answer fan mail. She eschewed the trappings of celebrity, but did so with a grace that is so rarely seen in celebrities of any kind. She didn’t make a big deal out of it, because doing so would only attract the attention she didn’t want in the first place. She most certainly would never have publicly announced her retirement from public life in a nearly 5,000-word statement to a magazine. Yet that’s what Alec Baldwin has done in this week’s New York magazine. He’s finished with public life, and he’s here, publicly, to tell you all about it.
Something must be said about the narcissism of publishing a 5,000-word temper tantrum, because that is essentially what Baldwin’s piece is. He’s angry because being a famous person is hard. People used to be so kind to him, but then, suddenly, they got mean. They started taking his picture instead of asking for his autograph. They started telling him he was homophobic rather than gushing about how great he was in a play or in a movie.
Of course, none of this has to do with an increasingly nasty public — it’s the direct result of Baldwin’s inability to keep his mouth shut, his incredible need to be in the limelight. And look, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing — I’m a writer, and having a byline can certainly feel like having one’s name on a marquee sometimes. But when you’re living as a public person, participating in TV interviews and even hosting a late-night talk show, you shouldn’t be surprised when people hold you accountable for the things you say. And you shouldn’t be surprised when people comment on your private life after you share the details of your private life in public. This seems to be common sense, but Baldwin can’t see past the insufferable entitlement that comes with being a celebrity: he wants his relationship with the people who watch him on TV and in the movies to only go one way. “The public needs me; I don’t need the public,” he seems to suggest, even though the truth is that having a large audience is actually a prerequisite for being a celebrity.
That isn’t Alec Baldwin’s only problem, though. The other is that he’s a jerk. He tries, in this piece, to shoot down the notion that he’s the homophobic bully that the members of “the Gay Department of Justice” have tried to depict him as. Of course, because he is, in fact, a homophobic bully, he doesn’t succeed at making himself look like anything else. He uses the typical, “but I know gay people!” excuse to detract from the homophobic slurs he often slings at gay people who aren’t fellow celebrities like Cynthia Nixon and Jesse Tyler Ferguson. He tells a story about going to Hawaii to meet with a local LGBT rights organization “to learn about what is hurtful speech in your community,” an anecdote he shares right after referring to “an F-to-M tranny.” (Clearly he learned a lot from that meeting! I’m sure this self-assigned, entry-level tolerance seminar will do wonders for him.)
As I wrote about Piers Morgan recently, Alec Baldwin has a skewed sense of what tolerance and respect is. Like Morgan, Baldwin has begun to feel victimized by those on the margins. His tone, even as he tries to refute the idea that he is homophobic, is dismissive of anyone who dares to suggest the problems with using a phrase like “toxic little queen” to describe a gay gossip columnist. And the issue is that he’s dismissing those within the LGBT community who are striving to make sure their voices are heard at the same volumes as the voices of people like Baldwin. Speaking as someone within that community, I’ll just reiterate what I’ve already said a million times: allies are great, but they’re supposed to work with us, not silence us. When they are publicly threatened and suggest that there’s some gay conspiracy to take down straight, white men — those being the people who have the most power across the globe — it’s not a good look.
So Alec Baldwin is retiring from public life. Great. Except that he’ll continue to make movies and act and perform publicly. It seems that he wants to use his celebrity to be two things: an entertainer and an influencer. He doesn’t want to settle for just the former, but he seems incapable of being the latter because he refuses to be publicly accountable for his actions. He’s just too focused on his own words to pay attention to anyone else’s. His meeting with the Hawaiian LGBT group is the perfect example: he wanted to learn about how language can be harmful, and obviously rejected the lesson he ended up getting. Should Alec Baldwin retire from public life? Absolutely. It’ll be a blessing for all of us — Alec Baldwin included — to hear someone else speak up for a change.