Scandals provide reason to distinguish stars from their work

Posted November 14, 2017 3:37 p.m. EST

— In the latest episode of "This Is Us," the character of Kevin -- struggling with an addiction to pain killers -- urges an assembly at his old high school not to admire him just because he's a popular actor.

"Don't love me," he says when someone in the crowd blurts that out, which only seems to inspire the audience to cheer for him more.

Of course, that's the same NBC show that, the week before, edited out an offhand reference to actor Kevin Spacey, which was suddenly made awkward by the allegations against him.

It's common, even understandable, that fans would indulge in a kind of hero worship regarding stars from fields like entertainment and sports. Yet the recent spate of sexual-misconduct charges against high-profile figures has offered a reminder why it's prudent to distinguish people from their work -- to avoid confusing exploits on the court or screen with personal attributes and qualities.

This question about separating the professional from the private has swirled through media, even before the latest flurry of accusations. In September, Stephen Colbert and Jerry Seinfeld engaged in a fascinating conversation about whether the accusations against Bill Cosby had ruined their enjoyment of his early material, which -- for many comics and comedy fans in general, including this one -- played a vital role in their upbringing.

"I can't listen to it now," Colbert said regarding Cosby's albums. "I can't separate it."

More recently, Louis C.K.'s admission to misconduct has prompted soul searching, with some revisiting favorable reviews of his critically lauded TV series "Louie" in light of the revelations.

Notably, even Louis C.K.'s now-shelved movie, "I Love You, Daddy," grapples with similar issues. In the film, the comic auteur plays a TV producer who is star-struck by a legendary director obviously inspired by Woody Allen -- played by John Malkovich -- until the "old perv," as he's described, begins a relationship with the producer's 17-year-old daughter.

Chalk it up, perhaps, to years of exposure to the entertainment industry, but experience has taught me to avoid becoming too enamored with talent, illustrating the peril in confusing achievements with character.

This doesn't mean every celebrity is a jerk, much less guilty of the more despicable behavior that's been reported. But it is a caution -- sometimes overlooked in the eagerness to embrace personas fostered through publicity and compliant media outlets -- that admiring the way somebody acts, sings or hits a baseball isn't the same as knowing them.

Asked about the line between the art and the artist when "I Love You, Daddy" screened at the Toronto Film Festival, Louis C.K. -- who co-starred in Allen's "Blue Jasmine" -- responded, "I don't think there is one. I think people have to be uncomfortable. ... You have to have mixed feelings about everybody."

The comments obviously take on a different hue in light of the recent reporting, but that doesn't invalidate them. CNN contributor Michael Weiss also discussed this dichotomy, concluding, "If culture is only hero worship, then it will only ever disappoint us."

With great power comes great responsibility, as Spider-Man liked to say. But a corollary of that is that great success brings great privilege, which can also be a gateway to disturbing behavior.

Accepting that might be, yes, uncomfortable. But it can help maintain a clearer conscience -- or at least mitigate feelings of disappointment -- when watching TV, attending a sporting event or going to the movies.