The other day, I posted something to the Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style Facebook account (which you should follow, if you don’t already) concerning Mark Ruffalo and his forthcoming projects. I prefaced the link with something along the lines of “Sometimes I refer to Ryan Gosling as my boyfriend, but he’s really my second boyfriend. Mark Ruffalo is my first boyfriend.” But then I had to add a little caveat: “And Paul Newman is my eternal boyfriend.”
“Eternal boyfriend” sounds like something out of Seventeen magazine, but I think the phrase — and the concepts — gets at something essential about our relationships to stars, and why we think about them the way that we do, especially stars from the past.
The “eternal boyfriend” relationship is somewhat similar to the “girlcrush,” a phenomenon I considered in a post from last year. Why are we attracted, whether sexually, emotionally, or intellectually, to certain stars, male and female? But the eternal boyfriend is different than the girlcrush or even the first and second boyfriend. The eternal boyfriend is frozen in amber — he is almost always dead, or at least done with Hollywood — and he will be the object of your affection when you’re 20 and when you’re 80. The first and second boyfriends may be Mr. Right, but they also might not endure. They haven’t borne the test of time. Who knows if they’ll pull a Joaquin Phoenix and become abject sometime in the next year. They cannot be trusted, at least not yet. They may seem like Mr. Right, but they might turn out to be Mr. Right Now.
There’s also a third class — what Lainey Gossip calls “The Freebie Five.” These are men with whom you could have sex with a free pass from your significant other. You want to make out with them, but you don’t want them to necessarily speak — these men inspire a visceral response, but you know that it wouldn’t work out, or know that you’ll kinda hate yourself in the morning. They could stay the night, but you wouldn’t want to make small talk over brunch. Chuck Bass is totally in this crew. Channing Tatum might also be in this crew — I’d like to see him dance for me, but then I’d be so embarrassed.
I feel the same way about Eternal Boyfriends as I do the color blue: it will always be my favorite color. I feel the same way about the First and Second boyfriends as I do this dress with the ruffles and bric-a-brac from Anthropologie: in 20 years, I might think it’s hideous, but right now, I think it’s the best. The Freebie Boyfriend, then, is the blue tunic from Forever 21 that was fashionable for the two weeks after I bought it and I threw it in the trash.
For me, at least, there are many stars that are good looking, whose beauty I can appreciate — young Gary Cooper, for example, or Rock Hudson. Those men are classically handsome (and have made many a woman swoon), but they don’t do it for me. I can also appreciate the beauty of any dozen female stars, including Audrey Hepburn — that doesn’t mean that I love her (I know, controversial!) or want to put her photo on my wall (that’s reserved for Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, and Clara Bow).
I do think this works for men and women alike, even for hetero and homosexual desire: The Eternal Boyfriend/Girlfriend is the person that you wouldn’t mind actually being with — that you could bring home to your parents, that your friends would like, that wouldn’t bore you, that you wouldn’t have to get drunk just to endure conversation. This person (at least in your imagination) is everything that a perfect boy or girl friend should be — and the very best star boyfriends are adaptable to millions of fans’ different versions of what that might be. (For me, Paul Newman is really into reading Alice Munro’s short stories. For you, he might just like to go play Ultimate Frisbee barefoot in the park).
Maybe we can think of star boyfriends and girlfriends as those who merit a place on your wall: to get on the wall, a star, male or female, can’t be merely eye candy, but needs to speak to you and promise to fulfill your particular desires. They need to represent your values — or what you desire — so thoroughly that you’re willing to
a.) Look at them everyday, essentially sharing your room with them
b.) Allow all others who enter your personal space to see your connection to them.
In truth, a star gets to be your boyfriend or girlfriend through a combination of visceral attraction, an image that seems to represent something that’s important to you (Marlon Brando: emotional physicality) and a je ne sais quoi that just gets you. (You might also really identify with a character with whom the star falls in love in a particular film — I identify with Katharine Hepburn in Holiday; therefore, I identify with wanting Cary Grant to love me).
I wish I had a better explanation for why we’re attracted to certain stars and barely moved by others, but I also lack an explanation for why people fall in love with the people they do. Desire is complicated, knotty, and oftentimes impenetrable to anyone but the desirer him/herself.
BUT BACK TO MY BOYFRIENDS:
If Paul Newman is the king of my eternal boyfriends, then Gregory Peck (circa Roman Holiday) the prince, Cary Grant is the jester, and Marlon Brando (circa On the Waterfront) the duke. [I’m mixing rankings all over the place -- 1st, 2nd, king, eternal, whatevs.]
For me, Paul Newman seems to represent the platonic ideal of a man — those cheek bones, those eyes! — mixed with intellectualism, devotion, compassion. The first time I really saw him, the first time I watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I found him beautiful and jovial; as I saw more, saw him in the blue prisoner’s outfit from Cool Hand Luke, saw him self-destruct in black and white in Hud and The Hustler, and learned more about this extra-textual life, I found him exquisite.
You guys, he loved Joanne Woodward LIKE CRAZY! He directed a beautiful film that basically played up all of her attributes and earned her an Academy Award nomination! HE STARTED NEWMAN’S OWN AND GAVE SO MUCH MONEY TO CHARITY! He also aged with grace, which is apparently something I’m pretty into. (See Grant and Peck, but forget Brando; he aged with anti-grace).
There are all these pictures of him at home with Joanne Woodward, doing things like cooking eggs in his boxers with loafers. This is my type of guy like whoa. I’m certain he’ll make me those eggs and then we can go read The New Yorker in hammocks in the backyard.
I’m also apparently into stars from the ‘50s (although I like Grant most in his ‘30s screwballs, not his ‘50s color Hitchcocks). Grant can’t make it to the king of Eternal Boyfriends status because I just don’t know if he’d ever be able to go hiking with me. Can you go hiking in a three-piece suit and an ascot?
There’s also something performative about his love-making — something perfect for screwballs and Code-era pictures when real making out or bed sharing was prohibited — that makes me think that we’d probably have lively and witty conversations, but when the screen fades to black he’d put on his full-length pajamas and we’d retire in twin beds.
Gregory Peck is a wonderful flirt in Roman Holiday. He wears pants with a waist that’s about at his nipples; his suit seems to be adorable brown tweed; he’s a newspaper man and he and I could both work on deadline. There’s a bit of rascal in him, something indelible I love. But then he grows up to be such a DAD and lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird (I REALIZE HE’S A GOOD DAD) but you guys, I’m just not in the market for dad boyfriends right now.
And Marlon Brando, you are pure tumultuous desire. You are the guy that I wrote poems in free verse for in the 11th grade. You have hooded eyes that just beg for me to take care of you and your checked jacket in On the Waterfront.
I could switch places with Eva Marie Saint; she was a member of my sorority and we both have blonde hair, no big deal, right?
We’d have a long talk about your fighting career, Brando would do a lot of nodding and almost-crying-brooding, then we’d have a crushing embrace and have an incredible make-out session. No words, just emotions. Our three week relationship would be so hot. But then I’d telegraph forward and realize that he ended up fat, balding, and alone on his island, and the pity would just be too much. Always a Duke of Eternal Boyfriendom, never a King. He’d be a Mr. Right now if he wasn’t such a recurring and longstanding object of my affection.
Those are my personal (and admittedly crazy) narratives; you all have your own. Some of them have already been aired in the Celebrity Proust Questionnaires over the last few months, some are hanging out rather sheepishly in the recesses of your mind. If you can’t figure out why a star is your boyfriend/girlfriend, I’d be happy to help tease out some nuances of his or her star image, seeing which ones resonate with you.
But here’s the beauty of the star image: because it’s constructed, because it’s contradictory, because it’s polysemic — holding many meanings — it can be multiple things to millions of people. My boyfriend may be your nemesis; your girlfriend may be my frenemy. We take what we want from star images, selecting what we want to believe and dismissing what we don’t. Lainey Gossip always says that gossip is a buffet: we all pick and choose what we want to consume.
Eternal Star Boyfriends are the same: Paul Newman divorced his first wife, after all, but I don’t think about that when I’m busy concentrating on which Alice Munro story will be his favorite, and whether we’ll send our someday kids to Kenyon (his liberal arts alma mater) or Whitman (mine). That’s the beauty of stardom — each star’s meaning is an alchemy of what we read into it and what it actually is — and why we have, and will continue to, cultivate psychically complex, wholly unrequited, yet somehow emotionally gratifying relationships with the photos on our walls.