Put ’em up, Jackman: why are modern celebrity ‘feuds’ so boring?
Hollywood often gets deserved criticism for being navel-gazing and self-absorbed. At its worst, the film industry can seem like the private property of a small group of extremely wealthy people, whose obnoxious in-jokes are both incomprehensible and irritating to anyone who is not a member of the inner circle. So the latest made-up spat between Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman has proved.
Reynolds has been shortlisted – if not yet nominated – for an Academy Award for the song Good Afternoon from his film Spirited, and Jackman, who is currently co-starring with Reynolds in the third Deadpool film, Wolverine and Deadpool, has released a tongue-in-cheek video in which he has poured scorn on Reynolds’s bona fides in this department.
In the short clip, Jackman – himself a noted singer and musical theatre star, as well as being a blockbuster actor – declares: “Hey everybody, it’s 2023, and I really, really wanted to send out a positive message at the beginning of the year, but recent events have made that impossible.” After praising Spirited and its cast and makers, he declares: “However, I've just heard that the Academy have shortlisted Good Afternoon in the Best Song category. Now, Ryan Reynolds getting a nomination in the Best Song category would make the next year of my life insufferable. I have to spend a year with him shooting Wolverine and Deadpool, and trust me, it would be impossible.’ He ends by begging: “Do not validate Ryan Reynolds in this way, please.”
Reynolds, who has made his latter-day career through blurring the lines between the Deadpool character and his own screen persona, quote-tweeted Jackman’s plea and responded: “Disagree. The deepfakes that sung and danced for Will [Ferrell] and I would love to perform at the Oscars.”
On the one hand, it’s all harmless enough, a bit of soft promotion for both actors and an advance plug for their combined superhero endeavour, which will delight audiences at some point in 2024. On the other, it’s the exemplar of a smug group of people congratulating themselves for belonging to an exclusive club which the rest of us – mere mortals who pay to go and see their films, or, more often these days, stream them – can only dream of gaining entry to. Perhaps we, too, would like to be roasted by Hugh Jackman on social media, or to have Ryan Reynolds quote-tweet us sarcastically: good luck with that.
But don’t get me wrong … pic.twitter.com/8ymOYUOq9m
— Hugh Jackman (@RealHughJackman) January 4, 2023
It isn’t even the most irritating confected celebrity feud of recent years. That dubious honour goes to the Jimmy Kimmel and Matt Damon contretemps, which began with a throwaway joke by Kimmel on his late-night chat show two decades ago, in which he explained his decision not to invite the (absent) star on: “Apologies to Matt Damon, but we ran out of time.” It was an unexceptional gag in the first place, but Kimmel decided that it was a Wildean shaft of wit, and so, with Damon’s complicity, started to recycle it at every opportunity as a laboured running gag.
He has a far higher belief in its efficacy than most of his viewers have done, saying in an NPR interview: “People laugh every time I say it. Repeating the same joke every single night, you’d think eventually people would get tired of it, but they don’t.” Well, some of us very much do, Jimmy. Ironically, its highest-profile and most tedious outing of all – when Kimmel hosted the Oscars in 2017 – was upstaged dramatically, when La La Land was wrongly announced to have won Best Picture, rather than Moonlight; the real-life farce that ensued, worthy of the very best episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, was not only genuinely hilarious, but showed up the Damon-Kimmel ‘spat’ for the nonsense that it really is.
However, for all of the PR-driven safety of these made-up feuds and arguments, there is something utterly electrifying about the public collision of major egos who bear each other genuine ill-will, whatever their reasons for so doing. Last year’s Oscars will forever be notorious for Will Smith striding on stage to hit Chris Rock for making a joke about his wife’s health, long after the winner of Best Picture – Coda, in case you’ve already forgotten – has drifted into obscurity.
The relationship between Rock and Smith has not healed since then, if Rock’s comments at his various stand-up shows are to be believed: he responded to Smith’s July YouTube video, in which he apologised once again for his actions, by saying “f--- your hostage video”, and his publicist dismissed any attempts at a reconciliation last summer, saying: “He’s not concerned with the Smiths at the moment.”
Nor, it would seem, are the American public: Smith’s supposed comeback film, the slavery drama Emancipation, has bombed at the box office and any idea that he might once again feature in the (Kimmel-hosted) Oscars this year – despite being banned from the ceremony for the next decade – in any other form than as a target of mockery in the opening monologue is a fanciful one. It was a reminder that, whatever the history between the two men, a real-life feud boiling over like this in public is both shocking and a wake-up call that the film industry is not simply a collection of happy entertainers but home to complex, often troubled people who are often riddled with insecurity about their particular place in the celebrity firmament.
Sometimes, the expression of this is deeply public. Last year’s Don’t Worry Darling was of more interest to audiences because of the apparently troubled relationship between its star Florence Pugh and its director Olivia Wilde, who dated Pugh’s co-star Harry Styles during production. At the film’s Venice premiere, there was enormous excitement caused by Pugh refusing to look at Wilde during the film’s photocall and missing a press conference, where the nature of the triangular association would have been the only topic of discussion had she been present. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wilde and Styles are no longer an item.
And actors of a more seasoned vintage can find themselves getting embroiled in often ugly disagreements, too. Mel Gibson’s career has resembled a rollercoaster ride in recent years, and has seen him switch from can’t-get-arrested disgrace and obscurity to Oscar-nominated director of Hacksaw Ridge, the toast of Hollywood once again, to his present position as star of any straight-to-streaming action picture that will pay him a salary.
But he was sufficiently persona non grata for Ricky Gervais to make tasteless jokes about him in 2010 at the Golden Globes, something that Gibson later described as making him want to strangle the comedian. Although the two appeared together at the 2016 ceremony, and Gibson, through gritted teeth, smiled and embraced him, his truer feelings could be discerned by his remark: “I like seeing Ricky every three years. It reminds me to get a colonoscopy.”
Still, none of this compares to the truly epic feuds of vintage Hollywood. Sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine both lived to extraordinarily old ages – 104 and 96, respectively – but much of their lives was dominated by a dismal ongoing battle that began in childhood and only worsened when both enjoyed professional success in the Golden Age of the industry.
And the bitter, difficult relationship between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, in which the two actresses, both past the peak of their professional success, did virtually everything to bring the other down is the most fantastic, and even unbelievable, of stories.
Ryan Murphy even made a well-received miniseries, Bette and Joan, about the toxic dynamic between the two during the filming of the 1962 horror film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, in which Jessica Lange played Crawford and Susan Sarandon played Davis: a fine example of one generation of Hollywood royalty gleefully portraying another, rather less well-behaved generation. Still, nothing in the series could compare to Davis’s reported reaction to Crawford’s death for acidity: “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good. Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”
There are countless others, too. The contretemps between the likes of Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall and Sarah Jessica Parker, Fast and the Furious stars Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson and even Michael Sheen and Jeremy Northam – in which Sheen punched Northam for making disparaging remarks about his then-girlfriend Kate Beckinsale while on the set of the Merchant-Ivory film The Golden Bowl – have all been eagerly reported in the press.
While there are often elements of exaggeration and wishful thinking involved, there is also the undeniable truth that often those possessed of (un)healthy egos find it difficult, even intolerable, to be around others who share such untethered self-belief. So while the likes of Jackman and Reynolds and Kimmel and Damon can carry on cosplaying their self-absorbed back-slapping, the darker, and far more interesting, stories will be taking place backstage, just a few yards away.