OK, here’s where I break my first New Year’s Resolution, but it is an illuminating case. I don’t get to write for the newspapers very often. But in the limbo between Christmas and New Year, the Observer called and asked me if I would write a 1,450-word profile of the actress Natalie Portman. It was New Year’s Eve. I said yes, and spent the rest of the day researching it, online, and writing it up. By the time I filed the copy, at around 6pm on Friday December 31 for publication on Sunday January 2, I was something of an expert on Ms Portman’s life and work. It was to tie in with the imminent release of the ballet thriller Black Swan, which is kicking up quite a lot of interest because Darren Aronofsky directed it, it has received seven Golden Globe nominations and it has a lesbian scene in.
Anyway, I was delighted to be asked to write something for a national newspaper. They don’t use non-contracted freelancers at the Guardian and Observer as a rule, so they must have been pretty short-handed to offer me the gig. It appeared online on the Saturday night, and in the paper the next morning. They cut some passages, and neatened it up, but it’s pretty much as I wrote it. A couple of attempted gags, but mostly fairly vanilla. It is, after all, a profile, and not an opinion piece. It’s not about me, it’s about her. You can, if you wish, read it here. It’s pretty benign stuff. Or so I thought.
By the end of Sunday, in the statutory comments section underneath my piece, I had, variously, been accused of “intellectual snobbery”, of being “embarrassingly in love” with my subject, of using “a stupid turn of phrase”, and of tacitly supporting Israel’s massacre of Palestinians because I failed to mention Portman’s association with Alan Dershowitz, the pro-Israeli lawyer who publicly defended Israel’s attacks on Lebanon in 2006, and her own failure to denounce the state of Israel, where she was born. After – stupidly – leaving a comment defending my decision not to write in detail about the Israel-Palestine question because that wasn’t the piece I was commissioned to write, I was duly accused of “recoiling behind the convenient and elastic idea of not being asked to engage into a political agenda.”
Hey, most of the comments – an astonishing 73 before they closed it – were harmless, either commending Portman for being a committed vegetarian or doing a degree at Harvard and potentially harming her own career in Hollywood; others discussed the merits of Black Swan. But even when writing a vanilla profile of a Hollywood actress, you still draw aggressive flak from certain quarters. (In other papers, profiles of this type are run without a writer’s credit.) To be honest, I can take or leave Natalie Portman. She’s alright. The new film looks interesting. I couldn’t give a toss whether or not she was in the rubbish Star Wars films. She comes across as a bit of a dullard in interview, and I’m certainly not that impressed that she did a degree. I know lots of people who’ve done degrees. They are not better than the people who didn’t. But I reiterate: it’s not about me, it’s about her. The big illustration is of her. That’s what a profile is. Had I interviewed her, and failed to ask her why she killed all those Palestinians, I would be journalistically deficient.
I have pretty firm views on Israel and Palestine. So, I’m sure, does Natalie Portman, having been born in Jerusalem, but these are not in the public domain, or at least, over the course of an afternoon at my laptop, I didn’t come across any. I know that she studied under Dershowitz, but didn’t think it central to a profile of her life and work. Maybe a profile of Dershowitz? You’d be amazed how quickly 1,450 words get eaten up. (One commenter castigated me for not mentioning Goya’s Ghosts, a film she was in. She’s been making films since the mid-90s; I did not mention them all.)
All this goes to show why you should not get sucked into a dialogue with anonymous posters on newspaper comments sections. I’ve done it before, and I had sworn not to do it 2011. It only took me two days to break that resolution! And there really is no reasoning with someone whose views on a volatile international political situation are so passionate they feel the need to weigh in after the profile of an actor.
Oh, and later on, I got this: “This obsequious gushing about how perfect Ms. Portman is in every way is simultaneously dull and distasteful; it’s rather like reading a lonely man’s intellectual masturbatory fantasy.”
Spare me. (Mind you, in my haste, I did say she was “christened”, which is rather unlikely for a Jew born in Israel. But the Observer subs didn’t pick it up either. It was New Year’s Eve!)