I have to admit: I feel kind of terrible for Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart.
Sure, they were paid millions to co-star in one of the biggest movies of the summer, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (opening this week), and will earn even more this fall for the two-part Twilight series conclusion, Breaking Dawn. They’re young and gorgeous and talented, and for all the privacy the actors lack and scrutiny they must withstand, you can bet that 10 out of 10 ditch-diggers would trade places any day of the week.
But Pattinson and Stewart have a bigger problem, which has gradually become ours (or mine, at least): They’re in love. And they want to keep it to themselves.
Good luck with that.
Not to drag you, reader, into the gossipy muck of the moment, but this grasp for privacy means something beyond the squealing cohorts of adolescent girls and their older “Twihard” counterparts. For better or worse, Americans rely on the Hollywood Relationship to tell us something about our own affairs. I’m not talking about the cannily packaged couples temporarily thrown together for promotional purposes (e.g. Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler earlier this spring while promoting The Bounty Hunter), though their cynicism often proves instructive. I mean the real deals—Bogart and Bacall, Hepburn and Tracy, Taylor and Burton, and the legendary like. We strive for their sincere, timeless love, however mythologized over the years.
In other words, these legends aren’t empty calories. And despite the conventional wisdom, neither are Pattinson and Stewart. They’re a milestone among yardsticks by which we measure ourselves—a tipping point of sulky, surly desperation best characterized by Stewart’s comment to Elle last month that she “would never cheapen my relationships by talking about them.”
Cheapen? Forget for a moment how weird or even haunting that sounds from the mouth of a 20-year-old woman; I’d argue that Stewart could only enhance her relationships by talking about them. If there’s anything the jaded, hyperstimulated, children-of-divorce Twilight crowd needs right now, it’s a high-visibility model of mutual respect and admiration.
Which isn’t to suggest some self-serving talk-show tour or anything. She could simply say, “Yup,” and a generation can get back to daydreaming. Consider the dreadful alternative we face at the moment, one in which Stewart’s affair defines Twilight and Twilight defines her affair, yet the authenticity that makes Stewart and Pattinson a true Hollywood commodity in the first place—the romantic ideal so coveted by the hoi polloi, from which we draw fantasies of our own star-crossed love—is not allowed to exist outside that paradigm.
Now, I know a lot of folks outside the key Twilight demographic tend to write off the couple (Robsten? StewPatz?) as a fluke, a brooding symbol of what mediocrity passes for celebrity in the 21st century. They usually don’t stop there, either, even brushing off no less than Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie—as high-powered a partnership as they come—as lacking the effortless glamor of the iconic lovers who preceded them.
Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, the assertion misses a more important point: Such relationships do achieve a kind of immediate canonical status in the new-media economy. True love in the business of dreams is among the rarest surviving strains of Hollywood tradition, right up there with the occasional black-and-white movie. Just as we wouldn’t dismiss that movie simply because of its aesthetic choices, it hardly seems fair to write off StewPatz simply because an accelerated news cycle made them—and keeps them—huge almost instantaneously. They have substance worth contemplating.
That said, they are also young, and their own vexed reactions to that instantaneousness wouldn’t be so out of place for sudden sensations twice their age. Speaking of whom, there is at least some precedent here.
Take Taylor and Burton. Yes, I went there. More specifically, take Furious Love, a wonderful, just-published biography of the megacouple’s affair (begun on a blockbuster film set, natch), marriage, divorce, remarriage and second divorce—a relationship whose 14-year turbulence is chronicled today through new interviews and never-before-seen letters and notes.
Startlingly, Love reminds readers of work- and romance-related hazards between superstars both old and young. An army of publicists sought furiously to stamp out gossip about the Cleopatra stars’ affair; paparazzi crowded outside the Rome studio for shots of Taylor and Burton together. “They hounded the couple,” write authors Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, “[...] even following them on a brief holiday to Elizabeth’s Chalet Ariel, in Gstaad.” It went on for years.
Yet to the extent both couples have thousands of truffle-sniffing pigs pursuing their priceless scent, A-list coupledom boasts another tradition, of cathartic self-actualization. The Burtons, for instance, barred journalists from their wedding, issuing only Richard’s statement, “Elizabeth Burton and I are very, very happy.” Flash forward 46 years to Oprah, where the host reportedly agreed to go easy on her Eclipse guests on camera if they came clean about their status backstage. Reportedly, they did. If only StewPatz had completed their own cycle with a public confirmation; keeping Stewart’s earlier comment in mind, speculation cheapens her relationships far more than simple candor ever could.
Believe me, I know how strong the impulse to puke might be when these stories crack the culture. “Why do you care?” is the most common refrain of objection. But I can tell you why: Fame has a cost, measured most often in the grace stars show their adoring public by playing along. Like all gifts, it comes with responsibility. Stars exist because we emulate them, and sometimes, when we least expect it, we become them.
It’s far more common, however, to love. Pattinson and Stewart’s movies may not be for me, and we may be at professional odds. But they want the same thing I and millions of their fans want: happiness. And I’d bet we could make a fair trade if they finally bring a little old-fashioned, star-crossed love to the table.