The celebrity psyche, in 8,000 words or less

Times Staff Writer


"On any day, any hour, anywhere in the world, Sharon Stone and her private parts can be called up on the World Wide Web with a click of a mouse," observed John Lahr, the celebrity profilist at the magazine credited with inventing the genre, the New Yorker.

Woody Allen?

"The real Allen holds himself in reserve," Lahr noted in another lengthy piece. "He is, like all great funny men, inconsolable."

And what about Sean Penn, the actor most difficult to capture?

"On first meeting, he gave no semaphore of greeting -- no handshake, no smile, no small talk. His presence was his hello."

It is a tricky business, profile writing. It's impossible to give full measure of someone's life and character, even in a periodical with space allotments as vast as the New Yorker's.

So Lahr sees his job as offering snapshots -- "minibiographies," he calls them -- of people who give testament to society's delight. "They are really how we define our lives," said Lahr, whose latest book, "Honky Tonk Parade" -- a collection of 14 profiles that includes Dame Edna, Laurence Fishburne and Tony Kushner -- will be released in paperback next month. "There are people who show us our life, who revive our life, who help us to play. In writing about them, you are really writing a history of the joy of the time."

Officially, Lahr works as the New Yorker's theater critic, a coveted position he was tapped for nearly 14 years ago by its then editor, Tina Brown. He writes about Broadway and its characters from a messy office where a Tony Award (he helped create the award-winning one-woman show "Elaine Stritch at Liberty") sits in a box on a shelf and a complimentary handwritten note from playwright Arthur Miller is displayed in a frame. As Lahr sees it, though, the stage is the center of any entertainer's existence. "They all start in theater," Lahr said. "They may not end up there, but that's where they begin."

Occasionally, Lahr steps into the world of Hollywood, where he analyzes, dissects and displays the movie star psyche. (At the moment, he is working on a profile of actress Helen Mirren.) "In my experience, stars are their own greatest invention," he said. "They are there to be interpreted. The fun is to see ... what they admit of themselves."

The same can be said of Lahr. In his words -- carefully chosen and properly enunciated in a slow yet refined fashion one would expect from someone who spends much of his time at the theater -- you can witness Lahr's own search for an understanding of his difficult father. That would be the late Bert Lahr, the legendary vaudeville comedian best known for his role as the Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz." (John Lahr looks exactly like him.)

Kept at a distance

LAHR's childhood was tough. His father was joyful onstage, but not at home -- and those who loved him suffered because of it. "The public seemed to get his best self, the family got the rest," he wrote in the introduction of "Honky Tonk Parade." Lahr once inquired about the difference. Bert Lahr's response was sharp: "Does a shopkeeper go back to the shop after he's locked up?"

Lahr said he wondered why his father was so adamant. "What was he protecting?" he asked. By trying to make sense of it, Lahr said during a recent interview at a tiny French bistro off Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, he yearned for knowledge that brought him "closer to the process and to the special transition from civilian to artist."

He found the answer, to a degree, in Allen. Lahr's profile of Allen, published 10 years ago, noted: "There is a boundary he draws around himself to protect himself and others from his sense of absence, which is palpable in his weak handshake, in the mildness of his voice and his subdued mien. Allen's antidote to anxiety is action: He saves his energy for the distraction of work ... "

And Stone?

Lahr said he profiled her reluctantly, at the urging of Brown. She didn't have the depth of work that interested him. "What she was about was glamour, and glamour requires distance, not closeness," Lahr said. "She didn't understand the whole nature of this. It was against her grain. She saw it as publicity. She saw it as a seduction. You would see her and she would be cool."

In this case, she didn't succeed. Her profile had a jagged edge: "Stardom is a reciprocal act of faith, in which the star's duty is to make abundance incarnate and the audience's duty is to keep believing in the star's image. The aura that Stone personifies is the virtual reality of capitalism: it sustains the illusion of both perfect individuality and perfect consumption."

And then there's Sean

PENN proved far more difficult to interpret. Last year, Lahr spent about eight hours with the actor -- something almost unheard of for the publicity-shy Penn. (Lahr was also the last journalist to spend time with Penn's troubled brother Chris before his death in January.)

"Sean Penn was a hard gig," said Lahr, whose profile on the actor appeared in April. "In Sean, I was looking for the source of his anger. He's incredibly smart and very engaging. But, like a lot of actors, he's split off. They're not psychoanalytic. They trust their instincts. If they were analytic they might not be as good."

Lahr said he intuited that a lot of Penn's anger had to do with his family dynamic. Lahr continued to push and probe.

Finally, Penn offered a revelatory detail, Lahr said: He described his father, actor-director Leo Penn, as a "weekend father." On weekdays, he focused his attention on his wife, actress Eileen Ryan Penn. There wasn't much room for Sean and his brothers. "That's all I needed to hear," Lahr said. "In other words, he was locked out of the couple. How do you get their attention so you're not forgotten?"

Penn wanted to be seen, Lahr said. He found his outlet in acting. It allowed him to be the "entrepreneur of his own edge -- a roiling combination of rage, buoyancy, tenderness and hurt.

"His struggle to contain this combustible emotional package makes him at once dangerous and exciting," Lahr wrote in the piece. "In his art and in his life, he takes chances."

Throughout the process, Lahr said, Penn was controlling -- with access, with details and time. "Sean thought he could control the story, that it wouldn't go any further than the New Yorker," Lahr said. "It's called 'the imperialism of stars.' "

The story, he noted, has since been picked up by publications around the world. "It has become like a skipping stone."

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