ellen-oscar-selfie

This extraordinary photograph says a great deal about contemporary Hollywood. Taken with a phone at the Oscars ceremony when the host Ellen DeGeneres stepped off stage to take a picture of herself with Meryl Streep as a stunt to try to get a record-breaking number of retweets, the photograph has indeed reportedly broken records for the most retweeted and most rapidly retweeted photograph circulated on Twitter.

The image itself reproduces a very familiar fantasy of Hollywood stardom, crystallizing the impression that life is a continual party for the wealthy and the beautiful, but at the same time it demonstrates the paradoxical double register of stardom, in which we are periodically reminded that stars are also just like the rest of us. On the face of it, the image appears to be an authentic, spontaneous snap; formally it resembles a photograph anybody with a smartphone might have taken at one time or another. This impression is reinforced by the presence of Kenyan actor Lupita Nyong’o’s brother, Peter in the bottom right, who accompanied his sister to the event and who has become in an instant a globally recognisable individual after joining the group of stars who pushed themselves into the frame. But of course, no matter how provisional and unplanned the photograph itself might appear to be, there is nothing accidental about the staging of the event and the distribution of people around the space. It is a contingent document of a very carefully staged industrial promotional event.

Nevertheless, there are a number of historically significant dimensions to this image. The most obvious of these is that at the centre of the picture is a lesbian woman, the host for the global TV broadcast, while just visible at the back is Lupita Nyong’o, who won the ‘Best Supporting Actress’ award for 12 Years a Slave (McQueen, 2013), the film that won the ‘Best Picture’ award. It is therefore an attractive visualisation of the American film industry’s self-representation as a liberal, inclusive and historically reflective film culture. More broadly and more significantly, however, at a point at which Hollywood distributors are abandoning the distribution of 35mm prints, it represents both the integration of cinema with digital communications technologies in a shifting screen culture, as well as an increasingly indistinct and complex relationship between film and television (as embodied, for instance by the presence of  Kevin Spacey who is probably best known right now for his starring role in the series House of Cards, which was produced by David Fincher and is the first in-house production by the on-demand internet streaming service, Netflix). The real historical significance of this image lies not so much in the speed with which it has been circulated, nor in its content, but in its status as a synecdoche for the contemporary global entertainment complex.

 

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