In the 1998 film The Truman Show directed by Peter Weir, Jim Carrey portrayed Truman Burbank, a man whose entire existence was manipulated into sensationalist entertainment for an unseen global audience.
While the comedy-drama was a comment on the rise of reality-television at the time, I have always felt there was a similarity between Truman Burbank’s relationship with the media – which is represented through the Godlike Christoff (Ed Harris) and how Michael Jackson was treated by the International media, particularly since Jackson’s life had played out in front of cameras for all five decades of his life, as was Truman Burbank’s entire life.
In 2002, a reader posted a news item on Popdirt.com with the following quote reportedly by Weir:
You watch The Truman Show and, I mean, Jim Carrey did a fantastic job, but Michael Jackson is Truman. He’s who I based him on and he is the nearest thing to Truman.
Weir also reportedly stated in the same interview that Michael was the inspiration behind the similarly themed S1m0ne (2002), directed by Andrew Niccol, who also wrote the script for The Truman Show. In both these features, there is a complicated relationship between the creator and the subject who is a figure of International entertainment.
Michael’s image has been used in a wide range of films for different purposes over the years, but one use of his image has stayed with me; in Michael Haneke’s 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), images of the Press Conference held on December 22, 1993, in which Michael publicly responded to the 1993 allegations, are intercut with other news items of the era - such as the Bosnian War, Somali Civil War and South Lebanon conflict. This short and very real use of Michael’s image, blatantly demonstrates the media’s appetite for celebrity, and in particular, sensationalising the private matters of a public figure as a form of entertainment.
And it is probably true that many people view Michael’s life as a series of images, rather than a rich and diverse life, and many media outlets deliberately focus on ‘sections’ of Michael’s life (particularly his “Thriller” years), for example, the GQ article from the September 2009 issue (with the tag “When Michael Was Cool” on the cover) entitled Back In The Day by John Jeremiah Sullivan. The article begins with the following statement:
Before the weirdness claimed his legacy, Michael Jackson understood his talent—and what he was willing to do for it—better than we ever have.
However, the “weirdness” Sullivan speaks of, or rather as I would like to refer to it - the media’s “weird” portrayal of Michael – did not suddenly claim Michael’s “legacy”. In fact, from the time Michael Jackson entered the public eye at the tender age of ten, the negativity began. As Lisa D. Campbell noted in her book, Michael Jackson: The King of Pop:
“Other acts performing in the same clubs as the Jackson Five during this time, were constantly amazed at Michael’s dancing ability and the emotion with which the ten year old sang. This gave rise to ridiculous stories that the Jackson Five’s singer was actually a midget, much older than he appeared” (Page 16).
Of course Michael would live with such absurd rumours throughout his life, but not just in reference to his talent. In fact, many of his struggles were ones we have all dealt with at one time or another, including simply growing from a child to a teenager, to a confident adult.
Still, Michael dealt with his fame with grace. He was never disconnected with the events of the wider world; he of course developed The Heal the World Foundation in 1992, which was in Michael’s words: “To improve the conditions for children throughout the world.”
Michael’s world tours brought much joy to his fans, but they did have a dual purpose. Michael would not only perform concerts for millions, but would also have the opportunity to spend time with several underprivileged children in hospitals and orphanages in every city. Michael was very much a citizen of the world, but this was not the image in the wider media. Rather, Michael was portrayed as a caricature; an image, who according to the media was not a father, a son, a brother, a friend or a man who could possible he hurt by the schoolyard bully tactics. Yet still, Michael handled each unfortunate media event surprisingly with humour, even in the aftermath of the Bashir interview.
Michael only wanted to entertain his audience, and be treated with dignity and respect in his lifetime. Remember the famous speech at the Grammys in 1998 – “It feels good to thought of as a person, not as a personality."
Michael did have an extraordinary life. His assorted life experiences and art have inspired and entertained us, his audience, and continue too. And while there are those events in Michael’s life which many would rather forget; they still prove the grace, determination and will of Michael. It’s not the lows which define you, it is how you make your way back.
The Truman Show. Based On Michael Jackson. Popdirt. Com, October 28, 2002. http://popdirt.com/the-truman-show-based-on-michael-jackson/9310/
Sullivan, John Jeremiah, Back in the Day. GQ. September 2009. http://www.gq.com/entertainment/celebrities/200908/michael-jackson-john-jeremiah-sullivan-tribute
Jackson, Michael. Jackson Foundation Aimed at Helping Children.”The Seattle Times. February 8, 1993. http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19930208&slug=1684302
Written by Vanessa Appassamy
No reproduction without permission from author.