The picture says it all. A defiant Marlo Brando trailed by a helmet-clad photographer. What curious dynamic exists between a celeb shutterbug and the stars he hunts. There’s a codependency, certainly, and an admiration that is mutual, likely. But is there sympathy, too? Hateful understanding, perhaps. How can you tell if Brando and his paparazzo ever got along?
You’ll never know.
Sometimes these ambiguous relationships can have consequences.
In the Summer of 1997 the frail balance between celebrity and photographer was warped when an icon barreled towards her violent death in a sedan. Must we hate papparazzis? It is a ghastly occupation, there’s no avoiding saying it. But I’ll look. I’ve always enjoyed looking at the images.
One shutterbug who made a career out of celeb photography (and is still at it, though in a more subdued reincarnation) merited that a film be made about him.
Jackie Onassis took him to court. He got into fisticuffs with Marlon Brando and/or his goons, depending on which version you believe. To the celebrities he chased Ron Galella (he was called “Paparazzi extraordinaire” by Newsweek) was a foe, but he created some of the most visible celebrity photos nowadays.
Over the course of his considerable career, Galella has been both praised and vilified for his work in ambulance-chasing celeb photography. Taking its name from an order Onassis issued to her security team, director Leon Gast’s new documentary “Smash his camera” (Magnolia Pictures) chronicles Galella’s ascent and posits on the nature of fame, the relationship between celebrities and their chroniclers, and the balance between privacy and freedom of the press in the last thirty years.
But this is Galella’s picture and it is told from his viewpoint. He revisits old stomping grounds camera in tow and shares stories about Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Brigitte Bardot, Robert Redford and other superstars who tried and failed to escape his lens. But no other subject caught his imagination like Jacky O. From 1967 until her death in 1994, Galella pursued her so relentlessly that she instructed her Secret Service detail to prevent him from photographing her and her children. In 1973, Galella filed a harassment suit against Onassis, alleging she was preventing him from doing his job. Onassis filed a countersuit and the epic legal battle that followed inspired a debate over the privacy of public figures that reverberates to this day.
Whether an ode to the freedom of expression or human compulsions “Camera” is the story of an impossible American original who still hunts down the exclusive shot at age 79. Whether or not he is a serious photojournalist is moot; Ron Galella’s work is significant and the ambiguous relationships he keeps with his many muses will never cease to fascinate us.
Some Facts: Leon Gast previously directed “When We Were Kings,” the documentary about the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” bout with Mohammad Ali.
This new documentary was bought by Magnolia Pictures at this year’s Cannes Fest. Limited release on July 30.