Roger Ebert on 'Smash His Camera's' Ron Galella: A national treasure
Talk about karmic connections. I had just started reading Roger Ebert's wonderful essay about Ron Galella, the notoriously relentless paparazzo, who is profiled in the new documentary "Smash His Camera," when I heard the news about the death of J.D. Salinger, who might have been the only celebrity reclusive enough to have actually escaped the jittery glare of Galella's camera. As for virtually every other star, from the swinging '60s on, Galella rarely missed his prey.
Galella snapped 'em all, the kind of star that you have to refer to only by one name: Sinatra, Jackie O., Capote, Liz and Dick, Brando, Jagger (both Mick and Bianca), Elvis, Sophia, Redford, Nicholson. I haven't seen the film, which debuted this week at Sundance, but the reviews have largely been good. Ebert nicely captures the stylish if slightly sleaze-ball appeal of Galella, who represents a natural bridge between the first generation of tabloid icons like Weegee and today's less distinctive TMZ-style celeb stalkers. How did Galella get his money shots? Here's what Ebert has to say about Galella's working style, which makes it sound as though he would've made a great CIA agent or Hollywood private eye:
He hid in bushes and behind trees. Driving like a madman, he outraced celebrities to their destinations. He bribed doormen, chauffeurs, head waiters, security guards. He lurked in parking garages. He knew the back ways into ballrooms. He forged credentials. He chased his prey for blocks on foot. Year after year, he outworked, outran and outsmarted the competition, and he ran with a ferocious pack. Even now when he is wealthy, he hasn't stopped standing in the cold to get his shot.
Ebert goes on to recount Galella's epic battles with Jackie Onassis, who eventually got a court order preventing Galella from being within 75 yards of her at any time. Marlon Brando was once so ticked off by Galella that he punched him in the jaw so hard the photographer lost five teeth. No matter. The next time he went after Brando, he wore a football helmet. (Ebert has the photo up on his site, along with Galella's classic shot of Jackie O. crossing the street, the wind blowing her hair across her face. She's never looked more glamorously enigmatic.)
At Sundance, someone asked Robert Redford about "Smash His Camera," surely knowing that Redford, like so many celebs, had his share of run-ins with Galella. It turns out Redford had one victory, eluding Galella while shooting "Three Days of the Condor," though it wasn't easy, because it involved almost as much skulduggery as Redford uses in the film itself.
So was Galella a scuzzy pest or a brilliant photographer? Or both? Ebert makes the case that as much as Galella harassed Jackie O., no one else captured her essence the way he did. As with most things, we'll remember Galella's work long after his pain-in-the-butt intrusiveness is forgotten. After all, we are all voyeurs at heart. As Ebert recalls, it was Andy Warhol who said, "A great photograph shows the famous doing something unfamous."
Photo: Jackie Onassis. Credit: Ron Galella