the Ally Sheedy shoot

There are very few "celebrities" in whose presence I would feel awed or dumbstruck; Peter O'Toole, maybe, since Lawrence of Arabia is one of my favorite films - in some part of my mind, I would hear a voice shouting in ersatz Hollywood Bedouin: "Orrance! Orrance!" My friend Geraldine once described how O'Toole drunkenly leered at her from his barstool at the Groucho Club in London. I laughed, but had to admit to her that it hardly put a scuff in my estimation of the man, who I regard as one of the last great movie charismatics.

I might have put Sinatra or Nixon in the same league as O'Toole, for different reasons but, for obvious reasons, I'm no longer concerned about my chances of a session with them. Add Leonard Cohen, and Irving Penn - though perhaps no one but a photographer would understand my nervousness at the prospect of a session with Penn.

When I told my friend Scott that I was doing a session with Ally Sheedy, the first thing he said was, "Hmmm, I used to have a big crush on her in The Breakfast Club." I'd heard that one before.  It seems one of the prerequisites for being one of my male friends - by and large an articulate, insecure bunch just emerging from their twenties having cast off the shackles of the role of punk, misfit or fuck-up - is to have found Ally Sheedy, the "dandruff girl" in The Breakfast Club, more basically attractive than Molly Ringwald. For another generation I suppose this would be the "Ginger or Mary Ann?" question.

The last thing I recalled Ally Sheedy doing was a romantic comedy with John Candy and Maureen O'Hara that bombed. (Oddly enough, I actually thought she looked cute in that one.) Ingrid, the writer from the paper, brought me up to speed by explaining that she was co-starring in a film as a lesbian junkie art photographer. The film was premiering at the local Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.  Toronto is quite the city for Film Festivals; at the first sign of spring, we host a series of Film Festivals - Short Film Festival, Jewish Film Festival, Independent Film Festival, Documentary Festival, Gay & Lesbian Film Festival - punctuated only by a Jazz Festival, two Theatre Festivals, and culminating on the advent of Indian Summer with our big International Film Festival. Every year they each seem to attract more funding, printing fatter catalogues and larger, slicker posters, and make their presence felt in ever larger ads in the newspapers.

As a result, I find the spectre of "celebrity" making itself felt in my usual round of local profiles, restaurant openings and political portraits. The only thing that makes them a big deal - that makes them feel different from my usual workaday portrait sessions - is the presence of a publicist, and the inevitability of a hotel.

Having been warned that we might not have much time, I bring my Bronica instead of my Rolleiflex. This camera, which has interchangeable film backs I can load ahead of time and change in a second, might make the session go faster if necessary, giving a skittish subject little time to bring the whole thing to a halt while I re-load film. I also bring a tripod and a portable reflector panel but no lights, as stringing a bunch of strobes around a hotel room might make the session a "big deal" and cripple the subject with acute self-consciousness.

It occurs to me that I'm making the subject seem like some kind of rare, neurasthenic animal that needs to be cajoled and trapped, enhancing the aggressive language inherent in a photo session: "shoot", "capture", "take", "aim". It doesn't take a Ph.D. candidate to see that it's true, and that it's doubly ironic since the subjects I inevitably have to take such care to oh-so-gently snare are usually movie actors, whose very existence in the public eye is mediated by the camera. In most cases, they've done more revealing things in front of crews of dozens, in movies seen by millions on screens fifty feet tall or available for rent, to view on your t.v. at home, than I would ever ask them to do for me, fully dressed, in a hotel room paid for by the distributor of their film.

Ally Sheedy, for instance, is here to promote a film where she is the seducer in two lesbian love scenes. Tonight, hours after our shoot, she will go to a movie theatre where hundred of people she doesn't know will watch her and another actress pretend to make love. I recall shooting Gena Rowlands, who's conjured up painful, catasrophic emotional breakdowns in front of movie cameras, and having her tell me through gritted teeth that she's always hated having her picture taken.  I have always found this to be a Great Mystery.

I arrive at the hotel to find that we have an hour, more or less, to do the interview and the shoot. Unspeakable luxury, this.  The hotel is just north of the lake, roughly adjacent to our godawful domed sports stadium and the CN Tower, once the world's Largest Freestanding Structure, and a relic of my city's puffin-chested seventies pride. The two dully gleaming poured-concrete hulks lie just outside the hotel window.  Ingrid looks over the balcony, and says something about "Alphaville".

I need two different backdrops, and create one instantly by draping the white rubberized backing of a hotel curtain over an aluminum easel that displays a framed poster of the film. I find another on the balcony, where the light is cool and shaded, and the wall is stuccoed with small pebbles. A very seventies look. I load my cameras and wait for the make-up person to release Ally Sheedy to the tender mercies of the press.

I'd been told by Ingrid that the most recent pictures of Sheedy had shown her to be thin, almost skeletal. Ingrid speculated about her losing weight to play a junkie, but then added that she'd read about bulimia somewhere. I glance over and, sure enough, the sharp chin and firm jawline I remember from The Breakfast Club seems even more prominent on a woman who seems extremely lean, even sinewy, in a cut-off sleeveless top and jeans.

The celebrity interview is a strange thing. In my years as a journalist, I've always felt most comfortable talking about things; events, ideas, policies, trends, movements. I'd read recently in a book by James Fallows how he thinks the downfall of American political journalism is that the media no longer asks politicians about what they're going to do, or how they're going to do it, but what they think about how they're doing. If this is true, then political journalism has reached a level that celebrity journalism has occupied for decades.

There's nothing stranger than eavesdropping on a celebrity interview, where it seems that very little is being spoken about that could be described later. The interviewer is more like a facilitator, trying to draw from the subject pruriently confessional reflections on how they felt about what has happened to them, how they felt about the role ostensibly being discussed, and how they feel about these what might happen next?  How do they feel about the director? The script? The reception the film is getting/will get? How do they feel about those feelings?  It's all very meta.

In this kind of circumstance I was hardly aware, many years ago as waited for an interview to end so that I could take portraits of Jane Seymour, that the subject had begun referring to herself in the third person, and was discussing her role as a "sex symbol" with the same intense disinterest that a Cabinet Minister would analyse the performance of a reputably stable economy. In this kind of millieu you hardly find it worthwhile resenting the implication that, as a photographer, you could hardly presume to question the rhetoric you're overhearing. In fact, you barely get a glance as you sit in your chair, or on your camera case, like an automaton in suspend mode, expected to come briskly and efficiently to life when the STOP button on the tape recorder is pressed.

As Ingrid winds her interview up, the make-up person springs from the other room to do another touch-up. I push the armchairs aside and place a hard-backed chair next to the window, in front of my draped curtain. As expected, the subject is nervous, and in a voice only subtly imploring, asks me whether they should look into the camera or not. I give them affirmation, attempting to lend to my voice an air of offhanded confidence. The dance, it seems, has begun.

The light from the window should be flattering, and if I could persuade someone in the room to hold up my reflector board, I could probably fill in the shadows, but I can tell that protocol must be observed, and everyone's role here is fairly circumscribed. I can see a tense jaw and, when she unable to distract herself or summon a smile (literally summon: she closes her eyes for a brief moment, conjuring a memory of something humourous, it seems, before opening them again and laughing for two or three sharp bursts; this process is repeated several times) I get pictures of a wary, defensive woman my age.

I ask her about playing a photographer, and she tells me that she didn't really do much research into the physical aspects of using a camera, preferring to intuit how her character would work. I'm not sure why I find this answer disappointing.  She asks me if I'd read the Diane Arbus biography, and mentions that it's been optioned for film. It's obvious that she'd love to be cast as Arbus. We talk about Arbus, and how surprised she was that she was actually quite an aggressive photographer, pushing people out of the way to get shots and confronting her subjects. Wouldn't last a week in this part of the business, I think to myself.

On the balcony, she stands with her hands on the back of her jeans, her hips swung to the side. The light is much more flattering here, and the pebbled wall behind her should make for a nice mottled backdrop. The shots I take are an even mix of hard symmetry, with Sheedy bisecting the frame in a slight, left-leaning arc, or occupying a space to the side of the frame, often looking off, towards a point on the ground behind me. I know these will be the best shots already.

Then it's over, and I pack my bags. After some banter about movies with Sheedy, the publicist, the make-up person, and Ingrid, we leave. In the elevator, Ingrid asks me how it went, and I say great. "But she's really thin...", and we talk about bulimia till we part at the lobby doors.

Two days later, I'm in the darkroom printing the contacts.  I decide to give the balcony shots a cool, blue tint--far colder than the prints I'll eventually make, but enough to let the paper know how I want to print the shots. If they ask me to make them warmer (more flattering, in theory) then I'll sigh and agree, knowing that I'm giving up nothing. I take the shots into the office, and Troy, the art director walks into the room as I put them on my editor's desk.

"What do you have there?"

"The Ally Sheedy shoot," I tell him.

"Ally Sheedy...I used to have the biggest crush on her."

Days later, I'm at the rental darkroom making the prints Troy requests. Another photographer is standing behind me as I inspect some test exposures, and asks me if the photos are of who he thinks they are.

I confirm his suspicions.

Ally Sheedy, he says, was great. "She absolutely rocked in The Breakfast Club. Oh man, she, like, smoked Molly Ringwald's ass!"

©1998 Rick McGinnis, written as a post
in the online forum, The Well.
A little essay describing a typical celebrity portrait shoot.

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