Kyra Sedgwick and the old culture of celebrity

Sedgwick_i Kyra Sedgwick has found new fame and fortune as Deputy Police Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson in The Closer. Her TNT series has proved successful beyond all expectation.  Viewers are happy, sponsors are happy, and Sedgwick is now paid $250,000 to $300,000 an episode. 

This puts Sedgwick in the spotlight. And the results are, well, disappointing.  Take for instance her appearance on a recent Rachael Ray show where the object of the exercise seemed to be to make Sedgwick approachable and ordinary.  It was a "what, little old me?" television, standard Hollywood issue for day time talk. 

The interview for Town and Country was equally frustrating.  Sedgwick appears in designer gowns and jewelry, and we are told how much she hates Los Angeles and loves her family.  Not so ordinary in this case, but still thoroughly manufactured…as if T&C turned the article over to the PR flacks.  Yawn. 

I couldn’t help feeling something was missing.  Then I saw what it was.  The person I was looking for was not Kyra Sedgwick but Brenda Leigh Johnson.

Now here’s a woman to reckon with: southern and CIA, steely and melting, formidable and easily distracted, intellectually smart and emotionally cunning, a student of the human heart, a stranger to her own.  This is quite a lot more complexity than TV is prepared to give us.  (Cable took the risk.  A mainstream audience responded. )

Sedgwick the person might be as interesting as Johnson the character.  (And as a descendant of the founder of Groton and a relative of the woman who befriended Andy Warhol, it’s not like she doesn’t have biographic materials to work with.)  But to judge from the Ray interview or the Town and Country piece, it doesn’t seem likely.  Surely, one feels, Deputy Chief Johnson would be more opinionated, unpredictable, charming, contrary, and downright engaged in these exercises, that she would breath new, more interesting life into these PR procedurals. 

Well, poor me.  Apparently, I’m surprised to discover the actor is not the character.  How desperately naive.  Of course, there’s a difference.  That’s why they are called actors.  They’re pretending.  Failing to see this is, well, just a little sad. 

But I have a larger argument to propose.  I think Kyra Sedgwick might be obeying an old model of celebrity.  To make this argument, I bid you consider the case of Johnny Depp. 

In the early days, Mr. Depp was a guy laboring in obscurity.  He ‘s a high school drop out, a member of a modestly successful band, and eventually a struggling actor.  Then he takes a role in 21 Jump Street and becomes a teenage heartthrob.  Mr. Depp is now "can’t go anywhere in public" famous.

After this jolting exposure to stardom, Mr. Depp cultivates his distance from Hollywood.  He does several pictures with the unrepentant outsider Tim Burton.  He befriends and then plays the fiercely nonconforming Hunter S. Thompson.  He plays plays clueless outsiders like Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands.  He moves to France and says intemperate things about America for German magazines. 

After 21 Jump Street, Depp was in a position to begin climbing the conventional ladder to stardom…as Bruce Willis did after Moonlighting and Tom Hanks did after Bosom Buddies.  But, no, a loose orbit was close enough, apparently, as close as he wanted to get.  And we might argue that it was precisely this distance that helped him make the character (Captain Jack Sparrow) that helped make the movies (Pirates) that helped make Hollywood so much frickin money.  (The Pirates trilogy has a shot at $2 billion.)  Keeping one’s distance is sometimes a good thing. 

Back to my argument (and I do have one.)  Depp has been unrepentant. He’s an actor’s actor.  He’s his own man.  He doesn’t care if we don’t like him.  He is not here to be our virtual friend or our celluloid hero. He’s not a role model or an exemplar of any kind.  (This would make him the Sir Charles Barkley of acting.)  He’s not ingratiating himself.  We don’t like that he lives in France?  Tant pis.   

Unless Depp is an utter anomaly, his approach to stardom sets a precedent.  It says stardom doesn’t have to cost what it used to.  It says that an actor doesn’t have to drape themselves in the agreeable, that they don’t have glad hand their way into our hearts, that they don’t have to do Sammy Maudlin publicity to have a shot at further and farther stardom.

If Depp does set a precedent, Sedgwick’s present PR strategy is unnecessary and perhaps unwise.  After all, she returned to stardom in a character who is uncompromising and unpredictable.  If she takes her cue from her character, then "loose orbit," (aka "Sir Charles") stardom is hers for the asking.  And it comes to her in a historical moment when America is finally prepared to give this liberty even to its stars.   


McCracken, Grant. 2006.  Johnny Depp and the dead man’s chest called Hollywood.  This blog sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics.  July 8, 2006. here.

Mithers, Carol.  2007.  Kyra Up close: TV’s Hottest Star Shines.  Town and Country. July.  pp. 102-8. 
Sibbald, Vanessa.  2004.  Johnny Depp Mulls His Post-‘Pirates’ Fame.  March 01, 2004. here

6 thoughts on “Kyra Sedgwick and the old culture of celebrity

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  2. Irene

    Sedgwick might be following a different model because she’s achieved this level of celebrity at an older age than Depp — she’s 41 and he was in his 20s. Maybe like so many other actresses in their 40s, she fears there isn’t much available to her beyond The Closer. Is she pursuing some other goal — not movie roles but endorsements? The fact that she was in T&C made me wonder if she wasn’t auditioning for a fashion label deal. Maybe she thinks this sweet little non-controversial image is a nice antidote to the Lohans and even to — gasp — Angelina.

    Also, can a woman follow the Depp model? Rebelliousness and independence are admired in actors (Paul Newman comes to mind) but I’m not sure that works for actresses. Debra Winger is the most recent rebel actress I can think of and I haven’t seen on the screen in forever.

  3. bowerbird

    i suggest you read bob lefsetz. in the arena of music,
    he’s a clear refreshing voice that if you chase stardom in
    the old-fashioned way, it will bite you on the behind…


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