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Television review: 'Smash His Camera' on HBO

Ron Galella has been sued by Jackie Onassis and punched by Marlon Brando. Yes, he's contributed to celebrity hysteria, but in the process he created a body of work that is irreplaceable.

June 07, 2010|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

Early moments of the documentary "Smash His Camera" feature a 1981 clip in which paparazzo Ron Galella stalks Katharine Hepburn on her way to a rehearsal. When his attempt to photograph her through a hedge proves unsuccessful, he jumps in his car and races to the theater where he manages to capture her, albeit mostly shielded by an umbrella, as she ducks in a back door. Narrated by David Frost, the clip has the dramatic pacing of a "Wild Kingdom" episode in which Galella is cheetah to Hepburn's gazelle. But when asked why he chooses to dog the steps of a septuagenarian hiding behind an umbrella, Galella answers that Hepburn is a big star and people want to know about her. "The fact that she shields herself with an umbrella, that picture's interesting; it reflects her personality."

Is this the rationalization of a celebrity bottom-feeder or the outer boundaries of journalism, perhaps even artistry? The photo that emerges is certainly a far more beautiful thing than the film of how it was obtained; which, then, is truth? And is truth what this, or any photograph, is about? Or is it simply an attempt to freeze time, to make a moment more significant, more symbolic than it actually was — Hepburn in her trousers, so fiercely private after all these years.

"Smash His Camera," which premieres Monday night on HBO, won Leon Gast the best director prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and it's easy to see why. Following the life of what one fan calls "the pope of paparazzi," this documentary is an exquisite example of how the tale of even a most unlikely, and to many unlikable, man can light up some of the great questions of an era.

Famously and successfully sued by Jackie Onassis, and slugged just as famously and successfully by Marlon Brando, denounced from the pulpits of punditry for decades, Galella has been a man easy to hate. But whether he can be blamed for sparking the current celeb-ysteria, he certainly created a body of work that is historically irreplaceable — photos of the early romance of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, iconic images of Onassis and her children, a visual history of the reign of Studio 54 and unposed, though rarely unflattering, pictures of virtually every star you can think of. Shots of endless shelves filled with boxes tell the tale — Greta Garbo and the Go-Go's, Raquel Welch and Dr. Ruth, Frank Sinatra and Alice Cooper.

These photos, most of them black and white, and the stories of their creation, infuse "Smash His Camera" with a grandeur and a nostalgia that Gast uses to great effect, reminding us what would have been lost had Galella not been such a relentless pursuer of the famous face. Interviews with people who have dealt with these issues, and with Galella — including editors Bonnie Fuller and Graydon Carter, gossip columnist Liz Smith, photographers Harry Benson and Neil Leifer — create a compelling intellectual conversation about journalism and privacy, commerce and art that rises above the "what hath the Internet wrought" noise to which we've become so accustomed. Some love Galella, some hate him, some consider his work art, others find it mediocre photography. But Gast, who won an Oscar for his documentary "When We Were Kings," gives us a man of personal complexity as well, a man who has photographed legends but still says "Catherine De Nerve," a tough guy who lives in a house a friend describes as right out of "The Sopranos," except the Sopranos did not have a statue-studded pet bunny cemetery in the backyard.

Galella sees himself as being on a hero's journey. He came of age when stars were studio-micromanaged extensions of their on-screen brands. To capture anything approaching real life was a coup, and he was willing to go to any lengths — to photograph Liz and Dick on a romantic yacht weekend, he had himself locked in a warehouse for two days, alone with the rats and his cameras. Onassis was his obsession, and it is their "relationship" that provides the narrative framework and its title: "Smash his camera" is what she shouted at a Secret Service agent after Galella had snapped a few pictures of her biking in Central Park with John Jr. That incident sparked a lawsuit that eventually forced Galella to remain 150 yards (later reduced to 25 feet) away from the former First Lady.

In the end, even Galella realizes his time has passed. Blinking and looking bewildered in a sea of younger competitors at a fairly recent film premiere, Galella says in voice-over that he has stopped shooting because there are no more iconic stars. Which is the final irony. Like any big-game hunter, he most certainly contributed to his quarry's extinction and, subsequently, his own.

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