From Jackie O to Marlon Brando, celebrity photographer Ron Galella got the shot, no matter what. Oscar winner Leon Gast invites you to love Galella or hate him.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Ron Galella
Contemporary American life is marked by an obsession with celebrity and fame heretofore unseen in our nation’s history. Whether it’s scanning every available photo of Lindsay Lohan in court or flipping through snaps of any old star on a bad hair day, no one can question the enormous influence that images of the famous have upon our cultural consciousness. Of course, it wasn’t always so—there was a time when there was a transgressive nature to what paparazzi do, calling into question important legal privacy issues and the First Amendment itself. The tension between the right to privacy and freedom of expression was never more exacerbated than by paparazzo extraordinaire Ron Galella.
He may no longer be a household name, but Galella was the king of the paparazzi, and in his heyday—the 70s—he made a name for himself: punched in the mouth by Marlon Brando, sued by Jacqueline Onassis, hated by many respected cultural figures. Hated though he may have been, his photographs are legion, and it’s only too appropriate that this maker of images has now had his own image recorded, as the subject of Leon Gast’s latest documentary, Smash His Camera.
Oscar winner Gast (When We Were Kings), who was originally skeptical about Galella’s capacity to induce sympathy, ended up finding much of it for this character who, as Gast puts it, “doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what anyone else thinks” of what he does for a living. Chronicling Galella’s career trajectory—from amateur photographer of glamour girls in California to builder of a mini-empire, complete with a New Jersey mansion and many hardcover books of his work—Gast provides us with an even-eyed look at his subject; alongside Galella’s explanations of his work, we are given plenty of critical takes on Galella’s career. The conclusions, Gast seems to say, are up to the audience to draw. Recently, we spoke with Gast, and then Galella, by phone about the film. At the beginning of the interview with Gast, it was tough to tell who was interviewing whom.
Tribeca: So, the first thing I wanted to ask you—
Leon Gast: Can I ask you just one thing?
LG: You have an idea of what I look like and my age, I’m just wondering, how old are you—about?
Tribeca: [laughs] I’m 23.
LG: Okay. All right. You’re of a certain age. Had you ever heard of Ron Galella before you saw the film?
Tribeca: I had not.
LG: Okay. This is your interview, not mine.
Tribeca: The age thing is interesting, actually. That sequence towards the end where you have a young woman going through Galella’s gallery, and she can’t recognize any of the celebrities in his photos—it came across as a commentary on the transience of the nature of celebrity today.
LG: Absolutely, that was it. It’s a fickle society that we live in, switching into the next celebrity that comes along very quickly.
Tribeca: It seems like that mechanism has sped up, with the 24-hour news cycle. The shelf life of fame has deteriorated in the last 30, 40 years.
LG: Without question. It’s going at the speed of light. Constantly somebody new. Now I know what Taylor Swift looks like. I know what Lady Gaga looks like. I love her. But those are exceptions.
Marlon Brando and Ron Galella
Tribeca: What initially appealed to you about Ron as a subject?
LG: He’s been hated by a lot of people. He was the villain. He was the guy that hounded JFK’s widow. That was the impression that I had. A work acquaintance who knew him asked if I would like to meet him. So we went out to his mansion in New Jersey. I asked him a bunch of questions and we had a conversation—he was nothing like this ogre who was in my mind. When I got to hear his side of the story, he kept saying, “It’s my right to earn a living.” When Jackie went out, they would let photographers know she was going to be at the opera. It was on her terms. It was her right for it to be on her terms. But Ron thinks, “No, it’s on my terms. I want to take pictures that might surprise her.” And then he brought me down into his incredible archives.
So my opinion began to change. He kept talking about “my art.” It’s not like anybody snapping pictures, when you take three and a half million pictures. He really understands composition, the art of photography.
Tribeca: Do you think he knows how he comes across to celebrities?
LG: He has no idea of the social contracts. I think we got an honest read on who he is in the film. I don’t think he really cares. But then again, he does care. That shot at the end of the film, of Ron doing his hands like it’s a walk of fame star—that’s crucial, his love of fame.
Tribeca: What did you make of his work ethic? It seems quite impressive.
LG: If you ask him about taking the photos of Jackie and her son on the bicycles, he’ll say, “They’ll tell you I jumped out of the bushes and onto their path, but in fact, I jumped into the bushes to get the shot!” A lot of people would feel some kind of shame, to have that kind of tactic. But for him, it’s how he gets his art, that’s what he thinks about it. Neil Leifer says, “I think his tactics are despicable.” Neil, like a lot of people of a certain age, has very fond memories of President Kennedy and his family. People feel protective. The New York Times covered the trial like it was major news. When did we become a culture that worships celebrity? I don’t know. It may be our nature.
Tribeca: How did you first feel when you were approached as the potential subject of a documentary film?
Ron Galella: I love it. I think I’m a good subject. Luckily, I had all the interviews on tapes that I did during my trial with Jackie, footage, stills from that time. So I’m very happy with the outcome. I didn’t like some of the negative things said—especially Tom Hoving’s comments.
Tribeca: He got pretty harsh with you.
RG: Well, I understand why he did this. He used to be the head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He didn’t consider photography the art of today. He was also friends with Jackie, so he was against me for that reason.
Tribeca: Were you pleased you were able to get your own side of the story out in this film? It seems as if you were vilified back in the 70s.
RG: What I liked was that I could straighten out the record. The legal books say that I harassed her, I invaded her privacy, but that’s not true—Jackie really liked my pictures. At the end of the trial, I gave her my first book, Jacqueline, which tells the whole story, how I got the pictures. Before she died, an artist went to visit her, and he saw my book on her library shelf. There was a lot of hypocrisy on her part. There was a lot of sympathy for her: her husband, the President, was assassinated. But I believe that she got over that, and she loved to have her picture taken.
Tribeca: How has paparazzi culture changed since you began working?
RG: It has changed drastically. Back in the 70s it was very open, lots of freedom to be one to one with the subject, very little competition. What happened is, celebrity caught on to the masses of people, it expanded—in 1975 we got People magazine—and it mushroomed. The market for these photos increased.
Today, I can’t understand how they make a living, shooting with masses of paparazzi. It’s hard to get exclusives. The stars split when they come out of restaurants, and so on. It’s a sad situation with the paparazzi today. Today’s celebrities are bombarded day and night. My record for Jackie was—the most times I got her in one year was 20. But now they’re bombarded day and night. And they love it, too.
Tribeca: It also seems like people are famous for shorter and shorter periods.
RG: There’s so much exposure to very little talent. It becomes meaningless. There’s no value. The stars I’ve shot—Liz Taylor, Bette Davis—they were great, iconic stars, and they earned their reputations. I think the change came about with TV. TV watered down the talent. Anyone could go on TV and become a star, in a way. Because it’s 24-7, there’s so much time to fill that stars—it’s like a rehearsal. They’re rehearsing on TV to become a star. In the movie industry, they had to have talent.
Tribeca: One thing that really comes across in the film is that you’ll do anything, absolutely anything, to get the shot. Where does that work ethic come from?
RG: I think it came from my youth, being poor. I have to thank my parents for being poor. [laughs] Being poor makes you have tremendous drive, it makes you creative—we would create our own toys. My father only bought one 2-wheel bike, for all of us, during my childhood. I was an opportunist. I worked hard, worked in the grocery store for eight dollars a week. I gave that to my mother, and I kept the tips. I was 14 years old the first time I saw a dentist. Poverty was good for me—I learned to take advantage of opportunities.