You should brace yourself for the Joe Paterno Story. Hollywood is quiet now, if not so much in deference to the convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky's victims as to the fear of being perceived as premature and insensitive. But you can be sure they're all quietly thinking about it. The story of the great, powerful, bookish and surely hubristic Penn State football coach, seemingly brought down in his twilight years by a fatal decision to put the burnishing of his own mythology over the protection of innocents, is just too close to Greek tragedy to be resisted. One can even anticipate the final moments, as his statue is removed from the front of Beaver Stadium by jackhammers.
And, once enough time has passed, nor should the Paterno story be resisted. We've been dramatizing such personal tragedies for at least 2,500 years — they are how we make sense of our moral agonies and learn from our mistakes — and if any modern-day character could be said to possess modern-day magnitude, it surely was Paterno, great ruling general of Happy Valley. We don't yet know whether this story will end up as cheap, voyeuristic exploitation of the variously injured parties (reputational injuries being the most minor in this terrible story), or wise, thoughtful dramatic inquiry that might help us better know what to do when suddenly confronted with evil in our house. Since the latter usually takes longer, maybe decades or even centuries longer, there may well be both. But we do know that when that point of decision arrives, history suggests that the Paterno family will have plenty to say and much they want to control.
The furious public reaction of the clearly embattled family to the damning report by investigator Louis Freeh, and to the NCAA sanctions announced last week, has been at once understandable and confounding.
The understandable part is their passionate defense of their loved one's legacy — if they don't attend to that, who will? Would you not do the same if Paterno were your father? There are, as with anything like this, legal and financial implications behind what anyone says in public; many civil suits are yet to come. And most of us can only imagine what it must feel like to watch someone you love be subjected to a barrage of ill-formed opinion from those who knew him not.
But the confounding part is a seeming lack of acknowledgment that the facts surely now prove, at minimum, that Paterno, like most men, had severe blindspots. And given the horror of what he chose to overlook, or to quietly sweep away, his legacy now is forever complicated. Period. Can't you love someone and still be able to admit to that? Can't you love someone and still give permission to a writer or biographer to reflect that?
You should. But history shows it to be difficult.
What are we expecting, for example, from the various movies and other projects in progress about Steve Jobs? Here was a giant genius of a man whose achievements far eclipsed even those of Paterno, but whose influence on the global economy, and on conspicuous technological consumption, was, inarguably, less than wholly benign. An independent storyteller can reflect that; the monologuist Mike Daisey managed it, in his flawed way. But willApple Inc., which has an ongoing business interest in the Jobs legacy, and Jobs' family, who loved him, be able to collectively say, yes, tell the story of the man in totem? Yes, great artist, you can use the products he developed and the words he spoke — and your main obligation is not to serve any business or corporate or even personal interests but rather to tell the truth of a man who changed, and thus belongs to, the world? Surely, a revolutionary of Jobs' stature deserves that his estate get out of the way. And that they make their position clear.
Otherwise, one is likely to end up with the trap into which the mighty Cirque du Soleil has fallen. Cirque's "Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour," which packed the United Center in Chicago for two performances last weekend and brought many audience members, clearly there more for Jackson than Cirque, to tears. Here was an astoundingly elegiac, worshipful memorial — made with the cooperation of the Jackson family, who have control of the images and recordings that Cirque needed to do this show — that lived up to its title in the immortalization of its subject. No mention was made of the evidence pointing to Jackson's excessive use of prescription drugs, which contributed to his death. No mention was made of the other controversies in his life. It was as if Jackson were a man in a closed bubble of his own creation, allowing access, in death, only to the wholly admiring. Yet a note of balance would have better served his great artistry.
Much the same is true of another Cirque collaboration with a powerful deceased celebrity with a watchful estate, the Las Vegas show "Viva Elvis!," replete, tellingly, with a title that wants to confer immortality. This show, too, was produced with the authorization and cooperation of the Elvis estate, which controls most of the music and images that Cirque needed. We all know that the young, happy, virile, magnetic Elvis was only part of his life story; Presley reflected the ravages of his era. He was an American mirror, and a man who died. Yet no one had the nerve to deal with that.
To what extent these estates pressured Cirque, and to what extent the artists were just anxious to please their partners, is hard to know. In all probability it was as much the latter as the former. You could also argue that the fans of Presley and Jackson targeted by these authorized celebrations have little appetite for truth. A hagiography has the additional advantage of being good business. So who has an incentive to complain?
But artists wrestling with complex public lives have moral obligations. Those who defend the legacy of Truman Capote could find much worrisome material in the movie "Capote," which charts the writer's weaknesses for (among other things) booze and attention. But what true Capote fan would have wished it any other way? One watched Philip Seymour Hoffman's Oscar-winning performance, and one saw the fullness of the man.
Last week, HBO premiered Jeffrey Schwarz's clear-eyed documentary "Vito," about the late gay activist (and author of "The Celluloid Closet") Vito Russo, who died in 1990.
The film was made with the cooperation of Russo's family yet still makes note of its subject's flaws. But an honest portrait of a man in constant motion emerges, yet more importantly, so does an eye-opening revelation that transcends the man: how completely the world has changed for American gays and lesbians in less than 20 years.
Maybe, 20 years from now, we'll watch a film about Paterno (maybe played by Hoffman and authorized by Paterno's family) that gives full consideration to his great achievements on and off the field. And maybe, at the same time, we will be made newly aware of how quickly and fundamentally American universities realigned their priorities, and made certain no men, however powerful, got in their way of the fundamental obligation to look after the young.