The purposes of a movie press conference are crystal clear but not always easy to accomplish. Journalists want witty and revealing quotes while the cast and staff want to convey what’s appealing about the film without pointing to themselves as the reason since that would turn people off. Inevitably, they point to one another and tell the journalists how great they are, and in doing so usually put a damper on witty and revealing quotes.
As an illustration of this phenomenon, the press conference for the new backstage musical Burlesque was both vivid and bizarre. Vivid because the cross-compliments were fast and furious; bizarre because the movie itself was engineered as an exercise in campy extravagance and the p.c. was anything but. Christina Aguilera plays the proverbial girl from the American Midwest–an orphan, no less–who leaves the sticks for the bright lights of Los Angeles–the Sunset Strip, no less–to seek her fame and fortune as a singer, and there runs up against a backbiting prima donna, a handsome bartender who’s engaged to someone far away, and a flinty but ultimately understanding older entertainer who becomes her benefactor and mentor. Trashy fun should be guaranteed for all, and if the movie doesn’t deliver it’s because all of the principals except Cher and Stanley Tucci–i.e., the ones who are old enough to comprehend camp–took the project a bit too seriously. At the very least the press conference should have been smarmy and self-effacing; in other words, fun.
The mutual appreciation became so intense that it was often difficult to figure out just what it is that’s supposed to be appealing about the movie except that Cher is in it. Unfortunately, Cher wasn’t at the press conference, thus leaving Aguilera with the burden of providing the star power that such a film depends on. What she ended up offering, however, was gleaming porcelain glamor. Aguilera’s position in pop music is all about stylistic hyperbole: the belting delivery, the super-hot image, the consummate professionalism. In one way, she’s the perfect person for a fantasy-musical like Burlesque, but she isn’t the perfect person to sell it, since she lacked the proper sense of irony.
In any case, she was unable to make light of herself. “I can definitely relate to moments like that,” she said in response to a question about the movie’s centerpiece scene, when her character, Ali, finally gets to show Tess (Cher), the owner of the burlesque theater where she’s found work, that she can sing. In that scene, Ali is supposed to be lip-syncing to a song when her jealous rival, Nikki (Kristen Bell), turns off the p.a. “I got the plug pulled on me once, when I was a small child. They didn’t really believe I was actually singing, so I had that experience. I saved the day then, too.”
Having established this train of thought, her colleagues on the dais fell into line praising Aguilera’s various and innumerable talents within the context of her outsized stardom. Director Steve Antin called her “the voice of a generation,” while Cam Gigandet, who plays Aguilera’s romantic foil, said he was nervous when he finally got to meet Aguilera (“but I didn’t tell her that”), and Bell admired Aguilera’s “presence,” whatever that means, though she made a point of mentioning that Cher possessed the same quality.
Of course, since Cher wasn’t there, they could heap as much praise on her without embarrassing the legendary diva; and things got a bit ripe, for sure. In the course of a single minute Antin mentioned four-count-em-four times that Cher “exceeded my expectations.” She also exceeded Aguilera’s expectations since she “was just so warm and open-armed, greeting me with hugs every day on the set. But very genuine, too. She doesn’t say anything she doesn’t mean, so when Cher gives you a compliment you feel that much better about it because she really means it.
Bell seconded this emotion and said she was “surprised” at how “not dramatic Cher was, and how sarcastic and down-to-earth and funny she was.” On a roll, Bell eventually tried to find a way to fit Aguilera into this subset of effusive praise. “It was an amazing environment to witness this interaction between these two women I admire so much and who have accomplished so much in their careers. You’d think that they’re amazing women and don’t have the same feelings as I do, but throughout the process I learned that they’re very normal women. They just happen to have amazing gifts and they’re sharing them with us.”
Perhaps sensing that the schmooze was pressing against the ceiling at this point, Gigandet tried to reduce it a bit when his turn came to compliment his costar, and it didn’t end well. “It was great because I got to see the flipside of that,” he said. “There were so many times when Christina wasn’t nearly as graceful as she thought she was (brassy laugh from Aguilera), which was great. You’d see someone who was such an amazing dancer actually trip and fall. And those were the best times, the moments I really cherished. It brought her down from her level of iconicy…iconiclas? Iconicness?”
Whatever. Since all the comments were being rendered into Japanese, these welcome moments of inadvertent humor were flattened out, and you could sense the boredom in the room, which only lifted when the woman translating for Bell and Gigandet finished conveying one of their quotes and a hushed gasp rose from the audience. She spoke at the speed of light, but clearly and coherently. “Wow,” muttered the older woman journalist sitting next to me as she scribbled furiously in her notepad, obviously more impressed with the interpreter than what she was relating.
Pressed for time, the emcee steered the final inquiry to someone who would ask the director something. Antin seemed hip to the ploy and gave a suitably amorphous answer to a typically amorphous question (“How was it working with this particular cast?”), though one could read between the lines the particular challenges he faced. “It was really exciting for me, as a director, to see what I believed in actually come true,” he said, “because I believed Christina could do it, and I watched her do it every day. I have to tell you, it’s the most satisfying experience as a director, and a huge relief (laughs) because I needed for her to be good in the movie, for her to be happy with her performance. I was so nervous that Christina wasn’t going to be happy with her performance, but she was and she is.” Falling further down the rabbit hole, he added, “It was also satisfying to watch Christina and Cam create this relationship together in the movie, which was a little thin on the page, and to see somebody like Cam, a guy who occupies a beautiful vessel (mock-derisive laughter from the dais)–well, he does!–and then realize he’s so much more than that.” The other beautiful vessels nodded approvingly.