Love shortage drives Shia LaBeouf nuts

At the Berlin Film Festival US actor Shia LaBeouf has been acting very strangely. At the press conference for Lars von Trier’s Nymphomanic, in which he played a lead role, he made a bizarre pronouncement about sardines and seagulls and walked off. Later he appeared with a paper bag over his head.

Fame, and public attention, seem to have made him very unhappy and a touch unhinged. Which is disconcerting. We don’t go around saying it – but almost everyone would like to be a bit famous (and the few who are famous mostly give the impression they wish for more).

It’s actually not at all weird that the idea of fame appeals. At key points in life, and maybe most of the time, we don’t get enough attention from the people who really matter. Our best friend made friends with someone else; the elder sister who was the companion in all our childhood adventures started to get more interested in boys and homework and didn’t want to make Lego farms or build treehouses much any more. A father changes jobs and is often away on business; a mother goes back to work and a nervous three year old spends long mornings in a nursery with eleven more boisterous children. The person you pined for through adolescence hardly knew you existed. Someone you wished you could have been better friends with – witty, gregarious and good looking – never really made you feel part of their group. The people from whom we seek intimate attention, regard and even love may not mean to leave us bereft – but that’s what happens often enough.

So we seek a substitute: the applause of strangers. This is what it means to want to be famous. At the origin of the desire to be known to multitudes is a wound. This is so often missed. Wanting fame is seen as an exuberant, over-confident impulse rather than what it is: a kind of vulnerability.

LaBoeouf made the natural error. He wasn’t really signing up to be famous, he was (in his heart) signing up for people to be kind to him – and he assumed – wrongly as it turns out – that people would be kind because he was well known. In fact, being well-know is very liable to cause people to be less kind, less considerate and sweet than they might otherwise be. There’s a strong tendency at work that makes many people hyper-critical, cynical and angry.

The reason why people are not kind to the famous is interesting – and is exactly the same reason why people want to be famous: an underlying desire for kindness and attention.

Envy is such a powerful force that we often feel compelled to be a bit more snide, a bit more brutal to the famous than we would to anyone else. As in sibling rivalry, we – the onlookers – suspect that if Shia, or some other celebrity, is getting a lot of attention there won’t be enough left for us. We get nasty and say he’s an egomaniac and a show-off. We too are vulnerable.

What LeBoeuf and his critics need is the very same thing: someone to be nice to them…

The root problem – for both the fame seeker and the derider of the famous – is the same: a desire for attention. The problem is: a lack of kindness. We fear there isn’t enough love in the world. The paper bag and scrawled note to the cameras are, ultimately, a plea for understanding and appreciation. And, however mad they look at first sight, they are expressions of a craving for sympathy and gentleness which we share too.