Is there ever a point to examining the lives of the idle super-rich. Do we really need to know about the hyper-disfunctionality of their family life? Wait a minute — isn’t that the question they usually ask about us plebians?
Whatever. Savage Grace looks at the lives of Brooks Baeckelands (heir to a fortune made by his grandfather, the inventor of “bakelite”), wife Barbara and son Tony. Little Tony, who grows up to stab his multiple-abusive mother. Little Tony who was left to take care of his often suicidal mother, because his father ran off with Tony’s girlfriend. Nice.
Better I suppose to be shown all the appalling details — histrionics, snobbery and incest — than be dished up an obsequious, envious, account of the marriages, births and divorces of minor royals and minor/major celebrities as in Hello magazine. So now I know: money makes you self-centred, shallow and very very strange! And there I was thinking that the idle rich were beautiful on the inside as well as on the outside.
Is there a point to this film? Well, yes. After you get over feeling alternately creeped out and embarrassed you realise that it is actually a very good unmasking of the post-war media obsession with the lives of the very rich. By showing the changing (and progressively deteriorating) life of one such family, Tom Kalin, the director, gives us an historic picture of our fascination with “luxury lifestyles”. None of this began in with Hello, the 1990s and Paris Hilton.
Watching the film move from the 50s through the 60s and 70s I remembered how in my childhood I would steal my parent’s Titbits magazine, to read about people such as Grace Kelly. Now there was a celeb story that had everything… a beautiful filmstar (when filmstars were goddesses), a fairy tale wedding, marriage to a handsome prince… Except of course it was all balls. The family of the Prince and Princess of Monaco were a drug-swilling, divorce-happy, car crash (literally).
Kalin shows us the essential hypocrisy of the rich — many times more disfunctional than you or me — and the essential illusion of our fascination with the rich. He does this by creating a series of little scenes. For instance, at the beginning Barbara is speaking in a pretentiously polite, waspish American voice to her trophy husband. Then quite soon, she gets peevish at spotting a snag in a chiffon scarf. “Fuck it” she says. The mask comes down.
This film made me uncomfortably aware of my (very limited) appetite for salacious gossip. It really is time to give it all up forever and go do something about getting rid of those parasites.