Sunday, May 13, 2007

'Creative' Nonfiction at Its Best:
Esquire Profile of Halle Berry Ingenious

Celebrity profiles are ubiquitous—as much as, if not more than, the celebrities themselves. I do not envy the journalist assigned such a piece. I know, I know...I should dream of being assigned such a piece. But interviewing some Hollywood star, to be sure, isn't always the plum assignment it may first appear.

For a writer, the potential pitfalls are plentiful. First of all, there's usually an agenda: promoting a movie, a television show, an album, or just themselves (otherwise they sure wouldn't waste their time sipping cocktails with a lowly, prodding reporter). Getting past the publicist-produced soundbites is no small chore, but it's perhaps the most important step in the profile-writing process. Then there's the issue of originality. More likely than not, the celebrity has been written about a few times before. From Vanity Fair and The New Yorker (both excellent publications that regularly feature high-quality profiles) to the likes of People and Entertainment Weekly (both...well, no comment), celebrity profiles are a staple ingredient of the periodical press. Add to that the dozens of broadcast outlets and hundreds of Web sites that deal the popular drug of celebrity news, and finding a piece with a fresh approach is as likely as finding Angelina Jolie's number in the phone book.

Then Esquire published its May issue. (Disclaimer: Esquire is one of the few magazines—other than People and Entertainment Weekly, but not for the same reasons—that doesn't arrive in my mailbox, but fortunately my writing colleague suggested I give this month's cover story a read.) So there's Halle Berry, posed—and dressed—provocatively. I had my doubts. But then I read this:

A writer sat across the table from an actress. She told him most writers screw up the story. He told her writing isn't easy. She asked to give it a shot. This is what happened.

I was intrigued. Then this "Note":

Halle Berry wrote the story. Tom Chiarella added his thoughts in the form of footnotes. Click the footnote to read his annotations.

What ensues is sheer genius. Granted, Halle Berry's work alone would not exactly warrant a Pulitzer nomination (it's not the worst thing I've ever read either). Rather, it is Tom Chiarella's inventive approach and befitting delivery that makes the piece not simply serviceable, but remarkable. With the pen in the hands of Berry, she and "the writer" have essentially switched roles. But Chiarella wasn't going quietly, footnoting annotations—witty, smart, self-deprecating, and, most importantly, well written—throughout Berry's piece.

The result is rewarding for the reader: a inside peek at the dance that is done between writer and subject, subject and writer. "Halle Berry wrote this. Every word. Like all writers, she got a lot of things wrong, and she should be held responsible for the content," Chiarella chimed in with his first annotation after only Berry's first clause, echoing her sentiments about writers and warning of barbs to come. "Not sure what this means. But she's the writer," he adds later in the story. But rather than continue to quote great lines from his annotations (all of them qualify), I highly recommend reading the piece. Through humor and a thoroughly enjoyable approach, the writer not only accomplished the assignment—a profile of Halle Berry (and the reader does get a sense of who she is, even if it is, partly, in her own hand)—but also opened himself up to his audience with a rare honesty without taking himself too seriously and allowed readers to see the "process."

But this wholly original style was not without risk, as Chiarella explained in one of his footnotes:

What I was thinking at that moment, with the pastrami in my fingertips, was: I might be in a lot of trouble. I'd just conducted an interview for a cover story without getting one quote on record, all on the faith that she would actually do what she said she wanted to: write the thing herself. I was thinking, That's never going to happen. Every movie star thinks writing is easy. I was thinking, Fuck me, I am in so much trouble.

I, just like any other professional writer, would be thinking the same thing. But the risk, in the end, paid off. In the hands of another writer, it might have flopped. And it would be difficult for another writer to replicate. That's what makes this profile so stunning—effectiveness and great writing mixed with originality.

P.S.: Good for Esquire for taking the risk with its writer. It is, remember, the magazine that published arguably the best magazine profile ever wrought: Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." (Maybe I should subscribe, after all.)

Your Thoughts
Post your comments about Chiarella's Esquire cover story this month. What is the best magazine profile you've ever read?