Reviewed by GREG KING


Director: Leon Gast.

In an age when we crave more and more information about our favourite film stars and celebrities, the paparazzi and their intrusive cameras satiate our voyeuristic appetite for more. But their presence is despised by many, who view them as parasites. During last year’s MIFF we had Teenage Paparazzo, a fascinating documentary which introduced us to a 13-year old photographer.

Ron Galella is a veteran freelance photographer who has become almost as famous as the celebrities he has photographed over the past forty years. Even aged 79 he shows no sign of slowing down and we follow him through a hectic year of celebrity stalking in New York. This entertaining and appealing documentary from Leon Gast (the Oscar-winning boxing documentary When We Were Kings, etc) paints a broad and fascinating portrait of the man and his trade and the almost symbiotic relationship that exists between him and the celebrities.

Galella is passionate about what he does, and has a childlike curiosity about the celebrities he pursues, which separates him from many of the other paparazzi. We learn a little about his personal history, which provides some context. Galella’s mother was very interested in glamour, and this had a deep impact on him as a young boy. She even named him after actor Ronald Colman. But it was the US Air Force that gave him his start as a photographer. He would photograph visiting celebrities and print them in the base newspaper. He has also been photographing the Academy Awards since 1968!

This is no empty hagiography, and the film offers up a diversity of opinion about Galella. While some sing his praises and talk about his talent and perseverance in getting the “money shots”, other call him a legal stalker and a parasite and a personality profiteer. Another critic admits that Galella is blithely unaware of the impression he gives to people. Galella talks of the extraordinary lengths he goes to in order to get his shot, and he reveals his own private rules to ensure that he gets the shot. Shoot fast, before the minders shut you down or move you on.

He also tells some fascinating anecdotes about some of the famous celebrities that he has photographed, at great personal cost. Katherine Hepburn was a very difficult personality and protective of her privacy, but Galella went to great lengths to get some shots of her. But is harassing a 71-year old woman a decent way to make a living?

In the ‘70’s he followed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis around the streets of New York. He calls October 1971 the best week of his life, as he managed to get the famous shot of the windblown Jackie, which he calls his “Mona Lisa shot” and which secured his reputation. But it also landed him in trouble as the former First Lady tired of his continual presence and had her security guards arrest him, telling them to “smash his camera.” The resultant legal action and highly publicised trial raised a number of precedents about First Amendment issues and the journalist’s right to take pictures versus the person’s right to privacy.

Galella also tells how he was able to get exclusive, close-up shots of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on their private yacht in Italy. Their torrid affair while filming Cleopatra had made the couple headline worthy, and Galella seized an opportunity to try and get some shots of them.

And he unashamedly tells of how he also had a run-in with the notoriously reclusive Marlon Brando who had flown in to New York to appear on the Dick Cavett show. Galella tracked him down to a restaurant, but an annoyed Brando punched him in the face. Galella sued Brando, but settled out of court. For him it was not about the money but rather about having access to the celebrities that people want to read about.

Although Galella bemoans the lack of class and real star power of today’s celebrities when compared to those of yesteryear.

Gast has gained an unprecedented level of access to Galella, and the film is full of wonderful anecdotes and insights into his profession. Gast is even granted access to lavish New Jersey house (like something out of the Sopranos) and his basement, which is crammed with boxes and boxes of photographs stored and neatly catalogued.

Gast offers a skilful mix of archival footage, montages and interviews with Galella’s contemporaries, peers and even his critics to complete a well-rounded portrait. The film explores a number of complex issues about privacy, freedom of the press and the cult of celebrity worship that enables the paparazzi to do their job. The result is a fascinating, very entertaining and non-judgmental portrait of the man and his profession that is well worth watching.



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