Entertainment

‘This Is Paris’ and the Celebrity Documentary Trap

The new Paris Hilton movie faces an age-old issue: Can a celebrity documentary ever be real enough to be revealing?
Kate Dries
Brooklyn, US
September 18, 2020, 7:15pm
Paris Hilton in a pool at night in Mykonos in a scene from 'This Is Paris'
Image via The Intellectual Property Corporation

Early on in the newly released documentary of her sister's life, Nicky Hilton Rothschild says something about Paris Hilton that she implies is important: "She’s very normal." It's the kind of phrase you hear often from the people who surround the very famous, and even from the mouths of the famous themselves. It's meant, it seems, to convince the viewer that the subject in question is actually not full of secrets—or if they are, that they are not the ones you might think.

But there's an inherent fallacy to this statement, one that weaves its way through all of This Is Paris: the subject is the whole reason you're watching, and in the case of celebrity documentaries, their celebrity—their being not at all normal—is the main draw. With Hilton, whose every move has been documented since she was a toddler, first by her parents, and then by the general public whose attention Hilton craved, one begins to wonder: how much more can there be to this person we seem to know everything about?

For fans, the answer is never enough. Over the past several years, celebrities have benefited greatly from their followers’ curiosity, coupled with the rise of platforms that allow them to funnel that attention into a narrative of their own choosing. No longer are they reliant on deciding between some of the early ways of putting their story out there, like a memoir (ghostwritten or otherwise) or an autobiography, or an authorized biography, or an unauthorized biography. The popularity of non-fiction film and television has led to a glut of self-produced documentaries (and reality TV, docuseries, docudramas, etc). This has allowed celebrities to nominate themselves as worthy of coverage when and how they want to, no longer at the mercy of others to be deemed deserving.

Perhaps no one has had more written about them on this topic than Beyoncé, whose involvement in her own documentaries (a term used to describe these projects even if it doesn't quite fit, lending them a certain kind of legitimacy) reminds us every time that she is the creator and holder of her own image completely. Or take Justin Bieber's Seasons, which was released in installments earlier this year on his YouTube channel; he was a producer on it, along with his manager Scooter Braun and Allison Kaye, the president of SB Projects, Braun's company. Both Braun and Kaye also appear as talking heads in Seasons, credited as "manager" and "management" respectively.

Bieber was not unfamiliar with this style of doc, and paved his own way for Seasons. In 2010, he and Braun produced the doc-slash-concert film Never Say Never. Reality TV veterans Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, producers of Never Say Never, would later go on to direct Katy Perry's Part of Me in 2012. Netflix's Lady Gaga: Five Foot Two was produced by Gaga's production company, though its director noted that she didn't see the whole movie until the premiere. Though Taylor Swift did not receive a producer credit on the movie Miss Americana, she entered a deal with Netflix, later choosing Lana Wilson from a list of potential directors. ("At one point she said that she didn’t like documentaries that are like propaganda, and I was thrilled to hear that," Wilson said in an interview earlier this year.) And so on and so forth. All of these projects were reviewed somewhat critically on this front, the conversation pinging back and forth between how much agency a human should have in their own story and how much fame alone renders them worthy of critique. Whether that debate trickles down to the audience at large is a different question, and the more important one.

All of these celebrities are following a pattern set by Madonna with her 1991 documentary Truth or Dare, which she produced, and which lives on in infamy. But Netflix and YouTube have shifted the impact—a movie no longer needs to be green-lit under the guise that it will draw audiences to the big screen. (Bieber, for instance, found his fame on YouTube, had Never Say Never released in theaters, and then returned to YouTube with Seasons, which is a YouTube original, as is This Is Paris.)

That the subjects of these movies are mostly musicians makes sense, given how much more captivating a tour or performances interspersed with the mundanity of life is to watch than the alternatives. (All of these films are also usually named after their hit songs.) The projects themselves flirt with different levels of reveal depending, often, on the intent of the celebrity in question. To this day, Part of Me is still cited for one particular moment: when Perry is seen in a deeply emotional state over her relationship with now ex-husband Russell Brand as she is preparing to perform in front of thousands. Crying but moments before, she rises up onto the stage, her face suddenly shifting, almost clown-level scary, into a beaming smile, the audience at home in on the secret, the audience in front of the stage none the wiser. By contrast, Bieber's Seasons appears to serve entirely as a narrative about how strong his new marriage with his wife Haley is, with nary a mention of the name "Selena Gomez" in all six parts.

There are other films in the celebrity documentary oeuvre that are more clear-eyed about their subjects, and notably, they’re about people in the final stages of their lives: A Piece of Work, about Joan Rivers, or Bright Lights, on Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds, or Quincy on Quincy Jones. Though the latter two were made by friends or family members of the subjects, none were produced by their main characters, and as such, remain more formally true documentaries, however much we can classify something as such. Though Hilton did not produce this doc—she was approached by the production company to do it, and all parties say she relinquished control of her own story—This Is Paris also sits somewhere in this murky realm: It's framed as revealing but, because of the involvement of Hilton and her acolytes, is possibly incapable of going too deep.

“During the editing process when we were watching the final film, there was so many things [where] I was like ‘Oh my god, I cannot have the world see this, like we need to cut that part out,’” Hilton, who has been featured and starred in numerous reality TV and documentary ventures previously, told Variety. “But after talking with [producers] and them explaining to me why it’s important to keep all this in, I just said, ‘You know what, this is real. This is who I am. And I might as well show the world that, [rather than] showing the person I invented who really isn’t me.’”

The film, which is directed by Alexandra Dean, shifts very slowly, like a child enjoying a leisurely afternoon with a kaleidoscope, beginning with the audience learning that the Hilton we know is all an act, right down to her baby voice. Hilton is never not performing, and even in front of Dean, who was ostensibly hired to capture the real her, she has a hard time not walking and talking like her character.

Much of the first half of the movie functions as you might expect, exploring the downfalls of a life lived in public; Hilton describing two fans who have flown 30 hours to see her for what appears to be one night as friends, and some of the only genuine people she knows; her actual close friends, besides her sister, have chyrons that suggest they also work for her. While her life looks beautiful, she claims to not have taken a proper vacation in 15 years and when finally on one in Mykonos, her favorite place, she has trouble relaxing and cannot get off her phone. She is always being filmed, even when she is not—it feels as if she must watch herself through the lens of an HD third-party at all times. In one scene with her sister, Hilton shifts across the floor to be closer to her, a move that reads less like she is looking for the physical closeness, and more so that they can both be in the same shot.

In the second half, the rest of Hilton's life is more clearly unwound. There is a necessary rehash of the "sex tape" that has now been rightly reframed as revenge porn. We learn that it is the years she spent in disciplinary schools, where she was abused, that led to who she is now. She says that the tape never would have happened had it not been for the abuse—something she has never fully discussed with anyone, even her family. It is the reason, we are told, that she has nightmares constantly and insomnia, why many of her romantic relationships have failed or have been abusive, and it’s partly why she is such a workaholic. "I will not stop until I make a billion dollars," Hilton says. "I just don’t want to worry. I don’t ever have to worry about anything."

Her father does not appear in the documentary (he is described as private) and Nicky makes it clear she has only shown up at her sister's request. One climactic moment, when Paris reveals the extent of the abuse to her mother, Kathy, is so quiet, it’s difficult to grasp what you’ve just witnessed. Others, like Paris reuniting with her former classmates to work through their shared trauma, feel equally uncertain. Are these meetings happening because of the doc, or because of Paris, or both?

The tension between her fame and herself is, as it always is in these movies, constant. "It almost became like a blueprint to become famous," Hilton says of the "sex tape," which she is resentful of: "I didn’t need to do that. I always had a plan."

She continues on, saying, "My grandmother always called me Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe. I always wanted to live up to her. That was my dream; it was going to come true. I just felt that when that happened it took it away from me." She does not seem to realize that those women were also much more than shiny exteriors.

For the viewer, there is never enough information, and it leaves one uncomfortably thirsty. The camera flits across Hilton's life. We are told DJing is Hilton's "zen" moment, that she has been working on a set for a music festival for ages, that she is upset with people thinking she isn't really doing the work. But how she learned to DJ, or how she practices her craft, aren’t explored to reset that narrative. The moment when she reveals a massive stack of laptops and the information that she gets a new one every time she ends a relationship to protect herself from former partners snooping echoes with both deep sadness and the realization that she is exactly so rich that she can keep a pile of unused machines worth several thousands dollars sitting in her closet. At one point, Hilton is asked if she feels responsible for an obsession young women have about their looks. She affirms that she does, but the topic is then dropped and never returned to.

We watch to see what’s there behind the scenes. But it’s the same story no matter the subject. Is Paris Hilton public or is she private? Do we care more about the trappings of her wealth, or her internal pain, or are they one and the same? The intent of this documentary, as with the others, ends up confused—is it to have people watch and feel empathy? To be moved? To garner acclaim for the subject? To change the narrative of this person, who has become purely brand? Or to make us feel all the more fascinated and in need of more?

Hilton might not trust the world. But it's also hard for an audience to trust someone who says they have never stopped performing.

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