Even on Twitter, your movie-star crush still doesn’t love you
John Travolta was technically my first movie-star crush, thanks to a brief fascination with Grease when I was six. But he was quickly forgotten the night Star Wars came on TV and I watched Harrison Ford curl his upper lip into a sardonic smirk. My obsession was immediate and all encompassing, and lasted for the next eight-ish years. I wrote Harrison a fan letter when I was seven or eight, certain that he would read it and discern how special and deserving I was; I never got a reply.
But even that fixation couldn’t prepare me for the British Invasion. This began when I watched Kenneth Branagh in Henry V and reached full velocity when I rented the Merchant Ivory adaptation of A Room With a View and watched Rupert Graves and Julian Sands shed their Edwardian waistcoats and chase each other naked around a swimming hole. I was fourteen and horrifically shy, and hid behind baggy shirts and my long, messy hair. I told my shrink that I wanted nothing more than to be Helena Bonham Carter. “Well, you have the hair for it,” she said helpfully.
Rupert and Julian were soon joined by Rupert Everett and Colin Firth, playing 1930s public schoolboys in Another Country, Jeremy Irons as a lovelorn Oxford lad in Brideshead Revisited, and Hugh Grant with his cultivated stutter in a whole queen’s regiment of films. And finally there was Samuel West, an aquiline-nosed actor who piqued my desire in his role as a doomed young bank clerk in Howard’s End, making Merchant Ivory once again the unwitting pimp to my fantasies.
Since all of this took place in the early 1990s, my access to my imaginary paramours was restricted to the video store and the library, where I spent a significant portion of my adolescence hunched in front of a hulking microfiche machine, a device as relevant to today’s lovelorn teenagers as a land line. Back then, the newspaper movie reviews and magazine profiles that scrolled across the screen provided a fragile connection to these celluloid men, who were somehow more accessible to me than the actual boys I went to school with. Part of their appeal was their obscurity: Knowing next to nothing of them left me free to invent details that gratified my imagination and fueled my deliciously perverse longing.
In my early twenties, I finally made the leap to men I could talk to and touch, and my screen crushes took their Queen’s English and waistcoats and retreated to the part of my brain where I stowed my teen angst for safekeeping. But occasionally, they re-emerged: During my junior year abroad in Edinburgh, I saw Samuel West onstage in “Henry IV.” After the show, my friend and I walked by the theater and glimpsed him inside its café. Presto, I was overwhelmingly 16 again, desperate to be on the other side of the glass. Instead, and with some effort on my part, we kept walking.
Years later, Twitter happened, and I realized that what I had been longing for during my adolescence had finally become a reality: A direct portal to the thoughts and lives of my obscure objects of desire. A few minutes of searching revealed that many of my bygone crushes had Twitter accounts, some of which were even updated frequently. Kenneth Branagh was there, as was Hugh Grant, though that bloom had fallen off the rose around the time of the Divine Brown affair. Samuel West proved to be the jackpot: over 12,000 tweets, many of them written in reply to random fans.
So here it was: The opportunity I had dreamed of. And it was so easy. But that was the problem: it was too easy. No matter what I wrote, I may as well have been 16 again: nothing more than a fan pleading silently, “Choose me, choose me!” Whatever acknowledgement there was would be fleeting, cursory, a big wall of glass. Finding little clues buried in the microfiche had offered its own strange rewards and lasting sense of accomplishment; finding tweeted proof of life only affirmed that I knew how to use Twitter’s search function.
But then, not long ago, Samuel West tweeted that he needed advice about what to wear to his audition for the role of an oncologist. I decided to reply: My dad is a pathologist, which isn’t an oncologist but is still doctory enough to qualify. I could help! But then I hesitated. Wasn’t I supposed to be over this? I mean, I’m 36, and this was suddenly all very 20 years ago. So I signed off.
I still follow Samuel West and enjoy his pea-sized dispatches from his life, but unlike when I was 16, I now enjoy my own life enough that I don’t long to play a supporting role in a total stranger’s. But more than that, I’ve realized that I don’t want to sacrifice the mystery that enshrouded my erstwhile heroes for a few sentences of sub-grammatical chatter. I’ve grown to appreciate my view from behind the glass: after all these years, it’s remarkably clear.