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Jeffrey Jones #2: Actor v. Child Pornographer

March 14, 2007

My post about Jeffrey Jones last Friday prompted a couple of colleagues in the blogosphere (Terry Teachout and George Hunka) to point out that Jones might never work again. In 2002, he was charged with using a minor to perform sexual favors and harboring child pornography. It appears that Jones is a consummate Method actor: He clearly drew on personal experience to play the slimy principal Ed Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

I don't mean to be glib about Jones. He's done terrible, regrettable things. Perhaps his career will never recover. But the news doesn't really change what I think about him as an actor. I similarly don't think that Friday's post needed a caveat along the lines of "Jones is a great peformer, albeit a convicted felon." I was writing about his work in film, not his private life.

The issue brings up a more wide-ranging discussion about the work of an artist versus the manner in which he or she his conducts his or her private life. This debate is an ancient one, which almost seems pointless to rehash, except in as much as it's possible to add new names to the list of artists who've come under fire for illegal actions or unseemly beliefs.

Commentators usually trot out the same names when talking about the problem of an artist's life "infecting" perceptions of their art. A posting a few months ago by arts blogger Doug Ramsey succinctly covers familiar ground: "Can you hate Wagner's Teutonic superman beliefs and love Siegfried Idyll, abhor Ezra Pound's fascist propaganda and admire The Cantos, be appalled by Stan Getz's gratuitous cruelty and be enchanted by his ballads?"

In more recent months, controversies of one flavor or another have darkened the reputations of more people in the arts and entertainment industries, from Mel Gibson's drunken bout of anti-Jewish sentiment last summer to English National Ballet principal dancer Simone Clarke (whose support for the fascist British National Party led to calls for her dismissal.)

George Hunka pretty much summed up how I feel about this issue in an email today: "I don't think, taken as a whole, the population of artists whose life principles and vices don't seem to match their public principles and vices is no greater nor less, on a percentage basis, than the population of businesspeople, of truck drivers, of anyone, really. In a celebrity culture
we hear about artists because so much of their expression is public by its nature -- not quite the same as business or trucking. In a sense this is why I find it very hard to judge a person's work by their life, or vice versa."

What George says is true. My own personal odyssey with Wagner illustrates the point. For some reason, which wasn't clear to me until about three months ago while being subjected to a strict Wagnerian opera diet by music scholar and Wagnerite Joseph Horowitz, I had always said I disliked the composer. It was a matter-of-fact belief for me. I went around saying "I don't like Wagner" in the same way as I still say "I don't like pork."

When quizzed by Horowitz last October during one of the breaks at the 2006 NEA Institute on Classical Music and Opera about the reasons for my antipathy, I churned out the stock response I'd given to the question all my life: The line about the composer's anti-semitism. For the first time though, the words sounded hollow; saying them out loud to Joe felt disingenuous. Joe responded by giving me a copy of an article he'd written on Wagner's following among Jews and lent me his DVD of Patrice Chereau's landmark 1973 production of Das Rheingold.

It was while watching the DVD that I understood that I had been lying to myself all these years. My negative feelings towards Wagner had nothing to do with the composer's political views. I realized that I was simply reeling off the attitude my father (among others) imparted to me when I was young. When I thought carefully about it, I realized that my dislike for the composer was to do with being forced to play the oboe part in Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg in school orchestras many years. Not only is it a terrible oboe part (you blow your lungs out and no one can hear you above the din of the brass) but I also suspect that a decade of playing the piece in student bands would be enough to kill the piece off for anyone.

Once I realized where my anti-Wagner stance came from, I was able to listen to the composer in a new way. Thanks to Joe (and a little soul-searching on my part) I am hearing some of Wagner's music as if I knew nothing of the composer's history. His life is of course a part of his art (how else do you explain the blaring, woodwind-destroying trumpet parts?) but it's no longer governing my views about his music. I don't think I will ever like Die Meistersinger, but I love Das Rheingold and Die Walkure.

Once again, George H summarizes my own feelings on the subject eloquently: "Some artists need to live by the parameters of their art in order to create it, others don't. In the end we're all ashes, and the words or the acting has to stand by itself, however much we think we can find the key to the work in the life."

History sometimes shows that sooner or later, private scandals, though not forgotten, become secondary to an artist's work. Just look at Roman Polanski: Despite a messy personal life including the murder in 1969 of his wife Sharon Tate by the Manson Family, pleading guilty in 1978 to having unlawful sexual intercourse with a thirteen year old girl, and fleeing to France, the exiled director has created several powerful, critically-acclaimed films in recent years including Frantic (1988), the Academy Award-winning and Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or-winning The Pianist (2002), and Oliver Twist (2005).

To return briefly to Jeffrey Jones: A quick scan of Jones' IMDB page shows that the actor has worked consistently in TV since the news about his offenses erupted. He appeared in 36 episodes of Deadwood between 2004 and 2006. I realize that Deadwood is a far cry from Amadeus and The Crucible, but if nothing else, the steady TV work proves that the industry hasn't completely turned its back on the condemned actor. Perhaps it won't be long before Jones is making movies once again. I don't suppose he'll starring alongside Dakota Fanning though.

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