In "Mean Tweets," a regular segment of Jimmy Kimmel Live, the host invites celebrities to read some of the most vicious things people have said about them on Twitter. Some are amusing ("David Blaine looks like his voice is putting his face to sleep") and some are lazy ("Benadict [sic] Cumberbatch what a d**khead") — but all are openly, violently cruel ("Ashton Kutcher needs to get hit by a bus. ASAP"). Kimmel thinks he's offering a service: "When you send an insulting tweet to a celebrity, a lot of the time they read them, and it can hurt."
In general, the internet is a war zone for celebrity-haters. Change.org, a site that has provided petitions for many worthy causes, lost a little credibility when it hosted a well-trafficked petition seeking to remove Ben Affleck as Batman in the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. "Affleck will fail as Batman and disappoint us all," says one of the many signatories. At the time of this writing, the petition had 97,431 supporters.
It might seem like this kind of cattiness began with the internet era. But a casual trip through history reveals that celebrities have always had their haters — "anti-fans", who despise the stars as much as other people idolize them. Back in 1930, the movie magazine Picture Play frequently published harsh letters about the movie stars of the era. "It is truly amazing to note the frequently unkind, caustic comments the fans make about the stars," wrote one correspondent. "Caviling, oft-times as petty and puerile as it is personal and stupid."
With less creativity (and fewer characters), today's Twitter critics don't have the same flare as some of their predecessors. What's the best way to offend a superstar? History offers a few lessons:
1. Emil Jannings gets a backhanded compliment
In 1928 — the year he won the first-ever Best Actor Oscar — Emil Jannings received the following letter: "Dear Miss Jannings, You are my favorite actress… To me you are the best-dressed actress on the screen, as well as the most beautiful. I try to imitate your clothes as well as your stylish way of wearing your hair." As a heavy-set, middle-aged male actor, Jannings was presumably less than flattered.
2. Una Merkel gets a belated rejection.
The best way to bruise a star's ego is to make it clear that you've moved on and you no longer love them. In 1933, a fan of stage and film actress Una Merkel requested an autographed photo. It was followed, however, by another message: "Do not send picture. Am moving and decided I don't want it." Refusing to be cast aside, Merkel sent a photo anyway. "Picture as sent," she wrote. "You'll take it and like it."
3. Bela Lugosi gets confused for a rival
Bela Lugosi, forever known for his classic rendition of Count Dracula, was walking through a town with his manager when they were approached by a young boy. The boy nervously asked for Lugosi's autograph, which made the actor very proud of himself. Just before he signed, he asked, "Young man, what is my name?" The boy had no doubt: "Boris Karloff."
4. Lou Reed attacks his fellow peers
Any jealous, anonymous nobody can be nasty, but how should a celebrity react when insulted by a fellow celebrity? While there's plenty of bitchiness in Hollywood, nobody is more vicious than rock stars. The late Lou Reed, for example, was one of the great haters, insulting everyone from Bob Dylan ("If you were at a party, you'd tell him to shut up") to Frank Zappa ("probably the most untalented person I've heard in my life") to Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead ("just the most untalented bores that ever came up"). He called Alice Cooper "the worse, most disgusting side of rock music," and said, "I have no respect for Jim Morrison. I didn't even feel sorry for him when he died."
But don't feel too bad for the celebrities — a few have managed to give even better than they got:
1. Dorothy Lamour mastered the art of the comeback.
Dorothy Lamour — Bing Crosby and Bob Hope's lovely co-star in a string of 1940s Road to... comedies — was approached by a young man at a restaurant. "Miss Lamour," he said, "I've seen four of your pictures… and they were awful. I'd like to get my dollar sixty back." Lamour reached into her handbag and handed him two dollars. "I'd like forty cents change, please," she told him.
2. Clint Eastwood leveled the playing field.
Back when he was best known as a cowboy star, Clint Eastwood was approached by a woman on the Warner Bros lot. "I've wanted to tell you for a long time," she snapped, "you're a no-good son of a bitch, always making Mexicans the bad guys in your films and killing them." "Don't be angry," Eastwood replied consolingly. "I kill lots of other people too."
3. James Blunt keeps laughing.
OK, he might not be a star of yore, but British singer James Blunt sure knows how to deal with his scores of anti-fans on Twitter. Obviously thick-skinned, he not only reads the insults, but replies to many of them. "Every time that James Blunt opens his mouth I'd like to punch him in it," wrote one hater. Blunt came back: "Glad you're not my dentist." When someone else complained about Blunt's voice, the singer was as blunt as his name suggests: "I never liked the sound of my own voice. Till it made me rich." His tweeted comebacks were so renowned that someone wrote: "Very tempted to start following James Blunt after his brilliant trolling. Then remembered: He's James Blunt." Blunt's reply? "Fair one."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Dick Cheney's America is an ugly place
- America is building a Sunni army in Iraq to take on the Islamic State
- The Hobbit: A disappointing set of movies, but a worthy set of prequels
- The liberation of Barack Obama
- How to make the ultimate grilled cheese
- Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in
- The age of miracles is over — even for the religious
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
Subscribe to the Week