First Person: Identity Crisis

Resembling one of the world’s most popular filmmakers leads this writer to question the nature of celebrity.
Hey, has anyone ever told you you look like Steven Spielberg? photo: James Dannenberg

I am not Steven Spielberg. There are, of course, billions who can make this claim, but it means more in my case, because strangers often mistake me for the famous director. Even at my own son’s wedding, people commented on the resemblance.

Just yesterday, a guy approached, asking confidently, "You’re Steven Spielberg, aren’t you?" I said no, but volunteered that I get asked that a lot. Not satisfied, he suggested that’s just what Steven would say and pointed to my camera. I walked on with a smile and an exhortation to see Munich.

While flying cross-country, a pleasant but slightly intoxicated woman insisted I was Steven, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. She kept insisting that I must be traveling incognito, but eventually she seemed satisfied to give me knowing looks and an occasional wink.

I don’t try to look like Steven. We both have short, salt-and-pepper beards and graying, thinning hair. We share a fondness for baseball caps. (To be precise, since I’m older, Steven really looks like me.) Mind you, I’m somewhat known in Honolulu, as I’ve been a judge here for almost 20 years–but I’m hardly a celebrity. When people give me looks of recognition on the street I never quite know how to take them. "Did I send you to jail?" doesn’t work for small talk. I never know if they think they recognize Jim or Steven, so I usually just smile and walk on. Sometimes I’m tempted just to play along and ask how they liked my latest film.

Being an independent sort of guy, I can protest that celebrity worship is beneath me. Yet, as a kid in Milwaukee, I went to a Braves game and was given a bat cracked in action by the great Hammerin’ Hank Aaron. I loved that bat, though it was just a useless piece of wood split up the middle, loved it so much that I played with this icon until it fell apart and Mom threw it away. I thought that I might absorb some of the magic Hank imparted to it, that I shared a kinship with him. I still think about that bat, almost a half century later.

Some of my college contemporaries did go on to achieve varying degrees of fame. Included among these greats and near-greats with whom I (might have) rubbed shoulders are musicians Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs, filmmaker Michael Mann, journalists Jeff Greenfield and Lowell Bergman, and writers Scott Spencer and Tim Cahill. Impressed?

Truth be told, I wasn’t particularly close to any of these guys in college, and I’m pretty sure that I didn’t even meet three of them–who could be sure about those days? Nevertheless, they occupy a small, but disproportionately important, niche in my social universe–it’s fun to mention in conversation, however craven that admission may seem.

Maybe celebrities are just markers in our lives, points of reference that reinforce a common culture. We may not think we have much in common with an acquaintance, but a little name-dropping can go a long way toward identifying shared interests and values. Just as talking about the weather provides a conversational lowest common denominator, the names we drop speak volumes about the kind of lives we lead or wish to lead.

If, for example, I mention in passing that I was a student of historian George Mosse and you respond with a quizzical stare, I may relate to you differently than if you tell me you prefer Walter Laqueur’s work. The former response might provoke a story about Hank Aaron’s bat.

Or, if all else fails, you might be interested to know that I attended the same high school as Oprah Winfrey. Even Steven can’t say that.