The story of Dominic West and Lily James didn’t take the direction we all expected it to. After The Daily Mail published images of the pair getting up close and personal in Rome, a clearly romantic encounter despite West’s state as a married man, we all assumed that he would announce a split from his wife. At the very least, we thought there would be some sort of PR back-and-forth game. Instead, West and his wife, the designer Catherine FitzGerald, put on a deeply strange display for photographers outside their home. They kissed and played the untroubled roles of dutiful husband and wife before handing out handwritten notes that reassured all us doubters that their marriage was in fine shape. As you can imagine, us celeb voyeurs were left with more questions than answers. Are West and FitzGerald in an open marriage? Was she happy with this mini performance? Whose idea was it to write the notes? If this move was an attempt to ease the growing fervor surrounding the pair, as well as James, it doesn’t seem to have worked. They do say all publicity is good publicity, but such concepts are seldom consistently appealing for those involved, especially when it comes to celebrity relationship drama.
omg I'm obsessed with the dominic west and lily james affair. they literally went to the airport after the affair pics were published, she's packing the dress she was wearing in the photos! 🥴— Soraya "demuéstrame tu poder satánico" Montenegro (@mottisjandra) October 13, 2020
this is the gossip we deserve in 2020 pic.twitter.com/I71vgyMshw
Dominic West and wife Catherine Fitzgerald addressed reporters outside their home today by speaking to them and handing out pieces of paper saying: “We just want to say our marriage is strong and we are very much still together.” pic.twitter.com/f1gomwise8— Film Updates (@FilmUpdates) October 13, 2020
For as long as there have been celebrities, the public has been fascinated with their marital status, be they ones of bliss or torment. Hollywood was partly built on the idea of a rags-to-riches A Star is Born rise that would elevate the lowliest individual to a status of adoration and endless attention, but it took several years before said stars were even able to have names. During the first years of the studio system, companies like Biograph wouldn’t even credit their actors, a tactic they hoped would stop them from complaining about their comparatively small wages. Eventually, however, audiences’ interests in figures like Mary Pickford and Florence Lawrence were so intense that the actors were able to negotiate better money and marquee billing for later films. The public wanted more from the likes of Pickford, who became the first example of the America’s Sweetheart persona.
She also became one half of maybe the era’s defining power couple, but that happened through a minor cheating scandal. When she met and became involved with Douglas Fairbanks, she was still married to another actor, Owen Moore. The pair were universally adored separately and would eventually become an iconic pair, but before that, the press had a field day drumming up drama over the rumored infidelities and Moore’s public jealousy. By the time the pair did marry in 1920, the same year that she filed for divorce from Moore, the publicity had become that of a fairy-tale dream come true, albeit one mired in drama. Pickford told the press, ‘I now realize my mistake. I have learned now that I do not belong to myself. If I have done anything to offend the public, I am so sorry.’ She still had to ease the worries of an often cruel and puritanically minded American audience, even as she and Fairbanks won them over as the epitome of Hollywood’s dream come true.
We have a much more empathetic understanding of stardom now, and far more personable attitudes towards the celebrities at the heart of our interest, but there’s something about a cheating scandal that still brings out our internal scorn. If a celebrity is a conduit for us to express our various societal ideas and concerns, the disgrace of infidelity exposes our most deep-seated traditionalism. Well, when I say that, I mostly mean our misogyny, because let’s be honest here, it’s the women who suffer more than the men in such circumstances.
Few cheating tales have defined Hollywood as much as the infamous love square of Debbie Reynolds, Eddie Fisher, Elizabeth Taylor, and Richard Burton. Screenwriters could not have conjured a more salacious romantic entanglement. After Taylor’s third husband Mike Todd died in a plane crash, she found solace in her grief with Todd’s best friend, Fisher, who was one half of the mega-adorable white-picket-fence perfect celebrity couple that helped to reinforce Debbie Reynolds’s image as Hollywood’s princess. As the iconic Carrie Fisher would later say, Fisher’s primary mode of helping Taylor through this dark period was through his penis. When it was revealed that Taylor and Fisher were sleeping with one another, the fallout was intense. Fisher’s popular TV show was canceled, and many still believe that the affair was the reason that Taylor didn’t win an Oscar for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She eventually won her first Academy Award for Butterfield 8, a movie that cast her as a borderline prostitute as a cheap excuse for everyone on-screen to call her a tramp for 109 minutes. The drama continued.
The 1950s studio system was built on types, on specific molds that its stars were often forced into, and the pre-existing dynamics at play here meant that the headlines practically wrote themselves: The innocent all-American girl losing her man to the ultimate temptress, a dazzling beauty who had already plowed her way through three husbands before the age of 30. The fan magazines were filled with stories about Debbie’s shattered heart, her desperation to hold her family together, and her fears that Elizabeth would hurt poor beleaguered Eddie. As Anne Helen Petersen noted in Buzzfeed, ‘the attraction was not to the actual people involved, but to the conflicts they embodied: More than any other public figure or fictional character of the time, the discourse around Liz, Eddie, and Debbie spoke to anxieties around the role of women and sex in American society — and about the vulnerability, and desperate need to preserve, traditional femininity.’ Cheating scandals are seldom so obsessive about notions of masculinity. They rise and fall on the virgin-whore complex and the men are left to be bug-eyed third wheels whose inability to keep it in their pants is a mere aside to the real drama.
Of course, that brings us to Jennifer, Brad, and Angelina. Has any story of Hollywood in the 21st century come to wholly dominate the gossip sphere as exhaustively as this love triangle? The fact that the tabloids are enamored with its archaic dynamics to this day says a lot about our continuing adherence to these narratives. Cheating scandals are dependent on extremely binary notions of good and bad. Angelina was the ‘bad girl’ and Jennifer was the ‘good’ one, their surrounding ideas eerily similar to those of Reynolds and Taylor, albeit with a modern twist. Jolie was cast as the homewrecking temptress, an inevitable follow-on from her years as the city’s wild child vamp, but by this point in her career, she was also pivoting more towards a role as a mother and humanitarian. Even as she became better known for her charity work than her acting, Jolie was entrapped by the ‘other woman’ role, long after she and Pitt were married, a family of eight, and a bona fide power couple far more powerful than he was with Aniston. Now that they’re in the process of divorcing, the narrative is refreshed in a way that is of greater benefit to poor Brad and Jen, even as rumors swirl about the offending incident that allegedly incited the split. He gets to be the cool guy, while Angelina is the spurred seductress and Jennifer is the revenge ex. It’s all far more salacious than what is probably the truth — that Pitt and Aniston are now on friendly terms and Jolie had a really solid reason for dumping his arse — but why let the mundane get in the way of a good story?
There are many ways that celebrities mine their infidelity drama for clout or creative ideas. Think of Beyonce and Jay-Z turning out some of the best music of their careers following his cheating, something they managed to contain solely to their artistic work. They controlled that story wholeheartedly in a way that probably made every tabloid editor fume. Khloe Kardashian’s troubles with cheating men (and overlap in her various relationships) are one of the key foundations of her family’s reality TV series, an act of concerted honesty wherein every aspect of one’s life, be it reality or otherwise, is designated as ready for public consumption. After years of rumors of an open marriage, Jada Pinkett Smith took to her own talk-show to confess her ‘entanglement’ with her husband Will by her side, which ended up being a strange episode but also a natural extension of her persona as a no-holds-barred agony aunt. Shutting up and keeping things private is always an option, and a smart one a lot of the time because the public gets easily bored, but it’s not always viable for those who have built their images on their personable nature. Whether we want to admit it or not, we kind of relish in the lavish drama of the rich, famous, and oh-so-beautiful. It beats everything else going on in the world.
Of course, this is ultimately an obsession rooted in pain. Being cheated on sucks, and having it happen to you while millions of people watch and nitpick the details looking for someone to blame is akin to rubbing salt into a very fresh wound. When children are involved, even if the parents continue to play the press game throughout, the damage could be long-lasting. These stories also tend to have years of mileage, long after the involved parties have moved on, which can’t make the challenge of getting on with your life any easier.
The Dominic West situation is so striking because of how obviously unusual it’s been so far (the note!) but also because it hints at a wider question over our definition of relationships in the public eye. Maybe this was a last-minute PR rush to put a band-aid over his philandering, but it’s also easy to read this display between him and his wife as an implicit confirmation that they’re happily non-monogamous. That’s something we simply don’t see in celebrity, or at least not so publicly. Polyamory is still viewed with scorn by the general public, and it’s a philosophy that goes against everything the ‘celebrity power couple’ stands for in our smothering gaze. Once again, we’ve no proof of what’s going on with West and FitzGerald, and it’s really only our business because they’ve chosen to make it so, but it’s an intriguing possibility, nonetheless.
We’re still so beholden to the old-school fairytale narrative of man-meets-woman, married with 2.4 children happy-ever-after, as is celebrity culture, where such dynamics are far easier to commodify. A cheating scandal is the easiest way to puncture that illusion, far more so than our own understanding of how difficult even the most mundane relationships can be. Why understand those nuances when it’s easier and more gripping to pin the blame on someone for ruining our fantasy? Those are lofty expectations for one to live up to. It’s no wonder we slip.
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