Twenty years ago, audiences cheered as Truman Burbank opened a door painted like the sky, took a bow, and stepped into another life. It was a moment of triumph over his own fears, a physical prison, and the manipulations of almost everyone he’d ever known. Today, though, it is worth asking: would we still want Truman to leave?
Truman, played by an endearingly wacky, sometimes grim Jim Carrey, was the quintessential “famous for being famous” celebrity, well before the Kardashian juggernaut was launched. Unbeknownst to him, Truman had been adopted by a corporation as an infant and raised on an enormous film set that resembled a peculiarly dream-like American town. His parents, friends, and neighbors were all actors, and he was the star of a globally broadcast live soap opera for which his every move was recorded. Eventually, though, he began to suspect the truth and attempted to escape.
At the time of the movie’s release in 1998, some critics doubted the film’s premise: that people would actually watch an ordinary man’s banal daily existence—much less millions of people, for decades. These doubts have since been put to rest. We certainly would want to watch Truman, and are increasingly unashamed to admit it. Not only that, we long to be Truman. Limited by circumstances and nature, we are nonetheless bent on inventing ourselves and managing how we are perceived. In watching the film, one may still wish for Truman to leave and live freely. Yet, in our own lives, we have willingly taken on many of his constraints.
A Real-Life Version of The Truman Show
We are fixated on a kind of authenticity, the pursuit of unfiltered glimpses into the lives of others. This emphasis on “being real” has taken different forms—Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, social media, and the never-ending parade of reality shows—but it is clear that banality alone poses no obstacle to popularity. In the movie, the show’s creator, Christof (Ed Harris), a distant yet controlling director, noted, “We’re tired of actors giving us phony emotions … [The Truman Show] is not always Shakespeare, but it is real.”
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