My interest in Owen Wilson (American actor b. 1968) is admittedly creepy, undoubtedly perverse, and possibly based on nothing more than the fact of our shared last name. For I, too, am something of a Wilson.
A shared Anglo-Saxon surname, however, is merely the first parallel between our lives. To wit: Like O., I was born into an artistic family (our mothers are visual artists, our siblings work in film); I too was a self-proclaimed “troublemaker” in my youth; I too once wore blond hair that hung to my shoulders; I too have a large and distinctive nose; I too have a younger brunette brother; I too have struggled with depression; and I, too, consider myself primarily a writer, though like O., I would happily accept any acting job offered regardless of script quality, assuming the pay is substantial. Did I mention we have the same taste in women? He has been romantically linked to Kate Hudson, Demi Moore, and Sheryl Crow; I have not. But I have often imagined those three in erotic concert, Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” winnowing from my iPod dock as their cougar paws explore my body’s nooks.
But, though we’re both Wilsons, only one of us (O.) is of true Anglo-Saxon origin. I come from a small clan of Jewish Wilsons née Wilsick née Wilczyk, and my true self is apparent under even the dimmest bulb of scrutiny. Unlike the majestic bump that separates the slim halves of O.’s phallic schnoz, my own mid-face protrusion is broad and bony, an ugly hinge that deviates my septum, leaving me looking less like a battered prizefighter than a genetic unfortunate, too poor for plastic surgery. Though the members of my family have enjoyed modest success in their chosen fields, the members of O.’s are stars. It’s true that we once wore twin hairstyles, but my hair thinned and began to fall out by the age of eighteen. O.’s writing has earned him critical acclaim for films like Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums, while mine has earned mostly negative reviews from megalomaniacal blog commenters. And one surely can’t miss the fact that though we both like actresses of a certain age, O. has actually had sex with these women, whereas I have merely used them as fodder for my fantasies.
O.’s purebred confidence comes through in even the smallest gestures; my body is but a cesspool for neuroses. Superficialities aside, I actually have far more in common with O.’s oft-chosen on-screen nemesis, Ben Stiller. Not, mind you, the brawny Stiller of Dodgeball or the sado-macho Stiller of Your Friends and Neighbors, but the miserable Stiller of films like Reality Bites and Flirting with Disaster. And on the rare occasions when I have managed to “pass”—as a WASP, as a smooth-smiling and well-adjusted person, as an O.—in my heart I have always felt myself a fraud.
This was all clear to me the first time I saw O. in the film Meet the Parents, a comedy of manners about the discord between a male nurse named Gaylord Focker, played by Ben Stiller, and his ex-CIA potential father-in-law, Jack, played by Robert DeNiro. Enter this fraught scene one Kevin Rawley (O.!), ex-boyfriend of Jack’s daughter. Kevin is everything that Focker—like myself—isn’t. Kevin is cocksure, handsome, and handy. What’s more, he’s ethnically appropriate, a dreamy blond Brother in Christ. He’s suspiciously kind, too—kindness betrayed by a deep condescension apparent in his chiseled grin, but only Focker and I seem to notice. O.’s Kevin is a parody, sure, a mocking magnification of the the Perfect Ex-Boyfriend. But the parody feels too close to truth; the viewer is left with the unsettling feeling that the actor’s own self is not far from the cruel and unusually handsome figure he portrays on screen.
My first impression of O. was that I’d seen him before, had been facing off against his kind for my entire life. He’d been there on the ball fields of my youth, he of the cockily askew cap and controlled stride. I was good at baseball, but he was better. His uniform was perfectly ironed; his rainbow home runs sailed on the winds of his own bloated ego. Or in the classroom: I was smart, he was smarter. On the playground he pushed me down the slide.
Luckily, my O.’s parents sent him to private school in third grade. He was of another social order than we, the bony, the chubby, the prematurely acned, the runny of nose. We danced when he left. Those were the good years: ages ten, eleven, twelve. Our school was small, filled with Gaylord Fockers. Our mothers told us we were special, and for a while we believed them.
Unfortunately, private school is where young O.s go to mingle with other young O.s, trade tricks of the trade, slide easily across puberty like lubed pit bulls on a fresh-waxed floor. They emerge fully formed—cheekbones raised, posture perfect—ready to crush us on love’s uneven battlefield. When Meet the Parents came out I was a high school junior: prematurely balding, unmuscled, unloved. I had armpit stains, halitosis, and a scraggy goatee. Wherever I looked, O.s pulled conquests to their crew-bulked chests. They whispered sweet lies into innocent ears, wormed tongues under buckles and buttons and over the soft terrain of virgin skin.
I envied the O.s. Worse, I tried to become one. I back-combed my thinning hair, tucked button-downs into ill-fitting khakis, and wore white caps professing my enthusiasm for lacrosse teams I’d never heard of. Like my ancestors who hid our cultural heritage behind an Anglicized name, I too attempted to assimilate, and I too failed. There was hate in my heart.
Time passed, things changed. College came, and with it a new breed of women. They weren’t the Greta Gerwig-esque mythological creatures that fall for Ben Stillers in fantastical nebbish pornography like Greenberg. But they weren’t all cheerleaders and Kate Hudsons either, interested only in the O.s and their brand of sailboat romance. Some even wore eyeglasses and drank with abandon, opened their hearts and bed sheets to guys like me (if not me personally).
After college my shoulders broadened. I shaved the goatee and what little head-hair remained. I joined a gym, found a brand of antiperspirant that actually worked, and brushed my teeth thrice daily. I even wooed a few women with my intimate knowledge of Seinfeld episodes. Slowly, I let go of my grudge.
O.—the actor—grew too. He widened the scope of his actorly range. In the The Royal Tennenbaums, Wes Anderson’s operatic tragicomedy (cowritten by O.), O.’s character, Eli Cash, is a once-successful writer now on the brink of addiction and madness. Eli is played for laughs: his apartment is filled with superlatively ugly art; his manner is ridiculously pretentious; his “writing” is a hyperbolic Cormac McCarthy parody ( “ … and they rode on into the friscalating dusk light.”) But O. imbues Eli with a sadness that isn’t there in O.’s earlier and less sophisticated performances. It’s a subtle sadness, mostly physical. You can find it in the loose hang of his limbs and the wanderings of his glazed eyes. Not that Eli isn’t also a cocky asshole. But his cockiness barely masks the insecurities below the surface.
In Wes Anderson’s later film, The Darjeeling Limited, O. exponentially ups the sadness quotient for his character, Francis. The film follows three estranged brothers who travel by train across India in the wake of their father’s death in a last-ditch effort to reconnect. Each brother has fallen on hard times, but O.’s Francis has fallen hardest. In a sense, he’s a disenfranchised O., a former hotshot now undergoing a spiritual crisis. Francis has recently attempted suicide, a detail that echoes O.’s own attempt, which took place in the year preceding the release of Darjeeling. It’s hard not to conflate the character and the actor, to see Francis’s pain as channeling O.’s.
The details of O.’s suicide attempt have been the subject of much speculation. For myself, I suspect that O.’s pain, like Francis’s, was related to growing up an O., keeping up the charade of perfection even as the sweet promises of youth dissipate and die.
O. seems to be doing okay these days. His career is going well, and he’s chipper and charming as ever in interviews. At a recent New Yorker Festival event, O. and Wes Anderson recounted their student days with warmth and nostalgia, trading laughs, and finishing each other’s sentences in the way that only old friends can. In a final reversal, this summer O. starred as the “Woody Allen character” in Allen’s comedy Midnight in Paris. The man whose performance as an uber-WASP in Meet the Parents launched his career had been recast as a version of the early Allen protagonists whose comic fits of anxiety launched one thousand Gaylord Fockers.
The line that separates yin and yang is not a diameter. It is curved, crooked. We curl into each other’s territories.
My own childhood O. and I moved to New York a couple years apart, both with the intention of becoming writers. When I began graduate school at an M.F.A. writing program, he had just graduated from the same program. While I toiled over an unseemly manuscript, he was publishing work in journals and magazines. It seemed a cruel twist of fate; even as adults, my O. would always be a step ahead, a rung above. When we bumped into each other at parties he was cool and dismissive.
Slowly, I made headway on my novel. I published some stories and essays. I forgot about my O., and it seemed that the world did too. His Facebook profile went private before completely ceasing to exist, and his name stopped appearing on bylines. Over the summer, around the same time that Midnight in Paris came out, I caught a glimpse of him as we both exited a talk given by a once promising poet who had since fallen under the spell of personal demons. O. stood on the street smoking a cigarette and I joined him. We exchanged pleasantries, and he congratulated me on the sale of my novel, which he’d read about online. When I asked what he was up to, he shrugged and fixed his perfect blue eyes on me in a look that can only be described as haunted. He mumbled something about trying to start a band. We only spoke for a couple minutes before departing for different subway stations. I shook his hand before leaving, and wished him well. For the first time, I meant it.
Adam Wilson is the author of the novel Flatscreen, forthcoming from Harper Perennial in February.