Reality Bites. Fans reacted with predictable intensity to the news last week that Kristen Stewart was caught frolicking with her married 42-year-old director. Evidence that she had jilted her long-term boyfriend and co-star, Robert Pattinson, left some women suffering a grief response that appeared quirky, to say the least. The jaded press coverage has been equally one-note, with mocking descriptions of distraught female fans taking to the streets in "sackcloth and ashes" and "a wave of hysteria not seen since Sigmund Freud set up shop in Vienna."
But it's not only the oddball Twilight fan base and rapacious press corps who find the story compelling. There's something terribly poignant for everyone in this public and all-too-human drama.
The brazenness of the publicity-shy Stewart's assignation in a public park caught the film world by surprise. Photos circulating both before and after the hookup suggested things were rock-solid in the "Robsten" household.
As Hollywood cheating scandals go, it's a pedestrian one: No cultish mind control or prostitute-fueled benders, just a young actress -- in thrall to her Svengali -- who threw security to the wind and now lives to regret it. What made the story noteworthy -- apart from the couple's perch at the very top of the A-list -- was the contrast with the actors' long history of jealously-guarded privacy.
In this era of full disclosure, where celebrities like Beyoncé, Brad and Angelina, Alec Baldwin and Matthew McConnaughey are shilling their most intimate moments like car salesmen, there was something both touching and admirable about a young couple at the peak of fame so zealously protecting their relationship. They mostly kept to themselves, despite the chronic "gotcha" provocations and desperate "shippers" who wanted confirmatory evidence. We didn't need couch-jumping TomKat antics to get the point. If their reticence occasionally seemed precious, their silence was also the greatest testament to their love.
It gave Stewart's hastily announced public apology -- which was immediately parsed for authorship and motivation -- an aching authenticity that could only be the hallmark of youthful desperation: "I love him, I love him, I'm so sorry," she doubly pleaded, apparently too late if reports of moving vans at their shared home are any clue. The wild breach of character actually gave some weight to her claim that it was all just a crazy mistake.
Whatever one thinks of cheating -- and studies suggest a high degree of hypocrisy -- it's not hard to empathize with this couple; the coltish, Californian free spirit trying to mature under the glare of fame and the grateful middle class boy who brought his parents to Jay Leno gigs and carried British self-deprecation to Olympian heights. With their humor, good looks and, yes, talent, they seemed to embody both the extraordinary promise and the run of the mill quirks of youth. There was something lovable about their slouchy, goofy public appearances; the occasional stumbles (including the disproportionately harsh critique of their acting ability) only endeared them further to their fans and fueled the fantasy that what we were seeing onscreen -- the promise of eternal love -- could be echoed by real life.
But it was probably unfair to put such Herculean expectations on mere youthful mortals. (Stewart met Pattinson when she was 17.) In the reality-based world, youth is a major risk factor for the destruction of relationships. Harvard researcher Dana Rotz argues that increased age of marriage is the single biggest explanation for the dramatic decline in divorce over the last couple of decades. The interminable courtship of Prince William and Catherine Middleton seemed to confirm what most people already know: All things being equal, it's a good idea to acquire experience and self-knowledge before committing to a lifetime partnership.
In fantasyland, things work a little differently. In the Twilight story, Pattinson's Edward -- older, more self-controlled -- soldiers on with increasing masochism as the much younger Bella toys with (and kisses) another guy. Although omitted in the film version, Edward even offers his rival's stud services so that his bride can experience motherhood without risking her life giving birth to a dangerous vampire hybrid.
In a later scene, he gamely fetches a bucket for his pregnant young wife while Jacob tenderly warms her body -- something Edward can't easily accomplish because of his cooler vampire temperature.
Pattinson had choice words for this tableau.
"Look, there are a lot of moments when Edward sort of acts like a p--y," he joked. "Jacob's like, 'Hey, baby, you don't look too bad to me, and I'm just sitting there with a bucket collecting [Bella's] vomit. That really wouldn't happen. I should have thrown the vomit at him."
Fair enough. But I can't help rooting for these beautiful kids whose talent and money can't insulate them from the slings and arrows of life.