Film Review: Smash His Camera

A paparazzo’s life, replete with flashbulbs and sucker punches, says much about the nature of celebrity and our fascination with it.

The title Smash His Camera is a direct quote from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who, exasperated by the inescapable paparazzo Ron Galella, the subject of this documentary, gave this instruction to a policeman on a Manhattan street. And who could blame her? What Leon Gast’s film makes clear, however, is that Onassis and Galella shared one of the most highly unlikely and symbiotic relationships imaginable. Candid shots of Jackie were Galella’s bread and butter, while these images contributed greatly to this woman’s legendary mystique and, indeed, constitute much of how we remember her today. Galella calls a classic, windblown photo of her his Mona Lisa, and, irony of ironies, what was once considered the most craven, bottom-feeding of celebrity-based occupations has become ever more popular, and, in Galella’s case, the work is now considered art, shown in major galleries and seriously collected.

Smash His Camera is a wild, fun ride which takes the punchy Galella from his humble beginnings in New Jersey, where he still resides in a kitschy home described as “right out of ‘The Sopranos,’” to the present day where he continues to ply his trade, although the stars today do not compare in his mind to those of yesteryear. (He sniffs when a fellow paparazzo tells him he’s stalking Angela Bassett.) He was nothing if not intrepid, lurking in Central Park on a doorman’s tip to grab his first shots of Jackie and her kids on a bicycle, once staking out an Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton yacht sojourn from a rented rat-infested warehouse above the Thames. Even today, he thinks nothing of drawing up elaborate plans to infiltrate a Waldorf Astoria event honoring Robert Redford. All the interviewees here who know him—ranging from artist Chuck Close to eminent photojournalist Harry Benson—attest to his absolute, obsessive love of his work and even cite him as something of a class act in a profession now overrun by animals.

The famous, precedent-setting court cases involving Onassis (in which Galella was ordered to keep a certain distance from her at all times) and Brando (who once walloped him after a “Dick Cavett Show” appearance), detailed here, have their own fascination. We learn that Galella enjoys a very happily married personal life and get to see his storerooms, which contain shelves and shelves and boxes and boxes of pictures, all carefully labeled as to subjects. It’s quite a life’s work and, as he goes through his photos, making comments like “Here’s Michael Jackson, when he was black,” you cannot doubt that it is all of real documentary importance, especially in this celebrity-obsessed age. An amusing if slightly terrifying sequence features a twenty-something know-nothing going through a Galella gallery show, completely ignorant about its subjects: “I don’t know who this is” (Kissinger); “She’s pretty, was she a model?” (Bardot). This says as much about the fleeting nature of fame as does a box in his storeroom which undoubtedly doesn’t get much call from the magazines these days, marked “Joan Bennett.”