The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Social Network Press Tour

It’s October 2020, which means that it’s been a full decade. At this very moment, ten years ago, the whole world was watching Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield. The two young actors were starring in a story that transfixed a generation. How much of it was true? How much of it was fiction? It hardly mattered. It was electrifying.

No, I am not referring to the 2010 David Fincher film The Social Network. I am referring to the promotional tour for the 2010 David Fincher film The Social Network.

Either you know what I’m talking about, or you don’t. If you don’t, I’m hesitant to explain it to you. My instinct is to equivocate, to downplay, even to deny: it was really just a joke. Of course we understood, deep down, that there was nothing but mutual professional esteem between Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield. For all we knew, the two actors didn’t even like each other in real life. Perhaps they were simply performing friendship for the red-carpet cameras, just as they had done for the film that it was their job to promote. Yes, we thought we detected a certain spark between them in those red-carpet interviews, but we were no fools: we knew perfectly well that a movie star’s job is to generate chemistry with his scene partner. Yes, some of us were inspired to write fiction speculating on a more intimate relationship between the two young men, and you could argue that this fiction bordered  on violation — but you could make the same complaint about The Social Network itself! Furthermore, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin made millions fictionalizing the relationship between Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin, while we earned nothing and asked for nothing and anyway it was ten years ago and you weren’t there, shut up.

And if you were there…well, then, I don’t need to explain anything to you. You watched the fanvids. You caught Andrew tenderly brushing lint off Jesse’s shoulder (to you, of course, they were always “Andrew” and “Jesse”); you heard Jesse saying, “You didn’t know me at thirteen,” and Andrew murmuring in response, “I really wish I had.” You cringed through the bizarrely intimate Moviefone featurette in which Jesse slyly asks Andrew, “How did you fall in love with me, onscreen?”

“And off,” adds Justin Timberlake, a third wheel who will not speak again for the duration of the clip.

“And/or off,” Jesse amends.

“Um,” says Andrew, nervously chewing a fingernail. “I could choose to answer this honestly.” He glances quickly at Jesse, then looks away. “And I’m going to. There’s something about your face that kind of, um, engenders…” He looks again at Jesse, looks away, laughs nervously, and blurts out, “…kind of…a well of, um, joy.” He turns his head fully away from Jesse, addresses the wall behind him. “Springs from my soul.” Suddenly he turns back to Jesse and speaks very rapidly, almost babbling, as if panicked: “It’s pure projection. It’s actually nothing personal. Nothing to do with you. It’s just that you remind me of a dog I once had and loved very much.” And Jesse nods, biting his lower lip to keep his smile from overtaking his face.

You saw all of that, presumably.

But that was a decade ago. The two young actors are now established stars. Jesse Eisenberg has married his longtime partner, Anna Strout, and the two of them have a son. Andrew Garfield keeps his personal life private, but as he put it to an interviewer for Out magazine, “I want to know as much of the garden as possible before I pass — I have an openness to any impulses that may arise within me at any time. But, if I were to identify, I would identify as heterosexual.” There is no evidence that the two actors have remained in each other’s lives since the autumn of 2010. By all rights, we should have moved on. And yet, and yet…

What was it about that promotional tour? Why did it exert such power over us? Why does it still exert such power over me, long after the novelty should have worn off? What possessed me, at the age of 31, in the year of our lord 2018, to write a work of experimental erotic fiction inspired by Andrew and Jesse — and to workshop it, with only the names altered, at the actual fucking Iowa Writers’ Workshop?*

Let me make this clear: I do not believe that the two actors actually had a secret love affair. I’m saying this not for legal reasons (although, for legal reasons, let me say it again: [@EDITOR: PLZ INSERT THE SAME SENTIMENT HERE IN THE LEGALEST LANGUAGE YOU KNOW]), but out of genuine conviction. The autumn of 2010 — or, at any rate, my fantasy of it — haunts me because of what didn’t happen between Andrew and Jesse. I do not deny that Andrew Garfield spent the entire Social Network promotional tour gazing at his costar with an alarmingly vulnerable expression of awe, tenderness, wide-open heart-on-his-sleeve adoration. But that gaze, as far as I could ever tell, was not mutual.

To some degree, this was an offshoot of their character dynamic in the movie they were promoting. It’s no secret that the two actors intentionally played up the romantic tension between their fictional avatars of Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin. Andrew Garfield, in an interview, explained his character’s motivation this way: “I had to be in awe of him. I had to support him and support his genius, and to be protective of him and want him for myself — to be his boyfriend, really, in every way but a sexual way.” Jesse Eisenberg, addressing his costar in a dialogue filmed for MySpace (were we ever so young?), recalled of their onscreen collaboration, “I felt that you oftentimes were kind of, like, doting on me. That you really, really liked me. And it made me feel that much more, kind of like, almost irritated.” This dynamic seems to have reached its apotheosis in an incident that Garfield recounts in the DVD commentary track: as Garfield filmed his half of a telephone conversation, Eisenberg stood off-camera and “kept on giving me these wonderful little ad-libs for me to react to. […] At one point I made him say: ‘I love you, you’re my best friend. Come, and we’ll get married, and we’ll live in a house together.’”

But look at Andrew’s wording there: not he said, “I love you,” but I made him say, “I love you. Throughout the promotional tour, this scene appeared to play itself out over and over: Andrew grasping hopefully toward Jesse, who always stands just out of reach. Let’s revisit this red-carpet interview — notice how Andrew never takes his eyes off Jesse, while Jesse barely looks at him at all. Andrew slides his fingers across Jesse’s shoulder, apparently flicking away lint; Jesse shoots Andrew a brief glance, and Andrew laughs awkwardly and makes a show of adjusting his own suit. Jesse tells the interviewer that he’s wearing his old Bar Mitzvah suit; Andrew lights up, looks Jesse up and down, and exclaims, “But you look great!

“You didn’t know me at thirteen,” Jesse says.

His eyes downcast, Andrew murmurs, “I really wish I had.”

Another interviewer chirps, “Have you guys picked dates for the Oscars yet?”

“I’m doing a very thorough interview process,” says Jesse. He’s joking around, deadpan. “We get several candidates. It’s gonna be televised on Fox. The winner gets to go on to round two.”

“How about you, Andrew?” says the interviewer.

Andrew tilts his head toward Jesse and says, “I’m auditioning for round one.”

Jesse laughs — a startled laugh. Jesse has no further response to Andrew’s joke. The interview is abruptly over.

Andrew’s ardor is all the more poignant for being directed at someone so awkward and disheveled and, by all objective metrics, far less attractive than Andrew himself, who is close to the Platonic ideal of a gorgeous movie star. To witness the spectacle of this elegant, stylish, posh-accented dreamboat mooning and swooning over a nebbishy little Jersey boy wearing his old Bar Mitzvah suit…well, one can’t help thinking of Titania, the magnificent Fairy Queen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, placed under an enchantment that causes her to fall madly in love with a dorky community theater actor with the head of an ass.

And how does Jesse himself feel about this? By nature, he seems like someone who plays his emotional cards close to the vest. If he comes across as less demonstratively affectionate than Andrew in all available footage, that in itself doesn’t tell us much. Perhaps Jesse simply isn’t a demonstratively affectionate friend. (Next to Andrew, no one is.)

But look at this behind-the-scenes footage from The Social Network. During a break in filming, Andrew eagerly asks Jesse for feedback on his performance. “Amazing,” Jesse replies languorously. “You were really responsive, and kind of…obedient.”

“You’re not just saying that to make me feel good?” says Andrew.

“I was trying to make you feel bad,” says Jesse.

Is he still in character as Mark? Andrew isn’t in character as Eduardo; he’s been speaking in his natural English accent this whole time. Andrew hesitates. “You’ve confused me now,” he says, with a nervous laugh, and walks away.

Later in the clip, Andrew drapes his hand across Jesse’s shoulder. Playfully, he presses his fingers against Jesse’s mouth. Without looking in Andrew’s direction, Jesse nips or sucks Andrew’s finger until Andrew drops his hand. (Here’s a goddamn looping gif if you don’t believe me.)

Now let’s take another look at that Moviefone featurette. Try, if you possibly can, to tear your eyes away from poor besotted Andrew, and focus instead on Jesse. “How did you fall in love with me,” he says, and pauses slightly — might there be a glint of cruelty in that pause? — before adding, “onscreen?” Look how he leans back in his chair to bask in Andrew’s obliging how-do-I-love-thee-let-me-count-the-ways. Look at his smirking stillness as Andrew falls to pieces beside him. “There’s something about your face that kind of engenders…kind of…a well of joy…springs, um, from my soul,” Andrew stammers, his voice cracking with emotion. Coolly, wordlessly, Jesse nods. It’s the nod of a benevolent dictator, satisfied with his own power.

It would be uncharitable, perhaps, to classify Jesse’s behavior as leading Andrew on. Who in his position wouldn’t be tempted to do the same? If Titania the Fairy Queen inexplicably fell head over heels in love with you, could you really resist throwing her occasional scraps of flirtatious attention — even if fairy queens weren’t strictly your thing, sexually or romantically — just to see her luminous fairy eyes light up for little old nebbishy you? Are you really so morally pure as to deprive yourself of such a once-in-a-lifetime gift?

If Andrew and Jesse had actually had a secret love affair during the promotional tour for The Social Network, they’d have been more discreet in public. If they’d announced they were dating, it would have come off as a crass stunt, cynical and phony against the backdrop of the promotional tour. We would not be haunted by it a decade later. No, what we imagined we were witnessing in the autumn of 2010 was something much more intimate, much more banal, and much more embarrassing: an unrequited crush. It unfolded in public, with the consent of both parties, but its raw emotional texture was so painfully familiar that it might as well have been a sex tape. Ten years later, I sense that I shouldn’t keep looking. It’s like staring directly into the sun.

And yet, even now, I can’t tear my eyes away. Who could resist such a thing? How often do we get to see the celebrity soul — no, the human soul — laid so bare, so beautifully bare?

So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle
Gently entwist; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.
O, how I love thee! how I dote on thee!
–Andrew Garfield, probably (2010)

____________________________________________________________________________

*It was received mostly with confusion, though some feedback was encouraging. One classmate wrote, “It’s doing a lot of smart things. Like the fact that I want them to fuck so bad is such a meta commentary that the story produces.”

2 thoughts on “The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Social Network Press Tour

  1. TYSM says:

    omg I HAD NO IDEA!!!!!!!!!! and i watched the movie at the cinema back then. thank you for this trip down memory lane (it reads like a meta fanfic) and also for this:

    It was received mostly with confusion, though some feedback was encouraging. One classmate wrote, “It’s doing a lot of smart things. Like the fact that I want them to fuck so bad is such a meta commentary that the story produces.”

    hahahahahaha

    Liked by 1 person

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