Book review: This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps

(cover image courtesy Simon & Schuster)

Celebrity is a curious thing.

While the near-omnipresence of a famous person suggests we know them intimately and well, know everything about them in fact, the truth is that we really only know what they and their publicity team choose to reveal.

It’s a carefully-constructed facade that, if you dig down deeply, uncovers little to nothing of who the person is; there’s nothing wrong with that, of course, since no person, no matter how much they are in the public eye, should have to lay their entire closet bare of every skeleton inhabiting its darkest recesses.

Where it becomes fascinating is when a book such as This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps comes along, replete with a soul-baring honesty and candour that highlights how little we know beyond red carpets, Oprah and Ellen interviews and magazine spreads.

Again, for those of us with lives with our own, what we know about celebrities is plenty, thank you very much; where it becomes fascinating is when the curtain is pulled back and we come to understand in ways we always suspected that things are never as golden on the gilded road to fame as blindingly-smiling publicists would have you believe.

“Once, a (former) guy friend of mine, who happens to be gorgeous and famous and all of the things, said this to me: ‘ You know, I think people would consider you really beautiful, if only you didn’t talk so much. your personality is just a lot. Don’t get me wrong, I love you, but I think people get distracted by that.’

My clear reaction should have been, ‘ Ewww. Go fuck yourself.’

But for so long, even with my strong personality, telling a man to fuck off wasn’t easy for me to do. Instead, I would just nod and laugh and agree, ‘Hahaha, Yeah,’ and then swallow whatever insult and seethe later.” (P. 1)

What emerges strongly from This Will Only Hurt a Little, which is a delight to read simply it is so unexpectedly and refreshingly honest, is how much compromise has to be made by people like Philipps when they are trying to make it in the entertainment industry.

The obvious one, of course, for women are the issues arising from the Me Too movement which threw into sharp and highly uncomfortable relief just how poorly women have been treated by people within the industry.

The Faustian accommodation that must be made by many women such as Philipps to secure work is brought to life in the book which is engaging but not the laughfest many might be expecting.

There is a warmth and good humour to it, which is why it is such a pleasure to read; you honestly feel like you are having a heart-to-heart of some kind with the author who shares a range of things that will have you gasping that someone would be that brave.

By all accounts, this is Philipps’ modus operandi – tackle things heads on, don’t be afraid to say what you’re thinking and move on to greener, newer pastures.

She admits though that she has not always been this brave and that there were many times when she fell into herself, lost as to what to do next and riven by insecurity and despair about whether she would make it to her envisaged goal of being a famous actress.

That crash-or-crash-through mindset was always there, something her mother readily attests to, but as Philipps is quick to point out, wanting something and being brave to go out and get it are one thing, handling the fallout when it is doesn’t manifest as planned is quite another.

One example she gives is when she has an idea for a film that would be eventually go on to be made as Blades of Glory, only to have the good friend with whom she brainstormed essentially cut her out of much of the screenwriting and the attempt to take away her credit for the story.

It was one of those instances where Philipps felt so betrayed that she opted not to fight the issue; normally she admits she would have but she was so broken by a number of conflating problems and setbacks at the time that she couldn’t find it in herself to apply the normal energy to fight back.

And fight back she has and does.

Philipps herself admits, more than once, that she is a lot to handle, a feisty mix of self-determination, outspokenness and what she delightfully terms “sparkle” and that this has been tough for some people to handle.

But it also emerges, quite strongly, that behind this go-get-’em attiude, that there is a living breathing human being who feels the ego slights, who staggers back when she is attacked, who cries when betrayed and who stumbles when things get too hard.

“Not that I didn’t have to audition and test for it. I did. But Audrey was my fucking part. I remember going into my test at Warner Brothers, and seeing the girl they were testing against me, who was obviously super talented. But all I could think was, ‘Good luck, girl, but you may as well just go home now because this is my part. I’m due for it. IT’S MINE.” (P. 164)

That should be obvious, of course, since actors of all stripes are, in the end, just people.

But so powerful is the myth-making machine of television and Hollywood that it’s easy to forget that, to miss the fact that walking your first red carpet is a thrill, that having Amy Poehler gush over your screenwriting prowess is mind-blowingly good or that finding your one true love, even when it’s not as perfect as envisaged, is kind of magical.

Or that growing up that they made the same mistakes, or worse that we did and that horrifying scars like rape and abortion might haunt them still, even with all the trappings of success and fame.

Like most people, there was no desperate need on behalf of this reviewer to get to know Busy Philipps well – her performances on shows like Freak and Geeks and Cougar Town are inspired, her online activity on Instagram warm and inspiringly grounded and her willingness to speak when needed is reassuring in an age when saying nothing or weasel-wording something is more par for the course.

But I am glad I did get to know Busy Philipps better because she is delightfully forthright, refreshingly honest, lots of fun, daring and willing to call a spade a spade but she is also brave enough to lay it all out in a book like This Will Only Hurt a Little when there is no need to and she could’ve just as easily stayed quiet.

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