Alec Baldwin was the tough screen face of blue-collar America in the 1990s. And it suited him. His best early roles were gritty ones in brutal films such as Miami Blues, or the screen adaptation of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, where he gave a showstopping performance that won him many fans. Baldwin had the manner and look of an ordinary man who wanted to survive at all costs.
Now, in the saddest of media storms, following the accidental shooting of a colleague on the set of his latest movie, the actor will need every ounce of the self-preserving grit he once accessed so easily on film.
Baldwin comes, authentically enough, from the sort of unpretentious middle-income American family that politicians fight over, desperate to win their trust. His father, Alexander, was a football coach with a deep admiration of President Kennedy, and his mother, Carol, was a history teacher.
He was the eldest of four boys and two sisters in a Long Island family with a strong Roman Catholic faith and an equally active Democratic allegiance. Yet, although the Baldwins cared about both politics and books, it was a cultural universe away from the sophisticated LA life of poke bowls, valet parking and yoga that Hollywood stars enjoy.
Law was the first plan for the young Alec, and he applied to study at George Washington University. At the last moment, however, a confident audition for the acting course at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York diverted Baldwin from this path and away from an imagined future in state politics.
Scholarship in hand, his ambitions turned towards becoming a performer. It was a switch that may also have shaped the future of his younger male siblings. Daniel, Billy and Stephen have all followed Alec into the cinema, each working to a greater or lesser extent under the shadow of their big brother.
In his 20s, Baldwin’s charisma and leading-man looks earned him a string of fairly soppy roles, such as in the Dallas spin-off television series Knots Landing, or as the best friend in She’s Having a Baby, but it was his “real man” credentials that got him noticed in those crucial years. A small but important role in Working Girl, playing the uneducated boyfriend that Melanie Griffith has to shake off, is typical of this work.
Baldwin also has a back-catalogue of action adventures to his name, appearing in thrillers such as The Hunt for Red October and lately in a succession of Mission Impossible outings with Tom Cruise.
In recent years though, having been first claimed by glittering fame then washed up on the shores of Tinseltown before being raised up high again by a run of acclaimed work on television, stage and film, Baldwin has become something of a showbiz emblem of the straight-talking American left. In middle age, he has told interviewers repeatedly, he has gained control. As the father now of six young children, dubbed “the Baldwinitos” by their mother, Baldwin’s second wife, Hilaria, the actor is now mostly concerned about remaining available to his family and providing for their future.
Why does all this heavy emphasis on “being in control” matter, even before the terrible events of the last few days? Well, Baldwin has the kind of mucky track record of reckless and angry behaviour that has often seeped out from under the shimmering veil that protects cinema’s elite from the public eye.
His courtship of Kim Basinger, one of the biggest female stars of the 1980s and also perhaps the last of the old school “screen sirens”, put Baldwin in the headlines immediately after they met on the set of the 1990 film The Marrying Man. Despite a turbulent relationship, they married three years later. A decision to separate permanently came not long afterwards, but Basinger was pregnant and a nasty custody battle over their new daughter, Ireland, followed. In 1995, Baldwin was reported to have hit a cameraman who was filming Basinger as she took the baby home from hospital.
It is tempting to see Baldwin’s recent bold claims to be in control of his life as a bad case of baiting the fates
In 2006, in what was probably the most damaging debacle for the actor, a tape of Baldwin berating his 11-year-old daughter on the phone for not staying in touch was leaked to the press. The language and tone were not at all fatherly. In fact, Baldwin accused her of being “a pig”. Ireland, now 25, describes their relationship these days as “excellent”.
Baldwin hit the news pages again for riding his bike the wrong way down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and arguing with the police about it. And on another occasion he was thrown off a plane before take-off after an argument with a flight steward who had told him to turn off his phone. More recently, in 2013, the star resorted to leaving Twitter for a while in the wake of an unseemly row with a journalist over whether or not Hilaria had been caught texting on her phone during the funeral of Sopranos actor James Gandolfini. Baldwin had used homophobic language in his furious response.
And Hilaria herself has taken some direct public criticism. Last year, she was accused of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation by some for claiming she had Spanish-American heritage. The truth, it seems, is that she grew up in Boston as plain old Hillary. The incident prompted her husband to rail publicly against the attack-dog mobs he believes stalk social media, waiting to pounce on celebrities who are found wanting. “Cancel culture is like a forest fire in constant need of fuel,” he tweeted.
The composure that has largely characterised Baldwin’s public persona in recent years has come along with greater recognition from his peer group. Screen performances for Martin Scorsese in The Aviator and The Departed and in Woody Allen films, including Blue Jasmine, and then opposite Meryl Streep and Steve Martin in the mid-life comedy It’s Complicated, have coincided with fresh television kudos. His work on Saturday Night Live, where his impersonations of Donald Trump became staple comic fare, and his part in the award-winning sitcom 30 Rock have placed him at the heart of America’s savvy, satirical community. So too has his job as host of his own evening chat shows on MSNBC and then ABC.
In the light of the death of the cinematographer Halyna Hutchins last week, it is tempting to see Baldwin’s recent bold claims to be in control of his life as a bad case of baiting the fates. A man who has worked so hard to win back the respect of the liberal elite, and of women in particular, has now accidentally killed a rising female camerawoman. Certainly, the actor appears to be one of those unlucky people who live at the mercy of the Gods, either buffeted by ill-fortune, or actively inviting disaster. His Tony-winning Broadway portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, playing a sensitive but angry man who ultimately seriously harms a woman, could make a compelling comparison.
But this episode is not really part of Baldwin’s own dramatic narrative. It is Halyna Hutchins’ sorrowful story, one felt by her family much more keenly than any other. And it is the failure to safely handle dangerous props on a film set that will likely soon be in the dock. The fates, even in a Hollywood tragedy like this, do not come into it.