Game Face: Hollywood's New Social Media Nightmare (Just Ask Sad Affleck)

Stars' stray expressions of scorn, disgust, disbelief and shame caught on camera are providing the ultimate "gotcha" entertainment — and PR nightmares.

Leonardo DiCaprio won his third Golden Globe and first Oscar for The Revenant this year, but ask any millennial what they remember most about the actor's 2016 awards-show presence and chances are it'll be his sarcastically cringing (and cringe-inducing) reaction to Lady Gaga bumping past him to receive a Globe for her performance on FX's American Horror Story: Hotel. Within minutes, Twitter, Vine, Instagram and Tumblr were filled with clips from the NBC broadcast mocking DiCaprio's expression, many hashtagged #shade (as in throwing shade, or implying insult). "Oh, lord, that's trending, huh?" said the actor blandly when Entertainment Tonight showed him the already infamous GIF backstage, while denying he knew who had brushed past him. "It's amazing what goes viral these days."

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DiCaprio momentarily misplacing his professional game face — the pleasant, appropriate masklike expression that's optimal to adopt in public, the cracking of which (i.e., from authentic emotions and reactions) can trigger social media blowups — isn't new. Will Smith and his children Jaden and Willow did the same thing during, yes, Gaga's opening performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards — not during Miley Cyrus' twerking on Robin Thicke, as the initial round of memes showing the Smiths agog from between Cyrus' legs indicated.

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But with today's 24/7 social media cycle, the ubiquity of devices that snap, tweet, Insta and Facebook every unguarded celebrity move has created endless "gotcha" entertainment for consumers hungry for anything truly unscripted. "Those 'moments' make good television," says Jill Fritzo, owner of Jill Fritzo PR, who has worked with Michael Strahan, the Kardashian family and Selena Gomez. "It's what a lot of people want to see — I don't see that going away anytime soon. In fact, thanks to social media, I think these 'moments' will only increase in the live-event space."

Another prime example during this year's awards season was Revenant director Alejandro G. Inarritu being skewered for not clapping when Mad Max: Fury Road's informally dressed costume designer, Jenny Beavan, accepted her Oscar in a clip (sometimes hashtagged #yougojenny) that debuted on Vine and garnered more than 38 million views before being taken down. "What you don't see in the 10-second clip being circulated is my applause for Jenny as she ascended the stairs to the stage," protested Inarritu in a statement released via his publicist, along with a GIF showing he indeed clapped. "I've learned a lot this awards season … that I should never cross my arms when I am sitting down." Chrissy Teigen also learned at the Oscars that she should mind her "poker face," as she put it on her Twitter feed, after visibly recoiling when actress (and sometime race contrarian) Stacey Dash took the stage. Teigen's expressive wince spread well beyond her 6.6 million Instagram followers.

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But as any good Internet or social media junkie can tell you, memes aren't created only during awards season. They come in all shapes and sizes: Nate Parker looked what some said was incredulously at Lupita Nyong'o's outfit and skyscraper hair during the 2016 Met Ball, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made confused expressions behind Donald Trump on Mar-a-Lago's ballroom stage in March — and became the top-trending topic on Twitter. (Christie's wife, Mary Pat, became a GIF herself when she rolled her eyes during the Republican frontrunner's New York victory speech in April.) Perhaps one of the most viral sensations of late was the sad Ben Affleck meme, created when the Batman v. Superman actor was asked about his film's scathing Rotten Tomatoes rating during a Yahoo Movies interview. His pitiful "I agree" and forlorn face spawned a tsunami of clips, often accompanied by the hashtag #sadaffleck, which garnered more than a million views within the first 48 hours and 22 million to date on YouTube.

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So what's a celebrity — and his or her handlers — to do? "For male clients, when they're out in public, I tell them to remain expressionless," says a publicist who reps top A-listers. "It keeps them from looking angry or manic. Just have no expression at all. Or even better: Wear sunglasses." For women, she adds: "Since Botox around the eyes can weaken the smile on a person's face, which gives some of my clients what people call 'resting bitch face' and looks awful in pictures, I've had some clients get a little bit of Botox and fillers in the corners of their mouth to counteract this. It actually turns them up to make it look like you're happier."

The need for constant composure and self-control has "always been out there with paparazzi, but it's certainly more prevalent now that people have cellphones," says Cindi Berger, chairman and CEO of PMK•BNC, who has worked with such clients as Billy Crystal, Mariah Carey, Barbara Walters and Robert Redford. Adds Community actress Yvette Nicole Brown, "If I know that I'm going to be at an event, I am very aware of trying to make my face look pleasant, or people ask me: 'What's wrong? Who died?' " But Jeff Blume, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist who has worked with top talent for more than 25 years, warns that putting up a perfectly placid front can strain, with the potential to backfire: "It's when you're being fake for the camera, that you're not being your authentic self, that something can go wrong."

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Beyonce initially followed that principle during her 2013 Super Bowl halftime show, after which the internet buzzed with images of the singer making spontaneously intense faces (and depicting her as She Hulk, a wrestler or wearing the Mad Max mask), but the singer pulled back on said authenticity when her publicist contacted BuzzFeed requesting that the "unflattering photos" be taken down. The site published the email, causing the images to go viral, and months later Beyonce banned all photographers except her own from her Mrs. Carter Show World Tour.

It seems fans will caption, draw over, hashtag and repurpose even snaps that lack a real backstory (like Sarah Jessica Parker play-fighting with Tom Hanks at a New York Rangers game in 2015; her publicist had to release a statement to verify that SJP's dismissive gestures were in jest). But sometimes the best defense is no defense. "I really should be [more aware]," says Bryce Dallas Howard. "My publicist called me saying, 'Can you be a little less hermit-mom-who-maybe-doesn't-shower and try to be more of an aspirational actress?' I don't really put on makeup unless I'm being paid to do it. At the end of the day, that effort is sometimes worth it and sometimes not."

No one can be "on" all the time, not even in Hollywood. "You can't live in fear of people snapping a shot when you're out at a basketball game," says Berger. Adds Matt Bomer: "You have to live your life. The nice thing about the internet is that memes come and go real quick. So what's the worst that is going to happen? You f— up, and there is a meme featuring you? Come on — it will be OK."

As social media notoriety extends to the likes of Will and Monifa Sims, the couple who performed karaoke at a Burbank gas pump, or Daniel Lara of "Damn Daniel!" fame, even the common man isn't immune. "For me, it's been like [this] for the past 20 years," says Cuba Gooding Jr. "For the average person, they are just now getting the experience of it. It sucks, but welcome to the party is all I can say!"

Additional reporting by Chris Gardner.

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5 Traumatic Side Effects
By: Chris Gardner

1. Panic and anxiety

Blume says several of his patients are fearful of what might happen and suffer more frequent panic attacks because of feelings of helplessness and inability to control their personal presence online.

2. Relationship damage

Patients can "withdraw," says Blume. It's worse if the social media lashing stems from a betrayal: "They never know who it's going to be. It could be part of their staff who turned against them and shared a personal photo."

3. Loss of creativity and motivation

Social media shame "doesn't just hurt their sense of self. They don't want to do more creative projects — that's a problem." Blume says he "tries to keep them focused on their creative self and not get caught up in the noise."

4. Depression

"I've had many celebrities be quietly suicidal after feeling exposed," says Blume. "You don't even hear about that stuff." His solution? "I really encourage them not to look on the internet or Google themselves, which can overwhelm them."

5. Career setbacks

Blume has witnessed how mocking memes or GIFs can damage careers, sometimes indefinitely. "People Google things," he says. "There's an unconscious dynamic now: We want to create heroes, then catch them out and devalue them." 

This story first appeared in the May 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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