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Anthony Bourdain, ‘Roadrunner,’ and the Persistent Burden of Fame

The new documentary on the famed chef is a glimpse into a singular life, but in many ways, it’s a story we’ve become sadly all too familiar with

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On February 12, 2006, James Lipton, host of Inside the Actors Studio, welcomed Dave Chappelle to the show. It was part of Dave’s media tour following his very public exit from Chappelle’s Show at the height of the series’ popularity. What unfolded over the nearly hourlong interview, beyond the expected cataloguing of his life and career, remains one of the finest excoriations of Hollywood and fame that you will ever hear. Chappelle had taken great offense (rightfully so) at the media and people in his life who questioned his sanity for leaving behind millions of dollars and a successful television series, and so he tried with great effort to explain what a career in the spotlight does to a person. In a particularly inspired moment, he talks about speaking with Martin Lawrence a couple of days after he had suffered a major heat stroke. Chappelle talks about Lawrence’s “strength” and how a person that strong in Hollywood could end up running down the streets of L.A. waving a gun and screaming, “They’re trying to kill me.” He brings up Mariah Carey’s meltdown on TRL, Britney Spears shaving her head, and his own sojourn to Africa, connecting them together as side effects of fame and wondering aloud, “Maybe the environment is sick.”

By now, people are more understanding about what made Chappelle quit his show. Society is much more open about mental health. The idea of emotional intelligence and labor, once exclusive to academic circles, has gone mainstream, and therapy has become normalized in conversations both online and off. We now constantly think about mental health, and people are often encouraged to take the time necessary for their own self-care. So under this seemingly progressive climate, how then do we justify the persistence of fame? The contradictions of mental health care in a fame- and success-obsessed society are at the forefront of my mind throughout Roadrunner, the new Morgan Neville documentary on the life and death of Anthony Bourdain. The film, out this past Friday, is partly a celebration of the “bad boy” chef turned food and travel global superstar and the legacy he left behind, but a great deal of the movie is about the friends, collaborators, and family of Bourdain who are still grieving his death and working through their very fresh wounds.

Bourdain’s death by suicide in 2018 was seismic and mostly unexpected. While he was never shy about his demons and past addictions, he seemed to be thriving, at least publicly. He was in a relationship with the Italian actress and artist Asia Argento, whom he seemed to love, and he had become a vocal supporter of the #MeToo movement, willing to put action to words and call out bad behavior in the industry. Parts Unknown, his mega-successful travelogue series, was riding high. And then it was over; Bourdain was gone and everyone, people close to him and fans alike, was left with more questions than answers.

It’s clear early in Roadrunner that, beyond just keeping his legacy alive, the filmmakers are hoping to find answers to explain how we got here; pouring through thousands of hours of footage and a treasure trove of writings, pictures, and stories from the people in his life to gain a coherent picture of who this man was and what drove him. But for as public and open as Bourdain came off as a personality, he was full of ambiguity. A seeker constantly looking for that next thing to obsess over, he became more agoraphobic as his fame grew, constantly burrowing into himself under the pressure of stardom. While Roadrunner is incredibly intimate and incisive, Anthony Bourdain remains as enigmatic and impenetrable as ever.

A particularly captivating talking head in the movie, artist and friend David Choe, summed up Bourdain most succinctly, in an anecdote in which he’s prodding Bourdain about how the chef overcame his intense heroin addiction as a young man. According to Choe, Bourdain said he just decided one day that he didn’t want to live that way anymore. Choe thought it profound and impressive at the time but upon getting to know Bourdain more, he came to a different realization. “[The addiction] didn’t go away. He just moved it to another area in his life,” Choe says, commenting on Bourdain’s penchant for becoming unhealthily obsessed with different mediums throughout his life, whether it was the show or jiu jitsu.

Fame, like unregulated capitalism, is something we now recognize as causing many problems, but no one seems prepared to do anything to fix them, primarily because that would involve tackling our own involvement in keeping the problem alive. It’s evident in Britney Spears’s current fight against the conservatorship her family placed her in. Everyone agrees Britney should be free but what about the role our collective obsession played in getting to this point? We read the blogs and bought the magazines that used invasive paparazzi shots and rewarded the toxic ecosystem that painted her as especially unstable. Mental health concern didn’t prevent crass media speculation around Demi Lovato’s 2018 overdose. The combination of celebrity and the increased accessibility social media brings has only poured gasoline on our obsession with fame. As entertainment has folded into one amorphous blob known as “content,” our definition of celebrity has expanded to include people famous for being a meme, famous for talking, or simply famous for being famous. Along with this blurring of celebrity, our expectations for these public figures have increased beyond being good at what they do to how closely they can align to our personal worldview, politics, and moral compass. Despite our progression into becoming more sensitive and aware of the struggles and shortcomings of our fellow citizens, this courtesy has not been completely extended to our public figures.

Fame also magnified Bourdain’s struggles. When every shortcoming—every moment of sadness—becomes a public spectacle, it’s doubly difficult to deal with. In Roadrunner, the filmmakers get into just how famous Bourdain got—that rarefied zone of becoming a “household name,” which made it impossible for him to even step out of the house without being swarmed. For a guy who carried himself like a wandering loner, where could he go for that necessary solitude? After a while, traveling for the show, particularly when it took him deep into the desert or to remote villages, became the only refuge—the last place he could be just another face. Parts Unknown became his whole life, a necessity of making a great show of that kind. In the doc, it’s mentioned that Bourdain thought the ideal version of the show was one where he could narrate the action but never be seen; just an omnipresent voice for the voiceless rather than a larger-than-life personality. That anecdote is a window into how much making a great program meant to him, and how having to be the centerpiece continued to bring him anxiety. According to a story in the doc from Parts Unknown producer Lydia Tenaglia, after Bourdain finally hit his wall emotionally and creatively, he came to her and another producer to inform them that he wanted to quit. But when both producers gave Bourdain their blessing and challenged him to go out to find what makes him happy, Bourdain couldn’t actually go through with it. It’s a vulnerable moment in the film, with Tenaglia wondering whether Bourdain had wanted to be stopped or talked out of this decision. It was another example of how Bourdain was constantly veering between pushing fame away and keeping it close, but also his desire to be desired or wanted back. Bourdain was a champion of people all over the world, using food as the great connective tissue; he was universally loved, and there’s a lot of pressure that comes along with that.

The last third of Roadrunner is particularly intense, as Bourdain’s loved ones try to make sense of his death. Their pain is raw and fresh; Bourdain’s friends and family are unable to keep their composure as they recount memories and things they wish they had done as he began to unravel in the final year of his life. It’s like watching private therapy sessions as those closest to him collapse into tears and frustrations, overanalyzing every moment that might have made the difference. They paint a picture of a man in distress, lost after a divorce from the mother of his child, cut off from his daughter due to constant travel, desperate to be wanted, and unable to relinquish the show that made him such a star. Despite his success, he almost comes off purposeless, as though he needed something else to lean into as a reprieve from his life and work. There’s a scene taken from Parts Unknown, in which Bourdain sits in a Florida coffee shop with Iggy Pop, and the contrast between Iggy’s sense of appreciation for family and acceptance of life and Bourdain’s neurosis and feelings of constant disappointment highlights Bourdain’s struggles to find peace.

Maybe that’s what he hoped to find in Argento—a new sense of purpose and a love that felt engrossing enough to keep him afloat. In footage featuring the two, Bourdain seems childlike but also nervy and unnatural as he tries constantly to impress her. Argento is not featured in Roadrunner as a talking head, primarily because Neville felt she’d be too heavy of a presence, as Bourdain and Argento’s relationship became rocky near the end. It is painful to watch the way Bourdain tries so hard and gets so frustrated throughout their courtship, because I saw so much of my own younger self: the guy who was eager to please and desperate for others to like me because I didn’t like me. That must’ve been especially frustrating to sit through for those close to Bourdain. They care about him but they can’t penetrate his psyche enough to combat the problem.

The hardest part of watching the events unfold as they did, though, was the public nature of it all. Bourdain wore everything on his sleeve—it was a major part of his charm. That famous clip of his first time at Waffle House in South Carolina is a perfect showcase of his earnestness, an endearing corniness and infectious lust for life. In the context of the documentary, though, the vulnerability is uncomfortable to watch—so much so that it’s hard not to wonder whether we should have this much access. Life is not meant to be performed 24/7 for a viewing audience. Bourdain is his own worst enemy throughout Roadrunner, convinced of an imposter syndrome that’s not real, and to watch it is to watch a man feeling his life closing in despite a career going better than ever.

It usually takes a death to force people to grapple with what living in the spotlight does to someone. That kind of jolt helps people find some perspective or to look within. I don’t know whether or not celebrity is bad or wrong. I’m a fan of movie stars and, like with anything else, appreciate the art of being good at being famous, which many people are. As a journalist, I’m in favor of covering and discussing public figures, as well. But the treacherous part is finding that line before things go too far. There’s something about success and notoriety that makes people view you as larger than life—and therefore too distant for empathy. Celebrities are expected to be OK with the invasion of their personal lives and space. To be a famous success is to be thought of as a god, and humans hate God as much as they love God.

There’s been plenty of discussion about whether we’re already in the throes of the death knell of celebrity, an argument brought on by the pandemic and continuing global catastrophe. The toxicity of our collective obsession has been written about and evaluated plenty in the past few years. We are looking for a way forward, even if incrementally. But the other thing Roadrunner does is it hints at a troublesome alternative for celebrity. In an interview with The New Yorker, Neville talks about creating an A.I. model of Bourdain’s voice using hours of his own audio and writings in order to narrate a few lines of dialogue in the documentary. Whether this is ethical or not, it stands as an example of what fame demands of you even after you’re gone.

In the end, Anthony Bourdain couldn’t be saved—who knows whether anything could have been done to prevent what happened. Sitting across from James Lipton 15 years ago and explaining why he had to disappear, Dave Chappelle tried to break down what fame and pressure can do to even the strongest individual. He just wanted a little understanding. It’s the least we can do.

Israel Daramola is a writer based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, BuzzFeed, and Rolling Stone.