In 2022, the term “nepo-baby” cropped up on plenty of Word of the Year shortlists. New York magazine ran a whole issue dedicated to “the Nepo-Baby Boom,” with flow charts illustrating sticky webs of Hollywood heredity. The term suggests that such talents are not only relatives of famous people but direct beneficiaries of nepotism. As New York’s cover text put it: “She has her mother’s eyes. And agent.” (The issue is particularly endemic in Cronenberg’s native Canada, where celebrities from Dan Levy to Jason Reitman to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seem a little too eager to bank on name recognition.)
On the one hand, the “nepo-baby” discourse forms part of a more sustained analysis of class, in Hollywood and elsewhere. On the other, it risks totally diminishing the accomplishments of talented people who happen to have famous parents. Jamie Lee Curtis, the daughter of actors Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, balked. “There are many of us,” she declared on Instagram. “Dedicated to our craft. Proud of our lineage. Strong in our belief in our right to exist.” That she made nepo-babies sound like an oppressed minority probably didn’t help her case much. But she has a point. Having a famous name (or a parent willing to place a phone call on your behalf) has obvious perks. But it cannot explain, or explain away, an artist’s work.
One can, for example, enjoy the films of Jean Renoir without having to think about the fact that his father, Pierre-Auguste, was a rather famous painter. Details of biography may shade an appreciation of The River or La régle du jeu, but they do not eclipse that appreciation. There are considerations of acculturation, and of what is now typically called “privilege.” Jean Renoir is an artist who grew up around art, and that rarefied exposure no doubt shaped both his sensibilities and opportunities. Still, his oeuvre is distinct from, and even equal to, his father’s. But what if Jean Renoir were not a filmmaker but a painter? And more than that, an impressionist? And an impressionist who liked painting bathing ladies? Surely even the most appreciative gaze might narrow a bit, into a skeptical wince.