For show-business stars, the adoration of the public provides far more than ego boosts; it is the very basis of their success and survival, the ultimate source of privilege and power. Why, then, do so many Hollywood celebrities recklessly place this popularity at risk with edgy, outspoken, confrontational political posturing that's sure to insult some substantial segment of their fans?
This question arises in connection with the militant anti-war activism by dozens of entertainment titans who have rushed forward to denounce a popular president and his plans to take military action against Iraq.
At a film festival in Madrid, Oscar-winning actress Jessica Lange declared that she "hates" President Bush, while Eric Roberts, star of a struggling new TV series (appropriately called Less Than Perfect), told Fox News that he considers the president "fascist" and a co-conspirator (with Osama bin Laden) in deliberately "wrecking the American economy."
Meanwhile, Jane Fonda, Susan Sarandon, Gore Vidal, Oliver Stone and many others signed a public "Statement of Conscience" drafted by a group called Not in Our Name, which has promised "to resist the injustices done by our government" and pledged "alliance with those who have come under attack." Sean Penn spent $56,000 for a nearly full-page ad in The Washington Post to run his "open letter" warning of the Bush "legacy of shame and horror." And Barbra Streisand embarrassed even some of her political allies with the strident partisanship of her Democratic fundraising concert in Hollywood, during which she slammed the president for "the arrogance of wanting unlimited power."
Of course, many Americans agree with Streisand and her friends, but most of the country emphatically does not. President Bush maintains high approval ratings, and Tuesday's election underscored the closely divided politics of the moment. Professional politicians, like Hollywood celebrities, must sustain broad-based popularity in order to maintain their careers, and overwhelming majorities in Congress — including most Senate Democrats — supported Bush's resolution authorizing war against Iraq.
Ahead of the politicians
Despite a potent reputation for pandering, for shamelessly catering to any public whim, the leaders of Tinseltown show greater willingness to take unpopular and polarizing political stands than partisan leaders in Washington.
Once upon a time, celebrities attempted to avoid controversy. Even those who campaigned for political candidates (Jimmy Stewart for Republicans; his friend, Henry Fonda, for Democrats) made a point of avoiding insult or offense to the adherents of the opposition party. That's certainly the tack taken by the most visible Republican in show business today, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is not only married to a Kennedy (Maria Shriver), but also worked prominently with Democrats on his California ballot initiative to fund after-school programs.
Brave or just foolish?
Leaders of the Hollywood left may console themselves with the thought that their previous partisanship did no lasting damage to their careers, but a few exceptions to that rule ought to give them pause. Oliver Stone and Alec Baldwin, for instance, have definitely lost some of the clout and popularity they once enjoyed, thanks to a series of personal embarrassments — including, arguably, their strident and predictable political radicalism. The recent ratings collapse for NBC's acclaimed program, The West Wing, so obviously coincides with the edgy, insistent, anti-war activism of the show's star, Martin Sheen, that letter writers to USA TODAY and other ordinary Americans have hastened to point out the connection.
The war on terrorism remains such an emotional subject that people may prove less forgiving toward those who position themselves outside the mainstream on that issue. Concerning the decision to speak out against the president's Iraq policy, public-relations expert R.J. Garis declared: "As a publicist, I would advise my clients to stay away from the topic."
The fact that so many significant figures in show business ignore this sage advice demonstrates both their idealism and their isolation. For the sake of its own profits, the entertainment industry ought to reflect the diversity of American outlooks, yet it persists in a flamboyant tilt toward left-wing activism.
The same Hollywood elite that takes obvious pride in its more unpopular, arguably courageous positions also relishes the reassuring knowledge that the "great unwashed" don't cast movies or TV shows. Industry insiders do, and they remain passionately and disproportionately liberal. A controversial political stand may upset some ordinary moviegoers, but it generally will earn enhanced respect from the producers and directors who control careers.
On a wide range of political and cultural issues, those in the insular, self-referential world of Hollywood care more about the respect of their peers than the opinions of the public. The studios continue to turn out a preponderance of R-rated movies, despite abundant evidence that family-friendly fare performs better at the box office; the edgy, adults-only titles tend to win more critical and industry praise.
Hollywood back patting
No one observing the activism of leading entertainers should ever ape the trite and tired line that "all they care about is money." Clearly, today's pop-culture potentates identify with a range of policies and priorities that can confer no conceivable economic benefit, and demonstrate a much greater eagerness to preach to the nation than to reflect its varied values.
The encouragement and validation these celebrities receive from one another help generate the determination to disregard even passionate protestations from the general populace. Although Streisand still sings about "people who need people," the people she needs most aren't the faceless fans, but her colleagues within the Hollywood bubble who already share her views.