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Actors & Politics: A Dangerous Combination…

There is an interesting article in The Guardian written by Samantha Morton, which lauds Nicole Kidman’s decision to announce that Hollywood treats women as sex objects and Matt Damon’s announcement that he won’t do excessively violent films. They are both valid points for discussion, but I’m never quite sure what to make of it when an artist makes a public anouncement like that, clearly politicising their work. Anyone who neede Nicole Kidman to tell them that Hollywood treats women as objects obviously hasn’t been paying attention to any film released ever, and I doubt anyone will be particularly surprised to here Matt Damon won’t turn up as a lead in Saw. That’s not to diminish their observation, but part of me is always uncomfortable abou the increasing politicalisation of actors and celebrities in our culture.


Not kidding around...

These are fairly rudimentary example of the ‘vocal celebrity’ variety, and part of me agrees that the actors are entitled to make their opinions heard on these subjects. But part of me wonders what grounds they have for making these observations. Nicole Kidman is an actress, not a professor of media studies or gender relations – nor is she a psychologist or psychiatrist. Yes, she has an inside view at the way Hollywood works, but her statement tells us nothing that anybody with two eyes couldn’t already tell. I’ve searched the web for anything more substantive than the quote that Hollywood has “probably” been a bad influence, but it would seem that is all the insight she has to offer.

The fact that Nicole Kidman herself has become the media angle on this story is what angers me about these type of “celebrity endorse a cause” stories. With the exception of Samantha Morton’s piece (which is headlined with Nicole Kidman’s name and features her picture), most of the stories and discussion are around Kidman herself. There’s no media discussion of Hollywood’s attitude to female actors, just on Kidman herself. The Independent even makes an (arguably honest) case that Kidman herself is being hypocritical in bashing the Hollywood machine, given how she made her fame:

On the face of it, Nicole Kidman would seem to be a rum choice to be talking about violence against women. After all, she’s been raped in one film (Dogville), and had kinky sex with Tom Cruise in another (Eyes Wide Shut). She had a bath with a rather young boy (in Birth) and shagged Billy Zane in Dead Calm, her Hollywood debut – all in the name of art, of course.

That’s not an attack on Kidman – by all means there are any number of other actresses with similar sexualisation in their past – but an illustration of how easy it is to attack her as a hypocrite. She’s not an expert and obviously her unease at the way Hollywood treats women hasn’t shaped her actions. This is a discussion which requires informed experts and people who know what they’re talking about. Some celebrities do, but most don’t.

My other unease about the use as celebrities as politic punching bags comes from the fact that any celebrity can seem to make a talking point valid. If Nicole Kidman’s opinions on Hollywood’s attitude to women are relevant, then doesn’t that make – by way of example – Anita Bryant’s homophobic platform all the more legitimate? It was ill-informed and she generated airtime based on who she is rather than what she had to say, but she was a celebrity – so give her a platform. If Jordan, the glamour model, decided to announce tomorrow that the government was controlling our brain through flu shots, that would find its way on to the front page of any number of international newspapers, never minding the fact it’s completely crazy and non-newsworthy. You could argue that celebrities call attention to causes that would otherwise go ignored – Angelina Jolie’s work in Darfur, for example – and I accept that they do in clear-cut cases like that, but I think they are the exception rather than the rule.

For example, I had a massive objection to Sean Penn’s tour of Iraq in the build-up to the war, because he’s not an inspector, he’s not a historian or a political scientist or anyone with any idea of what the politics of the regime or the region are actually like. It very much reminded me of Jane Fonda spitting on American P.O.W.’s in Vietnam and claiming that the Vietnamese were treating them humanely. Both acts clouded the debate on the respective conflicts, by elevating the opinion of people with no idea of what was going on as against people who had spent their life researching and looking into the areas (and, yes, that is a perfect place to make a joke about what the American and British governments did/didn’t know before or during either war – but I’m talking about historians, sociologists, retired officers and other (more) ‘qualified’ pundits).

Another aspect of this which makes me uncomfortable is that it represents a passive acceptance of the modern celebrity-conscious paparazzi culture. It doesn’t matter that a Nobel laureate has made the complaint before; when somebody from a gossip magazine says it, it becomes news. These are the same celebrities who have problems with being followed and hounded and having their whole lives subjected to this intense media scrutiny. The intrusion of the media into their lives is vile and coarse, but it’s hard to see how the continued sharing of one’s political views – amongst the most personal aspect of an individual’s thoughts – doesn’t serve as an invitation in. I am not defending the intrusion, only arguing that this is an example of it – but one that is welcomed and even encouraged by the very people who want their privacy back.

I have a fond remembrance of the old era of Hollywood where actors and Hollywood acted like professionals. You don’t go to a lawyer and expect him to offer you his opinion on Marlon Brando’s career, you expect him to advise you on the law. Similarly, you expect a film maker to entertain you. If they want to include a political message within their work, that’s great – let them. The art of Hollywood is to make and manufacture illusion. To convince audiences to suspend their disbelief. Actors in particular must seem like blank slates that are used to create the character we see on screen. I think part of the reason that Daniel Day-Lewis is so amazing is that he does make sure that he remains a blank slate, he doesn’t engage in politics or tabloid antics.

If actors want to become politicians or pundits, let them. Consider it a career transition. I’m just very uncomfortable with the increasingly popular notion that they can do both at the same time. If they wan to make a statement, let them do it through their work, rather than pretending that they hold more authority than they do.

For example, Matt Damon’s assertion he dislikes violence would be easier to swallow if he didn’t play an incredibly lethal CIA agent in a trilogy of films, or hadn’t appeared in Syriana, where George Clooney has his fingernails torn off in a brutal and graphic manner. I don’t doubt that Damon will never appear in ‘torture porn’, but the fingernail scene is about as close as mainstream cinema gets, and he didn’t seem too unhappy about appearing in that particular film (he probably did it at a discount). Indeed, there are suggestions that Damon’s explicit agenda might be generating a backlash.

To her credit, Morton’s piece outlines that she is more selective in her choices and I think that that should be enough to speak for an actor on such things. If enough actors refused to participate in such films and movies, it would have a much greater impact than simply making a vague condemnation into a microphone. Literally put your paycheck where your mouth is: if you really care, that’s the sincerest way of demonstrating it. The people that you need to reach – for example, young fans who don’t read newspapers – can only be reached through the choice you make about the films you make. I don’t think anyone who read Nicole Kidman’s testimony had an epiphany that Hollywood was sexist, as making statements like that really only hit the radar of the most media-conscious among us.

I remember once being told that I am a fifty-year-old man in a twenty-year-old body, and maybe I am. But I remember the days when celebrities carried on with dignity and respect – and left the discussion about the issues to those who know what they are talking about. Respect is mutual – after all, I don’t think that Barrack Obama will appearing in Die Hard 5.

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