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Analysis

Streep 'overrated'? Trump keeps punching at Hollywood, but he's an odd combatant

Donald Trump’s rebuke of Meryl Streep for criticizing his past bullying was less about Streep than two imperatives for the president-elect: portraying himself in the best possible light and convincing the public that he’s more “us” than “them.”

The back and forth unfolded in a fashion that has become familiar. Streep issued a nuanced denunciation of Trump during Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards. It avoided mention of his name but focused on his 2015 speech in which he formed his arms into bent positions and mimicked Serge F. Kovaleski, a New York Times reporter who has a congenital disease, arthrogryposis, that distorts his arm and leg joints.

The videotape of that speech “sank its hooks into my heart,” said Streep, who supported Hillary Clinton last year but is not typically central to the Hollywood political establishment.

“I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life,” she said in an address that focused on an actor’s need for empathy.

The "instinct to humiliate,” she said, coarsens all of society. “When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”

As regular as an atomic clock, the president-elect early Monday returned fire. He derided Streep, the most decorated American actress of her generation, and denied once again that he had ever mocked Kovaleski, despite the video evidence.

“Meryl Streep, one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood, doesn’t know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes,” Trump tweeted.

“She is a Hillary flunky who lost big. For the 100th time, I never ‘mocked’ a disabled reporter (would never do that) but simply showed him ‘groveling’ when he totally changed a 16-year-old story to make me look bad. Just more very dishonest media.”

Trump’s comments displayed his unwillingness to turn aside any personal slight, a potentially troublesome attribute 11 days before his inauguration to the world’s most criticized job.

His response was also the latest iteration of culture wars that for decades have cast Hollywood’s glittering and mostly liberal denizens as the enemies of real America.

The tweets also repeated a pattern of Trump making statements that were false on several counts: He had imitated Kovaleski’s arm movements after verbally calling attention to them: “Now, the poor guy, you ought to see this guy,” he had said before contorting his arms and waving them spasmodically.

And Kovaleski has not changed the story Trump referred to, which centered on Trump’s long-debunked statement that he had watched Muslims in New Jersey cheering and dancing in 2001 as the World Trade Center in New York was attacked.

Trump represents an odd combatant in the culture war’s fisticuffs, despite his political alliances. He’s a billionaire residing in elite and liberal Manhattan known for his own television show, over which he retains the role of executive producer and for which he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Two of his key White House selections — Treasury Secretary-designate Steven Mnuchin and chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon — amassed considerable personal wealth in Hollywood. Mnuchin financed movies such as “Avatar” and this year’s “Sully,” for which he was executive producer. Bannon struck it rich with a stake in the company that produced “Seinfeld.”

And Trump seems to publicly covet acceptance from the entertainment capital, the latest evidence of which came in a Monday interview with the New York Times.

“We are going to have an unbelievable, perhaps record-setting turnout for the inauguration, and there will be plenty of movie and entertainment stars,” Mr. Trump said. “All the dress shops are sold out in Washington. It’s hard to find a great dress for this inauguration.”

Dresses are still available, and so far there do not appear to be as many well-known entertainment figures clamoring to celebrate Trump as they did his predecessor, President Obama. The adoration imbalance seemed to be at least an undercurrent of his sniping at Streep.

“This is his crowd; this is who he would want to have at the inaugural,” said Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at USC, who has worked in Democratic politics and entertainment. “If he were offered any three tables from the Golden Globes to come to his inauguration in exchange for those tweets, he would have done it in a heartbeat.” 

Monday swirled with predictable, and often partisan, responses, with people on both sides seeming to be “Casablanca”-level shocked that once again public discourse had sunk so low.

Meghan McCain, the Fox News personality whose father, Arizona Sen. John McCain, has battled with Trump over Russia, suggested that Streep’s remarks were evidence of a Hollywood bubble that alienated Trump’s voters.

“This Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won,” she tweeted. “And if people in Hollywood don't start recognizing why and how - you will help him get re-elected.”

That earned her a vulgar reproach from Billy Eichner of the TBS show “Billy on the Street.”

“Um, she asked him not to make fun of disabled people and advocated for the freedom of the press and the arts you [bleeping] moron,” he responded.

Actress Patricia Heaton, currently of ABC’s “The Middle” and late of CBS’ “Everybody Loves Raymond,” found herself blistered for opining that she would rather have heard Streep talk about acting.

Heaton, one of the acting community’s highest-profile conservatives, clarified that “of course, Meryl Streep is entitled to her opinion/say what she wants. I just like actors’ stories.” Heaton added, “I didn’t vote for Trump (or Hillary).”

Industry veterans are used to being on the receiving end of criticism from politicians and some of the Americans who in effect pay their salaries.

The House Un-American Activities Committee had the entertainment industry in its sights in the years after World War II, accusing actors, producers and writers of leftist sympathies and prompting a blacklist that lasted more than a decade and ruined careers. (Roy Cohn, the chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s when the Wisconsin Republican led investigations into alleged communist influence in the U.S., later served as a mentor to Trump.)

In 2000, just before Al Gore accepted the Democratic nomination in Los Angeles, his campaign had to beat down concerns from Democrats in Hollywood about his newly named running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who had criticized risque television shows and movies.

Lieberman, in an echo of Trump’s effort, said his actions were an attempt to stand “with the people against the powerful."

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Democratic criticisms of the entertainment industry have lessened as the party has moved to the left — and Hollywood has become more powerful as a fundraising and political force. Republicans have not followed suit, even if they have utilized Hollywood stars at their conventions and events. 

Vice President Dan Quayle took on the fictional character of CBS’ “Murphy Brown” when she was portrayed as an unwed mother. A few years later, 1996 presidential nominee Bob Dole insisted, from a 20th Century Fox soundstage, that “the American people are rejecting entertainment that … offends our sense of decency.” Earlier, he called Hollywood a "nightmare of depravity.”

Their strategy has produced dual rewards: making politicians appear sympathetic to the concerns of everyday Americans, even if their own lifestyles are more akin to Hollywood’s than to the culturally conservative voters the politicians are seeking to attract.

And then there’s money: Within hours of Trump’s missive against Streep, his party’s senatorial campaign committee sent out fundraising letters citing the exchange.

The unavoidable questions surfaced: Was he only temporarily miffed? Was he trying to distract from more politically dangerous controversies? And the perennial Trump question: This time, did he go too far?

“Don’t you think he lost even some of his own supporters by calling Meryl Streep ‘overrated’?” asked one person with deep ties to the industry.

If recent history is a reliable guide, the answer was probably no.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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