Rising Activism : Hollywood and Politics: a New Grit

Times Political Writer

Money and glamour always have been Hollywood's easy entre to politics. Let others sweat it out in cigar smoke and crowded meeting halls; democracy here has been accompanied by the tinkling of cocktail glasses and properly hip parlor chatter.

But something else is stirring now. Here and there in Hollywood are the sounds of fine Italian shoe leather hitting the asphalt and the rustle of silk sleeves being rolled up. Here and there, Hollywood is getting its hands dirty at the work of politics.

Two issues sweeping across the nation, abortion and the environment, have aroused the liberal wing of the Hollywood activist community. The intensity is like nothing else since perhaps the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.

Old-Fashioned Politics

What's more, the entertainment industry's 40ish baby boomers, for all their city-view homes and leather-upholstered cars, are coming up with that empty feeling as the 1990s approach. Some of them are turning to old-fashioned politics to add purpose to their lives. And, too, there are younger talents in Hollywood, small but growing numbers of them, who defy the stereotype for relentless self-indulgence.

Maybe the vibrations measure only 2 or 3 on the Richter scale, but consider this sampler:

--The Hollywood Women's Political Committee began five years ago as an archetype in the cloistered world of elite money-and-glamour parlor politics. But abortion altered that. With star power and persuasion know-how, the group strode to the front lines of the national feminist crusade to protect a woman's right to choose on abortion. Rather than plan fund-raising parties, the HWPC now acts like it is planning for war.

--Whether the concern is global destruction of rain forests or local pollution of Santa Monica Bay, Hollywood is going green. Entertainers and activists and organizers have swarmed over the environmental cause with a whole alphabet soup of committees--EMAs and ECOs and IRMs and AOCs. Even the cynics say, WOW.

Standing-Room Breakfasts

--Week in and week out, an assortment of Hollywood producers and lawyers and mangers rub the sleep from their eyes in the early mornings. Calling themselves the Show Coalition, they fill standing-room-only breakfast meetings to hear and question a parade of national political leaders. At night in their homes, they conduct talking sessions. And on weekends, it's issue seminars. These are not fund-raisers but rather the breeding grounds for broader and more organized political activity by Hollywood.

--Scores of youthful entertainment celebrities, Young Artists United, are plunging into politics at the neighborhood level. One weekend, 60 converged on the Crenshaw District to refurbish a house for teen-age runaways. During the week, they fan out to schools across California and the country to help youngsters find the strength to cope with today's pressures.

"It's cool to care," said young actress Alexandra Paul, a founder of Young Artists United and a spark plug among the new breed of activists.

Hollywood, of course, always has had its well-manicured fingers in politics, more or less.

Going back to the 1930s, films and pop music and have gone through cycles of politicization, from "Grapes of Wrath" and Woodie Guthrie to "Wall Street" and Bruce Springsteen. Celebrities have long been around to help build crowds for candidates and issues. And, as a result of the campaign spending reforms of the past years, the role of the millionaire fat cat has been reduced and celebrities have become important attractions for raising money.

But interviews with elected officials, consultants, entertainment industry activists and assorted armchair scholars about town found near unanimous agreement. Today's political energy is keener than in recent years. Interest in politics is broader. And, most important, liberal Hollywood is becoming better organized than perhaps ever before.

'Much More Effective'

"The community has gotten more strategic and much more effective," said Stephen Rivers, a longtime political organizer who works for Jane Fonda.

Conservatives are not without their voices in Hollywood, from Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston to Chuck Norris and the Beach Boys. But while they can fill head tables three deep at fund-raisers, conservatives have yet to coalesce into meaningful activist groups as the liberals are doing.

Nothing better illustrates the new activist energy than the evolution of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee.

This is a group of 190 of the highest liberal flyers in show business, such stars as Fonda and Morgan Fairchild, producers such as Paula Weinstein ("A Dry White Season") and songwriter Marilyn Bergman ("The Way We Were").

Millions Raised

For the 1986 elections, the women threw one of the more glittering political parties in the history of Hollywood at the home of Barbra Streisand. Millions of dollars were raised for liberal Senate and congressional candidates.

But for all its money and razzle-dazzle, the HWPC's impact was hard to gauge. Turnover in Congress was virtually nonexistent. Favored issues, such as ending U.S. aid to the Contras, seemed remote and more in the control of conservatives. The group had virtually no connection to actual voters.

And politicians, even as their mouths watered for the money, privately did not take the group that seriously.

Then came abortion.

And that, you might say, brought the group out of the salons and into the streets.

Fight Over Choice

Earlier this year, a new executive director, a Washington fireball named Margery Tabankin, organizer and lifelong leftist activist, was hired and charged with getting the group into the rough and tumble of the fight over choice. A separate foundation was spun off from the main group to supplement its work. Consultants were hired. The staff grew in size and sophistication. A couple of the town's best political ground-game experts were enlisted. Hollywood's wellspring of advertising and marketing was tapped to help. If no politician wanted the group's skills in touching the emotions of Americans, the HWPC would go straight to the people on its own.

The first results were evident last spring. On short notice, the HWPC threw itself with a vengeance into the pro-choice march that women staged in Washington in April.

Fifty celebrities were rushed into action along with 250 industry executives. The group helped orchestrate the event, putting notable women at the front of the line for the benefit of photographers. Famous faces paraded onto the talk shows arguing the case for choice. Personality publications responded with lavish attention to the events. The HWPC boasted that those members of Congress who had received contributions were told to attend the march, no excuses.

At its no-frills offices in a converted motel in Culver City, the HWPC now dreams bigger still--of putting celebrities and their money to work on the road and on television using the proven technology of presidential campaigns.

Less tightly focused but just as full of energy has been the exploding environmental movement of Hollywood.

Glamour and Energy

Two new and potentially significant environmental groups have been created in Hollywood--just this year. These supplement others already in existence. And the burst of energy has not been lost on the mainstream conservationist groups, who now hungrily eye Hollywood's money and glamour and energy.

Producer Norman Lear, the elder statesman of liberal-activist Hollywood, his wife, Lyn, and wives of other industry officials gave rise last spring to the most celebrated new home-grown environmental group in town, Environmental Media Assn., or EMA.

EMA's aim is to get Hollywood to sing out (or sneak in, whichever) environmental do's and don'ts in television programming and films. If you're mordant, you call it propagandizing. If you're a booster, you call it worthy mass education.

'Unprecedented' Involvement

Either way, you're probably not going to escape it. Andy Spahn, a longtime entertainment community activist who is directing EMA, said the level of industry involvement "is unprecedented, whether at the top, measured by the number of studio heads and network presidents who have made a commitment, or by the day-to-day telephone calls and work that is being be done."

The results of this kind of effort show up in the oddest places. Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) enjoyed "Lethal Weapon II" as an action film. "But my wife figured it was a message movie," he joked. That was because of a scene in which one character warns the other against eating tuna, except albacore, because of fishing techniques that kill dolphins.

The Green Ethic

Another new home-grown organization that wants to ingrain the green ethic into our pop culture is called the Earth Communications Office. Started by entertainment lawyer Bonnie Reiss, the Santa Monica-based ECO is a $50-per-person membership group open to all variety of industry workers.

These new groups add to Robert Redford's Institute for Resource Management and Ted Danson's American Oceans Campaign, among others.

"It's beyond my wildest dreams, frankly, the way Hollywood is coming alive on the environmental movement," said Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who will oversee a major Democratic environmental ballot initiative campaign for California in 1990.

Hayden's comments are significant because he and estranged wife Jane Fonda were foremost among the 1980s pioneers in trying to get more entertainment industry artists and executives involved in politics. When the couple split apart in February, some activists wondered if the energy would whither.

There is a risk of overstatement in any inventory of the new activism of Hollywood. Overall, the community is probably only marginally more engaged in politics than the population at large. There have always been deeply committed individuals. And, to be sure, there are powerful and sophisticated lobbying efforts to tend to the business of show business--fighting battles over copyrights and syndication and movie colorization.

But for many in the industry, even those who consider themselves political big-leaguers, their connection is solely the casual mix of easy money, big egos and exclusive parties.

Shake Their Heads

Some visiting pols, when speaking not for attribution, shake their heads at the emptiness of the Hollywood fund-raising ritual. Certain contributors want only to ride in the limousines. Others want a set of tennis with a notable from C-SPAN. Some just want a politician in their living room. Cliches are passed off for wisdom. Ideology is of greater value than insight. There is an airy detachment to anything except the celebrityhood of politics, and money.

The new generation of activists is determined to live down this bedeviling stereotype.

Show Coalition is a group of industry artists and professionals who banded together after the collapse of the 1988 presidential campaign of former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart. The group has now grown to more than 200 members and any number of other followers.

Chiefly, the coalition offers a way for the politically inclined to get together and feel their way through the complex policies and personalities of American politics. It has served as an introductory force in the political resurgence of Hollywood. Here is where officeholders can meet to meet potential supporters and contributors, and where Hollywood activists can find outlets for their political energy.

At first glance, Show Coalition presents a paradox. Here are Hollywood liberals dining at the private Regency club on $25 breakfast muffins, demanding answers to the questions of hunger and homelessness. Here are Hollywood liberals, in cashmere and silk and gold, raising questions about the "scourge of Republican materialism."

Spurious, you say?

Perhaps, or probably. But it is possible to view these men and women as scarred veterans of the acquisitive wars, those who won big but who still find themselves unsatisfied--and therefore are eminently qualified to question obsessive materialism.

"A lot of these people are coming to a moment in their lives where they are taking serious stock of who they are, what they are, and the environment in which they live. It's been a fast-line ride for a lot of them to make themselves professional successes. Now, they're taking a second look," said Robert L. Burkett, who is full-time political and philanthropic operative for multimillionaire newspaper heir and movie producer Ted Field.

Some of them are impatient to do more than just look.

Patricia Duff Medavoy, a producer and coalition chair, said the group begins a significant transformation from talk to action at a general membership meeting Oct. 21. She said she will encourage a down-to-earth game plan that emphasizes local problems--"to look here at the urban problems right here in front of us . . . problems like the homeless, or libraries in the inner city."

"We don't want to be involved in just elitist politics, but also to look here in our own back yards," Duff Medavoy said.

In addition to Show Coalition, a select few entertainment leaders have taken the step of establishing their own political organizations. Norman Lear is a modern pioneer of the idea with his People for the American Way. That group now claims 300,000 members and operates on its own. But, with his full-time political aide Betsy Kenny, Lear remains an organizational force in the industry. Producer Ted Field has done much the same thing by hiring Burkett.

More recently, Richard Dreyfuss hired a political lieutenant, Donna Bojarsky, a prominent figure in the Westside Jewish community. Among Dreyfuss' political passions is the quest for peace in the Mideast. Gary Goldberg, the creator of "Family Ties," and his wife, Diana Meechan, have hired political organizer Marlene Saritzky, formerly executive director of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee, to run their foundation. Their concern is primarily family issues.

Each of these cottage operations serves not just the boss, but also the friends and associates who look to them for advice and leadership.

Explaining the boomlet of old-fashioned energy, Lear said of Hollywood, "We have to take ourselves more seriously now because times are more serious."

Hollywood and Politics

One of the unexpected stories of Hollywood and politics is Young Artists United.

Started in 1986 and now with 400 members, many of them the so-called "Brat Pack" of entertainers, these 20ish stars and emerging executives are among the most civically active members in all the industry. Practically any day in town, you can run across a group with buckets of paint at some needy project. Or they're at a junior high assembly trying to lead youngsters away from drugs or give them strength to cope with other temptations. Or they're registering voters with never-say-die Democratic Party activist Chuck Levin and his small organization, First Vote.

Their politics are mostly nonpartisan--just basic civic engagement. "The distinction of this group is that we all have dirt under our fingernails," said Mark Gill, a Columbia Pictures vice president and group leader.

Today's new activism is not without its glaring embarrassments, however.

Young Artists United woke up with a black eye this year when one of its most prominent members, heartthrob Rob Lowe, was ordered by a court to perform community service rather than face criminal charges. This was the now-notorious case in which Lowe was accused of videotaping a sex party with an underage girl. At the time, he was with a delegation of young celebrities to the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta--a delegation that was supposed to show off Hollywood's seriousness about politics.

"Our group's mission is to encourage young people to take responsibility for their lives. That goes for our members, too," said YAU's Mark Gill.

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