Leaning to the left, but why?
I’d never pegged Nicole Kidman as much of a philosopher, but she hit just the right note Sunday night, saying, “Why do you come to the Academy Awards when the world is in such turmoil? Because art is important.”
Michael Moore apparently ticked off the Kodak Theatre stagehands -- and many in the audience as well -- with his anti-Bush sloganeering, and Pedro Almodovar’s visa may be locked away somewhere deep in John Ashcroft’s desk after dedicating his Oscar to “all the voices who speak out on behalf of international law, human rights and peace.” But you know what -- each man made a terrific movie and deserved to have his moment of truth-telling in the spotlight. With American soldiers being held captive and Baghdad under nightly air attack, it was somehow refreshing to see that Hollywood had more on its mind than Steve Martin cracking J. Lo divorce jokes.
The Oscar-night antiwar sentiments shouldn’t come as a surprise. As Martin quipped: “We have Democrats and....” It was hard to spot a Republican loyalist in the Kodak crowd. At a time when opinion polls show the public solidly in support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Hollywood remains in something of an alternate universe, quixotically further to the left than even most of the Democratic presidential candidates, who’ve also lined up behind the president.
In the world of artists, even those far removed from show-biz salons, the historical attachment to left-wing politics is almost as de rigueur as ordering off the menu at the Grill. During the last few months, while the Bush administration was relentlessly committing the country to war, the entertainment community has been moving in the opposite direction. At the Berlin Film Festival in February, Dustin Hoffman said, “I believe this war is about what most wars are about -- hegemony, money, power and oil.” In London, Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines told a concert audience, “We’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” “Chicago” star Richard Gere said: “Bush’s plans for war are a bizarre bad dream.” George Clooney complained to Charlie Rose that “the government is running exactly like ‘The Sopranos.’ ” Dave Matthews told his fans: “This war is wrong. It’s criminal to put our servicemen and women in harm’s way for the misguided frustrations of the Bush administration.”
The chorus of criticism was hardly limited to actors and musicians -- 150 writers, including Jonathan Franzen, Stephen King and Amy Tan, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times last week, telling President Bush, “As you yourself have noted, there are evildoers in this world. Let the United States not be one of them.”
This activism did not go unchallenged. Country music fans outside Louisiana’s Barksdale Air Force Base smashed Dixie Chicks CDs with a 33,000-pound tractor. When “The Agency” star David Clennon was on Fox radio comparing the moral climate of America to Nazi Germany, fellow actor James Woods phoned in to heatedly dispute Clennon, quoting Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. Janeane Garofalo says that when she appeared on “Fox and Friends,” the first thing one of the hosts said was “Saddam must love you.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) weighed in: “If Washington is a Hollywood for ugly people, Hollywood is a Washington for the simple-minded.”
The New York Post gossip column proposed a boycott of “appeasement-loving celebs” last week, suggesting “those who oppose sadistic, Stalinist dictatorships won’t want to show up at the Estess Arena in Atlantic City on April 25 to see Sheryl Crow’s concert. Susan Sarandon can be currently boycotted on the Sci-Fi Channel.”
And to think that we all laughed when the Screen Actors Guild sent out a news release warning against possible blacklisting of actors for antiwar activities. Luckily the Post columnist so far has laid off the pope, Nelson Mandela and the National Council of Churches. But what’s been lost in this media uproar is a more philosophical question: Why have most artists, be they poets, playwrights, painters, writers, musicians, actors or filmmakers, historically been far more involved with causes on the left than the right? As Gael Garcia Bernal noted while introducing the best original song entry from “Frida”: “If Frida Kahlo were alive, she would be on our side, against the war.”
Like her husband, artist Diego Rivera, Kahlo was a committed Marxist. Charlie Chaplin and Bertolt Brecht were both hounded out of America in the early 1950s for having leftist leanings. It was Picasso, a longtime member of the Communist Party, who painted “Guernica,” a reproduction of which was covered over during the United Nations Iraq debate because it so graphically portrays the horror of war.
Hundreds of screenwriters, actors and directors were blacklisted during the McCarthy era for adhering to left-wing and Communist causes. For generations, back to the days of Woody Guthrie, musicians have been on the front lines of social activism, from Bob Dylan to Harry Belafonte, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen and Bono, who was at the Oscars, wearing a peace pin on his shirt.
The simplest explanation for this tradition of left-wing politics is that artists identify with the underdog. They tend to be disaffected outsiders and mavericks, skeptical of institutions, often uncomfortable with mainstream values. They find inspiration in change; their affection is with the dispossessed, not the ruling order.
“Artists are more in touch with other people’s feelings because we’re always trying to see things from others’ perspectives,” says “Maid in Manhattan” director Wayne Wang, an Iraq war critic. “And once you start seeing things from someone else’s perspective, whether it’s art or politics, it’s hard not to start thinking about how people can suffer from war or oppression.”
Artists gravitate toward rebels and rabble-rousers, people like themselves. They are impatient, even contemptuous of the classic conservative ideals of order and tradition. Having a cause gives them something to act out or write about. Show me an artist who grew up in a happy family or was the most popular kid in their school and I’ll show you someone doing dinner theater in Pismo Beach.
“What is the artist’s job really -- to be sensitive to the world,” says movie historian Neal Gabler, author of “Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.” “Artists are in the empathy business and empathy is never with a powerful institution, but with individuals. And that leads you to identify with humanist causes, causes that help people improve their lives.”
It’s no wonder that Hollywood, for example, has specialized in making little guy against the world movies, which stretch from the silent films of Chaplin and Buster Keaton to “Spartacus,” “Rocky” and “Erin Brockovich,” to name just a few.
“No one wants to see stories about rich people solving their problems,” says Rob Long, a TV writer-producer and contributing editor to the National Review. “The artistic character is very individualistic, which is probably why the stories of a person struggling against insurmountable odds are so popular. But that doesn’t mean liberal Hollywood has always been on the right side of history -- I’m not sure I’d be terribly proud if I’d been a dupe of Stalin in the 1930s, like so many people here were.”
Other critics argue that although show-biz activists spout liberal beliefs, they make conservative movies. Center for the Study of Popular Culture head David Horowitz, a vocal Hollywood critic, argues that since a brief flurry of antiwar films in the late 1970s, Hollywood has produced a string of pro-military movies including “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Top Gun,” “Rambo,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Blackhawk Down,” “When We Were Soldiers” and “Tears of the Sun.”
“The movies and the people are different,” says Horowitz. “Even though Steven Spielberg recently said some incredibly stupid things about Fidel Castro, it was liberals like Spielberg and Tom Hanks who made an inspiring picture about the D-Day invasion. Movies cost so much to make that they have to strike a universal chord, and I’d argue that it’s conservatism that resonates with moviegoers today.”
Others believe that artists respond most to the pursuit of ideals, even if those ideals lead to ideological extremes.
“It would go against your nature as an artist to believe in moderation,” says writer-producer Jorge Saralegui. “Idealists are extremists and most political philosophies that espouse wholesale change are left-wing movements.”
Opposing the war may turn out to be an unpopular cause. But if there’s one right artists deserve to have, it’s the right to speak their mind, no matter how loopy the results may be.
Anyone willing to defend Sean Penn’s hapless fact-finding trip to Iraq shouldn’t be too quick to criticize Mel Gibson’s strange presidential assassination theories or willingness to lambast the Vatican for its lack of traditionalism.
When I spoke to Garofalo the other day, she’d gotten drenched at a peace march in New York and was changing clothes before heading out for another demonstration. After being bashed by a variety of conservative talk show hosts, she was bloody, but unbowed.
“I got a lot of mockery from a lot of people, but I have nothing to be ashamed of,” she says. “The people who wasted America’s time with celebrity bashing are the ones who really should be ashamed. If being an artist is what made me sympathetic to the plight of others, then hey, I’m proud to be an artist.”
The Big Picture runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have ideas, questions or criticism, e-mail them to email@example.com.