Hollywood and Politics
Hollywood has a long and varied record of political involvement.
From ‘Hanoi’ Jane Fonda’s anti-Vietnam vitriol to Pierce Brosnan’s sanctimonious rumblings on climate change, it seems that no issue is safe from celebrity intervention.
Last week Sean Penn stoked up the longstanding bitterness between the UK and Argentina, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez to accuse the UK of “ridiculous colonialism” and proclaim the Falklands “The Malvinas Islands of Argentina”.
If any remark were designed to provoke tabloid ire, this was it. T
he Sun, notorious for the shameful headline ‘GOTCHA’ after a British submarine controversially sunk Argentine warship General Belgrano during the 1982 Falklands war, was never going to be sympathetic to Penn’s cause.
And so it proved. The paper hit out at Penn’s comments, branding them ‘idiotic’ and proclaiming “The flag is mightier than the Penn” after islanders demonstrated against the actor.
The Sun is no beacon of even-handedness, but this time it may have a point.
What business does an actor unconnected to either Britain or Argentina have commenting on the sovereignty of a windswept archipelago in the South Atlantic?
What gives Hollywood the right to lecture anyone on affairs of which they neglect to bruise the bloom of their ignorance, either with facts or historical context?
Michel Foucault coined the resonant phrase “symbolic capital” to describe the weight of argument that accompanies informed opinion.
For Foucault, academic expertise gave someone a special right to pass judgement on wider issues. So it was perfectly acceptable that French intellectuals Bernard Henri-Levy, André Glucksmann or MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky should be embroiled in politics.
n Foucault’s day it was clear-cut. Intellectuals in the political corner, with Hollywood squarely outside. So why are the boundaries now so blurred? Should Hollywood retreat from the political battlefield and return to a bygone era?
In the days of Marilyn Monroe or Cary Grant, stars kept their views to themselves. Rather than provoking controversy it was better to grin obediently at the paparazzi and placate journalists with polite small-talk.
For Hitchcock, actors should be ‘treated like cattle’ – as tools at the director’s beck and call. Acting can be a cerebral exercise – investing an on-screen persona with humanity demands studious emotional sensibility.
But the idea that actors or celebrities should carry the same symbolic capital as people who devote their lives to examining current events and sociological phenomena is surely wrong.
The modern media machine is partly to blame.
The information age has thrust vapid, under-educated celebrities into the public eye more violently than ever and the tabloid culture of elevating them to the status of demi-gods invests their political ‘views’ with unprecedented weight.
They can use this as a force for good. Pierce Brosnan, despite his sanctimoniousness, is right to bang the drum for activism against climate change. Bob Geldof, Bono and Midge Ure helped bring awareness of Third World suffering to the forefront of western conscience.
But as Sean Penn proves, celebrities still need to know their place in the muddier waters of less clear-cut issues. Attacking the UK over the Falklands belies his staggering ignorance.
His suggestion that the UK renounce its sovereignty – ignoring the implacable wish of 98% of the islanders – is a ridiculous notion for a self-styled libertarian.
And for a man whose Malibu mansion is built on land stolen from Mexico, accusing the UK of imperialism is rank hypocrisy.
La-la-land, and Sean Penn in particular, should pipe down and listen to the experts. But in today’s celeb-crazed climate, will we?