A Confederacy of Dunces

Hollywood actors do not merit political authority

The British film critic Anthony Lane once posed a rather devastating question. “What is the point of Demi Moore?” he asked. Now, after this year’s Oscar season has finally come to a close, Lane’s question deserves a broader application. Demi Moore aside, in a time when real, palpable problems shake our country, what is the point of Hollywood?

If you watched the Oscars this year, you will undoubtedly have seen Sean Penn’s acceptance speech for his prizewinning performance in Milk. The film, a masterful exploration of this country’s embarrassing intolerance of homosexuality, is a particularly poignant one in a year in which Proposition 8 passed in California. But, in an apparent attempt to reiterate such artistic profundity, Penn chose not to give the usual Oscar spiel of effusive gratitude. Instead, he urged those who supported the ban on gay marriage to reflect on their decision’s impact.

I don’t know about you, but I found it difficult to keep from rolling my eyes throughout the entire thing. And not because of what Penn said—I happen to be in complete agreement with him on this issue—but because it was clear that he believed that I (and the millions of others watching) had an obligation to listen.

Unfortunately, the same sort of celebrity arrogance, which presumes that the American public should listen to actors by virtue of their being famous, is pervasive. In the recent “Presidential Pledge” video that Moore and her husband, Ashton Kutcher, created with the help of dozens of other “inspired” actors, a group of Hollywood celebrities comes together with the intent to catalyze the deep, profound change America “needs” at the dawn of its forty-fourth presidency.

Beginning with a clip of an Obama speech calling for “a new spirit of patriotism and responsibility,” the video has the idea that we should all make a pledge to do what we can to save our ailing country. Not just any pledge, though—only a “Presidential Pledge” will do. What that means, I’m not quite sure—Moore, for instance, pledged to smile more; Eva Longoria said she’d laugh more; and, best of all, Eva Mendes promised to use less bottled water (not to give up bottled water altogether—just to use less). You get the picture—now that all the “right people” are talking about it, citizenship is something America should embrace. Again, the arrogance.

While there’s clearly something wrong with trivializing important issues and causes like gay rights, the environment, or citizenship for the sake of having the political equivalent of the “It Bag,” it’s the air of self-proclaimed importance that’s really the problem. I take no issue with celebrities having political opinions, and (most of the time) I don’t mind when they vocalize those opinions. After all, that’s their constitutionally guaranteed right. But, when they use (or, rather, abuse) their celebrity status as a vessel for advancing some cause, too many Hollywood “A-listers” seem to have forgotten how they came to be what and who they are.

The reason celebrities are famous in the first place is that the movies they make entertain a huge number of people who will pay the $8 ticket fee to watch a two-hour show. When the American people flood the box office with cash, they do so out of a desire to be entertained, not to be preached to. With every ticket they buy, moviegoers aren’t necessarily endorsing the views of the actors they see on the screen. Celebrities are agents of entertainment, not the “elect” who are destined to transform our society for the better. They are merely a group of people with the rare ability to make their audiences laugh and cry on cue, and such talent is merely a matter of good fortune. And why should we allow people whose “prominence” is as arbitrary as the films playing at a local theater to wield any major influence on political and social discourse?

Aside from new and improved special effects, what Hollywood seems to have been producing lately is noise, noise that we don’t need. In light of everything threatening the fabric of this country, what is the point of a place like that? Lane’s question, albeit in an altered form, deserves an answer.

James K. McAuley ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Weld Hall.