Another Perspective

Repression Night

Our movie critic on the acting profession’s sudden political reticence.

By 3.2.04

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Oscar-night politics are always something to look forward to. The tedium of having to sit through a four-hour orgy of self-congratulation by people who have obviously had far too much congratulation, self- and otherwise, already is enlivened only by the prospect of watching as one or more of the beautiful people say or do something so ineffably silly that it will accompany them like an epithet to their graves. But, alas, in the event there was precious little for us to enjoy in this way. Tim Robbins, accepting for best supporting actor only used the fact that he was playing a victim of childhood abuse as a pretext for urging those who were the real-life victims of such abuse to seek help -- and so "end the cycle of violence." But he made no mention of the cycle of violence in the Middle East, let alone the war in Iraq. Sean Penn, accepting for best actor made an incomprehensible allusion to the supposed fact that actors were particularly well-qualified to "know" that there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction in that unhappy country, but couldn't be bothered to explain himself further.

Not counting a tribute to Leni Riefenstahl among the honored dead and apart from Billy Crystal's jibes at President Bush's National Guard Service and the supposedly doleful state of the economy, the only thing at all close to a political statement came from Errol Morris, director of The Fog of War, who won an award for Best Documentary. Because his film was about (among other things) the war in Vietnam, Morris thought it seemly to remark: "Forty years ago, this country went down a rabbit hole, and millions died. And I fear we're going down a rabbit hole once again, and if people can stop and reflect on the ideas and issues in this movie, then maybe I've done some damn good here." Down a rabbit hole? There, surely, we are tantalizingly close to risible nonsense, but Errol couldn't quite close the deal. Perhaps with the memory of Michael Moore's boorish performance last year fresh in mind, he was just a little too ashamed of himself for bringing it up at all to tell us who Alice was and what she had to do with the deaths of millions and what was down those twin rabbit holes -- besides rabbits.

I'm afraid that actors are often disappointing in this way: fatuous but without the nerve to go the whole hog and, like Mr. Moore, play the buffoon. A correspondent writes that, in claiming in my diary item last week that Ethan Hawke had "never in his life done anything but impersonate other people in front of a camera," I had neglected to mention that he had done something else. Even if you don't count his being unfaithful to Uma Thurman, a woman who has recently given a very public demonstration of her handiness with a razor-sharp samurai sword, and lived to tell the tale, he has another accomplishment to his credit, which is that he has written two novels. Well, I knew about this but had forgot it. Boy! Was my face red! I now agree that what I should have said was that Mr. Hawke is at least as well-qualified to comment on the matter of presidential qualifications as Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal. Let us only hope that in the long run he may be as productive of political foolishness and flapdoodle as they have been.

My point, I might just add, was not that actors were somehow less entitled to political opinions than novelists -- or, for that matter, journalists, critics and web-loggers -- but that there ought to be some measure in those opinions, some sense of proportion, some humility. Maybe even some manners. It wasn't that Mr. Hawke had had the temerity to pronounce on the issues of the day that I objected to; it was the bumptiousness and silliness of this particular pronouncement. Tell us, Ethan, if you must that you don't agree with this or that thing that the President has done. As a novelist as well as an actor, perhaps you can put your objections into a pithy and amusing form. But don't tell us, by implication, that the President is really a very inferior sort of leader as compared with one E. Hawke or you shall find that we are laughing at you rather than him.

Generally speaking, actors are more likely to tumble into such ridiculousness than other sorts of people. It would probably never occur to a plumber or a grocery bagger to take for granted his own qualifications to evaluate those of the leader of the Western world -- and to find them wanting. But a man who, like Mr. Hawke has represented characters created by Shakespeare and Dickens, and whose comings and goings, like his divorce from Miss Thurman, are daily chronicled by the popular media, is eventually likely to get it into his head that he, too, dwells among the immortals and so is able to condescend even unto presidents. It's a sort of occupational hazard for actors, but one which, like the pratfalls and humiliations they are called upon to endure on the silver screen, has a considerable entertainment value for those of us who are looking on -- if only they can be persuaded to give a freer rein to their folie de grandeur.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.