NEW YORK CITY — In person Kristin Davis so fully embodies the radiant giddiness of her Sex and the City character, Charlotte York, that even as she stood in Washington Square Park chatting amiably amidst the hubbub of a Writers Guild strike rally, I was left with the not altogether unpleasant, yet absolutely surreal feeling I had stumbled into a scene from the now-defunct HBO hit series.
“This is so exciting,” Davis said, smiling an impossibly brilliant smile, the sunlight glinting off the Support Writers button on her black overcoat as she bounced from one foot to the other in the chill fall air. “But also sad.” Her lips turned down a bit at this, as if she was reminding herself it was a solemn occasion. “Because it is a strike.”
After a few minutes, the contours of a pattern began to emerge: Reporters asked Davis about the strike; everyone else was mostly concerned — after getting their friends to snap cell phone pictures of them with the actress, of course — with whether the strike would hold up production of the much-anticipated Sex and the City movie.
“We want to work, but also feel the future is important,” Davis told one fan primly, maintaining a Yorkian air as she politely toiled to draw the conversation back to the message at hand, praising the indelible contributions of film’s screenwriters: “We have four simultaneous storylines going all at once, which is not common for a romantic comedy at all. We need our writers back at work.”
Not long before, a long line of local union officials had paraded across the dais to proclaim their solidarity with the writers (read: latch onto publicity writers’ famous friends generate) in language virtually dripping with grandiosity. A congressman saluted the “militance” and “unity” of the strikers before sauntering offstage to a live jazz quartet’s instrumental version of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” And what word save militance could accurately describe John Edwards’ declaration, “I myself have cancelled appearances on Ellen and The View in solidarity with you.” Edwards’ steadfastness was rewarded by the band with an over-flanged funk version of “Eye of the Tiger.”
Randi Weingarten of the United Federation of Teachers, shamelessly connecting the plight of Cesar Chavez and 1970s migrant farm workers, led a chant of “Si se puede!” before pledging “teacher-style” support — presumably this means hectoring everyone about how you have the most noble job in the world, complaining about your pay even as the country gets, um, progressively stupider and then watching soaps all summer vacation while you tell everyone you’re finally starting that novel about the sad young girl with daddy issues. How “teacher-style” will help striking writers remains unclear, but you cannot say Weingarten isn’t personally committed. “My lines were not written by writers and they won’t be written by writers until you get a fair deal,” she said to great applause, although one wonders why a teacher’s union rep would need writers.
New York SEIU bigwig Mike Fishman suggested they create a reality show to rival Survivor called Survival about “our survival and your survival and that we win and everybody wins not just one person”; a show, it might as well be noted, that would throw away virtually every interesting aspect of Survivor.
“This strike is everywhere,” Mona Mangan, executive director of Writers Guild-East, enthused triumphantly. “It is writ large upon the sky. You can’t get away from it. It is everywhere, and the reason for this is pretty obvious. This is really the first strike of the 21st century.”
THE REASON IT IS EVERYWHERE, and by extension, the reason more than 500 people assembled into Washington Square Park is obvious, but it is not because this is the first strike of the 21st century. The Writers Guild strike is everywhere because when you go to one of their rallies you get to see Tony Soprano’s wife standing next to Joe Pantoliano on stage while Sopranos creator David Chase and Richard Belzer, holding a small dog to his cheek, look on. It’s because even if Tina Fey looks like she’s not into it, she’ll still pose for a photo with you and the guy who plays Kenneth the Page on 30 Rock. It’s because the ex-intern from The Office will nod at you if you smile at him as he leans nonchalantly against a tree. It’s because if Anthony Edwards didn’t look so standoffish you might have been able to ask him what his on-set memories of Revenge of the Nerds are.
Oh, and because Charlotte York is sweetly chirping at anyone who happens into her orbit. Even some not-so-easily recognized individuals could be pegged as famous by the mini-squalls of humanity that engulf them as they meander into the crowds.
Union bosses and famous actors; these are the people who told the stories of the writers’ struggle. The gathered heard a thousand times this day how brilliantly writers are able to express themselves, yet, aside from one Daily Show personality and comedian extraordinaire, Colin Quinn, no one saw fit to let the writers speak for themselves. (“I want this to end so the Writers Guild can go back to doing what they do best,” Quinn ribbed. “Sending three giant envelopes of detailed health plan information out every week.”) We’ll be merciful here and not count signs such as We Write, They Wrong and This Sign Would Have Been Witty, But I’m On Strike as representative of writers’ expressive abilities, but the actors chosen to speak for them could hardly be said to have done much better.
“Without Writers Guild members, we would have bad jokes, crap movies, and an endless output of reality television,” Tim Robbins, for example, expounded in a strangely clipped accent, begging the question: As opposed to what? Some of the greatest television shows and movies in the history of either medium have no doubt been produced in recent years. The idea that we don’t already have to fish them out of a veritable sea of “crap” and “reality television,” however, is more than silly. It’s outright ignorant. “Without professional writers we would have unreal, implausible scenes in scripts that have no basis in reality,” Robbins continued. Again, has Robbins actually seen a movie recently? Hey, Tim, go check out Lions for Lambs this weekend, if you have a chance.
All of which is to say, the activist actor’s opportunity to dress gritty and wax revolutionary is not necessarily solidarity with the writers, who have some legitimate demands, even if it’s difficult tofully sympathize. It comes down to opportunity. How many chances do you think Tim Robbins will have to say things like, “We’re not marching up to Mulholland Drive with torches in our hands. You titans can keep your uber-mansions, just help your writers pay the rent” — with a straight face?
I myself had to smile when Robbins walked off stage to the strains of The O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money” — you know, Donald Trump’s theme song.
NOT THAT SOME WRITERS aren’t getting a little romantic about the strike as well. When Rage Against the Machine singer Zack de la Rocha played for west coast strikers, Bobby Gaylor, a Disney Channel writer, gushed to the Los Angeles Times, “I really felt like I was a coal miner listening to Woody Guthrie,” the punishment for which should be having actually to go work in a coal mine. (But not having to listen to Woody Guthrie. I don’t believe in torture.) Marie Flaherty, currently in the middle of a court battle over a script she contends was pilfered from her and used as the basis for the Steve Martin vehicle Bringing Down the House, wore a shirt which read, I wrote a hit movie and all I got was this lousy T-shirt. Writers Guild wasn’t helping her much with her fight, she said, but she came out anyway. “I’m here to support writers and creativity,” she explained, adding that entertainment gave people a little break from the horrors of the world. “I actually wanted to make a sign, too: Write Stories, Not War Plans, but I ran out of time.”
It is the union bosses from the working class sector who are truly deluding themselves, though. Danny Glover might get up and, after railing on a bit about the “most evil war in Iraq” and “incarcerated women,” suggest that writers will one day return today’s favor by picketing with hotel workers tomorrow. It’s just not going to happen.
Nevertheless, the true revolutionaries attempted to seize the moment, hawking copies of 1917: Journal of the International Bolshevik Tendency and World Socialist flyers pooh-poohing “multi-millionaire ‘populist'” John Edwards and the Democratic Party. “The economic needs of writers, as well as their artistic and creative aspirations — and the elevation of the cultural level of the population as a whole — are incompatible with the existing economic and political system, of which the Democratic Party is an essential part,” it read in part.
I bought a copy and asked the man if he really thought this was fertile recruiting ground for a revolution of the proletariat.
“Well, it’s not an entirely bad crowd,” he answered, stroking a bare chin as if an invisible goatee were there. “They’re workers in the struggle. Most of us understand, probably better than they do, though, that they’re not the most oppressed sector of the work force. But, you know, it’s a struggle nonetheless and one the public actually hears about.”
As if on cue, actor and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists Local President Holter Graham came to the microphone. He recognized, he said, that producers and media conglomerates put up the big cash necessary to get films and television programs going.
“But the people in WGA bleed to write the scripts,” Graham said, as a homeless-looking man a few feet away pounded away at invisible bongos. “The actors in SAG and AFTRA bleed to play their roles. The people who support this city every day bleed to make it the cultural capital that it is.”
I looked down, but there was no blood on the pavement of Washington Square Park, not on this day anyway. With no writing going on, though, there must be a lot fewer paper cuts.
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