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Hollywood And Politics

Eugene Volokh wonders why moviestars are such ineffective spokespeople for political causes. Kevin Drum says they're lazy. I wouldn't be my father's son if I didn't point out the real problem lies in Eugene's parenthetical aside, "Can't improvise? Heck, don't you know any screenwriters? Have them script some lines for you." But this is important. An actor is only as good as his script. Absent a well-designed character speaking well-crafted lines, a movie star is useless. The better question, I think, is why politicians don't get more help from the highly skilled professional writers of Hollywood. The better speeches spoken by liberal figures in The American President, The West Wing, and The Contender are far superior pieces of rhetoric to the sort of stuff the real politicians' speechwriters are turning out. Two problems, though..

Two problems, though. One is that politicians can't afford Hollywood screenwriters. That's true. For day-to-day purposes you've got to stick with the regular crowd. But for special high-profile moments -- convention speeches, states of the union, etc. -- I'm sure people (at least some of them) would be willing to volunteer their time. Perhaps more seriously, while Aaron Sorkin's writing is very good, his political judgment is often off-base. A really nice speech on behalf of deeply unpopular shit is just going to earn your man a reputation as "that guy with the good speeches who I hate because he's a communist." For example, from The American President:

We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character, and you wave an old photo of the President's girlfriend and you scream about patriotism -- you tell them she's to blame for their lot in life. And you go on television and you call her a whore. . . .

Tomorrow morning the White House is sending a bill to Congress for it's consideration. It's White House Resolution 455, an energy bill requiring a twenty percent reduction of the emission of fossil fuels over the next ten years. It is by far the most aggressive stride ever taken in the fight to reverse the effects of global warming. The other piece of legislation is the crime bill. As of today, it no longer exists. I'm throwing it out. I'm throwing it out and writing a law that makes sense. You cannot address crime prevention without getting rid of assault weapons and hand guns. I consider them a threat to national security, and I will go door to door if I have to, but I'm gonna convince Americans that I'm right, and I'm gonna get the guns.

Good speech, but you're still going to lose the election. Even worse is Senator Hanson's closing statement from The Contender:
Remarkably enough, it seems that I have some explaining to do. So, let me be absolutely clear.
I stand for a woman's right to choose.
I stand for the elimination of the death penalty.
I stand for a strong and growing Armed Forces because we must stomp out genocide on this planet, and I believe that that is a cause worth dieing for.
I stand for seeing every gun taken out of every home -- period.
I stand for making the selling of cigarettes to our youth a federal offense.
I stand for term limits and campaign reform.
If somebody like that ran for president, I wouldn't vote for her and she'd lose in a landslide. Nevertheless, there's plenty of good writing in the film. At any rate, I get the sense that these big speeches are collaborative enterprises anyway (just like movies) so it seems to me that you'd just need to make sure there were political professionals in the room who could keep some focus on minor details like polling, focus groups, policy, and, generally speaking, making sure that you aren't just offering eloquent expression of something grossly unpopular (or in Hanson's case, clearly unconstitutional and grossly unpopular) instead of eloquent expression of a viable political platform.

The Contender, on an unrelated side-note, is an excellent reminder of the fact that much as we seem to be stuck in politics-as-culture-war mode at the moment, it was actually much worse during the impeachment-to-9/11 period in which the movie was released. You wouldn't get so much as an inkling of a clue watching the movie that the federal government actually oversees a massive budget and a large regulatory apparatus with vast sums of money hanging in the partisan balance. Instead, it's all smokes, guns, fetuses, and genocide.

February 15, 2005 | Permalink


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Movie stars bad political spokesmen?

What about Reagan? What about Schwarzenegger?

Posted by: epistemology | Feb 15, 2005 2:06:49 PM

I long to address this point and perhaps will a little later. Just this, now: if you think actors talking about greenhouse emissions is bad, you should listen to them tell you about comedy.

Posted by: Delicious Pundit | Feb 15, 2005 2:28:52 PM

"What about Reagan? What about Schwarzenegger?"

Is this is a serious question?

Reagan had a speechwriter when he was president, so the words weren't his. That was the point Matthew was trying to make about actors speaking on their own time, without a good scriptwriter feeding them lines. Now, Reagan had good charisma, but that's superficial, not substantive.

As for Schwarzenegger, well, I've never much cared for his words or his delivery, either when he's speaking off the cuff or when he's giving a speech.

Bad examples.

Posted by: Matt (not MY) | Feb 15, 2005 2:38:52 PM

There are 2 main forms of acting, stage and screen. Stage acting comes across as highly overdone in the normal settings for presenting political views. On screen, the actor has the help not only of the screenwriter, but of the director, editor, composer, designer, etc. It takes a hell of a lot more than a good script and a charismatic performer to create a convincing character.

As for Ronnie and Arnold, the reason they're bad examples is not because of any political deficiency. They just weren't very good actors.

Posted by: pickabone | Feb 15, 2005 2:49:17 PM

Perhaps more seriously, while Aaron Sorkin's writing is very good, his political judgment is often off-base. A really nice speech on behalf of deeply unpopular shit is just going to earn your man a reputation as "that guy with the good speeches who I hate because he's a communist."

Am I naive in thinking that the speechwriters don't decide what are to be the policies set forth in the speech?

That is, why wouldn't you hire [left-wing equivalent of Karl Rove] to tell you what the policy is going to be and THEN hire Aaron Sorkin to write about it?

Thus, [Karl equivalent] tells Sorkin: "no, the speech will NOT call for confiscation of all guns; it will, on the other hand, call for more money for research into smart guns." Or do you think that Sorkin would say "screw you - if I don't write about confiscation of all guns, I'm not writing at all"?

(On a side note: what the hell is "a twenty percent reduction of the emission of fossil fuels over the next ten years"??? Is something emitting coal and petroleum? Yeck.)

Posted by: Al | Feb 15, 2005 2:56:18 PM

Why would you want to give the politicians ideas? If some take up your suggestion, we'll just get more deeply inspirational, totally irrational, and very-successful-at-bamboozling-the-populace rhetoric. We don't need any more of that than we already have.

Posted by: Matt G. | Feb 15, 2005 2:57:36 PM

To add to my previous comment: I think Matthew's problem is that he is conflating the jobs of a screenwriter and a director.

Now, I don't have relatives in the film industry, so I could be waaaay off, but, it seems to me that if a director tells the screenwriter to write it in a particular way ("No, the main character can't die in the end! Rewrite it for a happy ending!"), the screenwriter is going to comply, no?

Similarly, if the politicians' political guru tells the speechwriter what to write about ("No, don't write about confiscating all guns! Write about how much we love the military!") the speechwriter should comply.

Now, I don't know whether the Dems need better directors or better screenwriters (perhaps both). But hiring a good Hollywood screenwriter to be a politician's speechwriter doesn't necessarily mean that the politician would end up spouting out deeply unpopular ideas...

(And, maybe the issue here is using the example of Sorkin, who is both the director AND the screenwriter.)

Posted by: Al | Feb 15, 2005 3:10:35 PM

The biggest difference between writers of political fiction and writers of real political speeches is that the fiction writers get to write both sides of the debate and all the surrounding circumstances. The set up a fictional scenario where one side is clearly morally superior and the other side is a corrupt tool of special interests. It's easy to write compelling speeches with true moral clarity in a case like that. In the real world, it's not so easy. If the Hollywood writers were bound by real world constraints, I doubt they would be any more compelling than real speechwriters.

Posted by: Xavier | Feb 15, 2005 3:14:49 PM

Am I naive in thinking that the speechwriters don't decide what are to be the policies set forth in the speech?

Idiot. At least read down to the bottom of the post before you leave a comment.

Posted by: JP | Feb 15, 2005 3:19:59 PM

One of my favorite fictional political speeches is Chris Rock's speech call and response speech, in "Head of State":
"How many of you workin' two jobs just to be broke? Let me hear you say 'That ain't right!"' (And they do.) "How many of you workin' in cities you can't afford to live in? Cleaning up hotels you can't afford to stay in? We got nurses working in hospitals they can't afford to be sick in ... That ain't RIGHT!"

Posted by: Marie_K | Feb 15, 2005 3:26:22 PM

It seems like presenters who are improvisational actors (like Will Ferrell) tend to do better than other actors.

Posted by: Steve Brady | Feb 15, 2005 3:35:07 PM

"An actor is only as good as his script. Absent a well-designed character speaking well-crafted lines, a movie star is useless."

Matt learned at his father's knee that actors are cattle, I guess. Yuck. I sentence him to watch 24 high-school productions of "Romeo & Juliet", and then 12 dinner-theatre productions of "Same-Time Next Year". I don't think MY even knows what an actor does, but watching "Broadcast News" might give him a clue.

Leaving aside giving prepared speeches, which is a separate and I would contend less important skill, I think many actors are pretty good at the improvised conversation that passes for political discourse. In the extended relaxed format of the Charlie Rose Show, Alec Baldwin,Brian Cox,Michael Caine,Patrick Stewart were all great.

They are not as good as the "News Personalities" such as Chris Matthews and Britt Hume. And they are not used to hostile interviews(except for auditions). The skill sets do not completely overlap, so some are terrible. But I think, as a class, they are as good as CEO's and politicians.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 15, 2005 3:40:18 PM

I always thought that speech from "the Contender" neatly summarized the banality of the contemporary (and especially Clinton era) Democratic Party, a summary of issue positions lacking vision, or philosophical coherence, and even more crucially real moral or political courage. Is teenage smoking really one of the great issues of our time? I'm surprised that making driving while talking on one's cell phone a federal offense wasn't included alongside "Senator Hanson's" ambition to send Janet Reno door to door to collect up all the guns in the country (which just in case it needs to be said is not so much or just politically suicidal, but plainly ridiculous.) A good 60% of Americans are pro-choice. And really who doesn't stand for "campaign reform"?

Posted by: Robin the Hood | Feb 15, 2005 3:46:14 PM

I guess I'm not sure people are looking to get the same thing out of politicians' speaking in real life as they are in the movies. That sounds like a "duh" comment, but, politics aside, I don't know that the fact people thrill to a certain type of rhetoric and writing from fictional leaders necessarily means they want their real life leaders to come across in the same style.

It's illustrative to me that most of the movie politicians and movies Matt cites are of a liberal bent. Maybe wanting politicians to speak with a certain compelling grace is a particular liberal elite quirk that would not appeal to the great red mass of the heartland. I know plenty of people who LIKE how George W. Bush speaks because they think it sounds just like someone from their communities would talk to them, much as I wince every time he says "nuke-you-ler."

It just seems kinda half-cocked to me to start thinking about how to improve politicians' speaking without first investigating what the target audience of people who aren't voting for us but might find compelling or appealing in a politician's speech.

(btw, The problem with actors as spokespeople is that most of them have no credibility talking about issues, because people know they don't have any actual expertise as economists, environmental scientists, etc, etc. Some celebrities who do have credibility on an issue, for example those who suffer from medical ailments talking about them in public, are more effective spokespeople.)

Posted by: flip | Feb 15, 2005 3:46:51 PM

Sports figures. Those are the guys that know how to deliver a political speech.

Posted by: theCoach | Feb 15, 2005 4:00:03 PM

Matt (not MY) - Actually Reagan wrote a lot of his own stuff and polished the rest. He had speechwriters as all presidents do, but he did weekly radio commentaries for years that were 100% Gipper. The original manuscripts are in the Reagan Library.

As for acting ability, Reagan suffered from being a 2nd-tier contract player in an era of studio totalitarianism. He had the misfortune to be working for Warners when Bogart, Cagney, Flynn, Muni and Garfield were in their prime. Being maybe the 8th- or 10th-best actor on the Warner payroll in the 30's and 40's was no mean accomplishment, but it still meant most of the good stuff got picked off by others first. But watch 'King's Row' sometime. Ronnie could act alright, he just didn't get good material too often.

I've often wondered if many of Hollywood's liberals don't retroactively curse the fact that Jack Warner gave Reagan so few good parts in his career that he finally turned to other pursuits. But then, Warner was a Republican. Maybe he knew what he was doing.

As for Ah-nuld, true, the shades of Olivier, Gielgud and Guinness are doubtless untroubled by his filmic legacy, but Arnie is a good comic actor - more than can be said for a lot of names held in much higher overall esteem. Was it John Barrymore who said, "Dying is easy. Comedy - comedy - is hard?"

Posted by: Dick Eagleson | Feb 15, 2005 4:06:09 PM

"btw, The problem with actors as spokespeople is that most of them have no credibility talking about issues, because people know they don't have any actual expertise as economists, environmental scientists, etc, etc..."

Let's be real here. How many of the "people" you mention have "any actual expertise as economists, environmental scientists, etc."? I'm not saying that you're incorrect about the credentials of the actors (although you probably paint with too broad a brushstroke), but what rankles me is that the American public will negatively judge what many actors say because they may lack the necessary credentials, when in fact most of the American lack the very same credentials! That's absolutely classic, don't you think?

Just because Leonardo DiCaprio lacks a degree in environmental science, does that mean that he's mistaken when he talks about there being a global warming and enivironmental crisis? Funny, I seem to remember reading constant science reports from around the world saying the exact same thing. So, is it that all actors without the proper background in whatever their chosen stumping point is should just shut up? Or is it that they're simply saying things that many people don't want to hear?

And are we also to ban the oft-fabled family discussions, where uncles, brothers, fathers, sons, aunts, mothers and daughters will sometimes get into heated discussions over politics or religion? Are we seriously saying that those discussions should be halted? Does everyone just need to STFU until they can produce their bachelor's or Master's in whichever field it is they're discussing?


Posted by: Matt (not MY) | Feb 15, 2005 4:13:22 PM

Hollywood is not the model here, Madison Avenue is. Politicians are sold like orange juice, not like sitcoms. That's well known, actually; you can download and watch something like "Manufacturing Consent" to get a clue.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 15, 2005 4:19:03 PM

Jack Warner a Republican? Think you've got him confused with LB Mayer. The warners were DEMS and big backers of FDR, as was Reagan by the way; hell in 1948 he barnstormed for Truman!Ronnie's lack of roles after a while certainly hurt and our side was perhaps hindered by the fact that our most "likeable", hence, electable also had long careers. Think Henry Fonda couldn't have had agreat political career? Hollywood liberals get slimmed as know-nothing "special interests" as opposed to Wall Streeters who have the purist of motives.

Posted by: richard lo cicero | Feb 15, 2005 4:20:55 PM

The problem with actors as spokespeople is that most of them have no credibility talking about issues, because people know they don't have any actual expertise as economists, environmental scientists, etc, etc.

As opposed to politicians...?

Posted by: Constantine | Feb 15, 2005 4:34:03 PM

[From The American President:]

And you ["Bob Rumson"] go on television and you call her a whore.

That always struck me as the biggest political blooper in the film. The candidate doesn't go on TV and say that; the surrogates do.

Posted by: DonBoy | Feb 15, 2005 4:39:11 PM

Matt (not MY), you're a moron. That's obviously not Flip's point. Why listen to Ben Affleck talk about living wage when I can just talk to my friends about it? It's not he has nothing of any value to say on it (maybe this is a bad example, but you get the general idea), but why tune in to listen to him instead of someone who knows a lot about the subject, or have a conversation with one of my friends where we hopefully both learn something?

Posted by: Maestro | Feb 15, 2005 5:02:08 PM

Anybody who has sat through "A Few Good Men" and has concluded that Sorkin can, in fact, write, has simply set their standards far too low.

Posted by: Will Allen | Feb 15, 2005 5:25:47 PM

richard lo cicero - Consider me slapped down on Jack Warner's politics. Most of Hollywood's moguls were Republicans and I assumed too far.

You may well be right about why the relative dearth of liberal/left Hollywood types going into politics. The ones who did (e.g., Helen Gahagan Douglas, Ralph Waite) were less stellar, less numerous and less successful than their opposite numbers on the right.

Posted by: Dick Eagleson | Feb 15, 2005 6:08:44 PM

theCoach: Sports figures. Those are the guys that know how to deliver a political speech.

And interestingly enough, improvisation (albeit of a different sort) is definitely a valuable skill for athletes.

I wonder how jazz musicians might do?

Posted by: fling93 | Feb 15, 2005 7:24:23 PM

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