Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Actors, Opinion and Politics

In my previous life (in the days shortly before the outbreak of the Crimean War…) I spent more than a few years pretending to be a struggling actor. I left that life for the comfort and security of the Data Processing world almost 15 years ago. However, my college degree is a BA in Drama. Notice the degree is in Drama… not Theatre. I did not receive a practical education to prepare me for the profession of acting. In fact, had I learned the true brutal and arduous nature of the game, there’s a good chance that I would have never pursued it. But I did. And, because of my ignorance and amazing misconceptions about the arts, artists and in particular, the ones that are successful, I had one hell of a journey of discovery in the eight years after graduation.

The school I attended was a true liberal arts college. There was not even a Business major when I attended in the 70’s. In addition to my major curriculum, I continued to take advanced courses in History, Political Science, Anthropology, Philosophy and Sociology. By the time I graduated, I “got it”. I could see the connections between areas of study, systems and human behavior. I could do research, perform analysis, develop an argument and put it to paper.

I came of age in an academic environment that taught: “For one to be successful, one must be skeptical, analytical, critical as well as...”, and this is important… “humble and self-critical in your own theories and opinions”. I thought I could break into the acting profession because I was bright, analytical and knew how to read a play.

What a shock it was to enter the theatre world and discover that most of the actors I encountered, especially the really talented ones, could not analyze their way out of a wet paper bag with the aid of a straight razor. And, to add insult to injury, some of the really good ones were not even smart! Not only that, most of them knew nothing other than the theater… no, not even the theatre… that would require some knowledge of lighting design or set construction. They knew how to act. These people could identify show tunes or Shakespearian quotes, but would be hard pressed to put together a basic timeline on American history, let alone go a level deeper and discuss the underlying political and philosophical currents that drove the historical events.

What these people did know how to do... was feel. What I mean by this is that they were adept at knowing and cultivating their own emotional life and using it as a tool to portray a character in a play. Now, I am not being pejorative about this in the least. This is an amazing talent and, to use it to successfully in the pursuit of a career in acting requires huge amounts of drive, determination, discipline… and very importantly… self confidence.

However acting is, more than anything else, a “feeling” profession. An actor’s bread and butter has everything to do with developing a library of emotional and sense memories as well as honing the tools that allow theses memories to be accessed, relived and displayed at will. In my travels, I certainly met smart and versatile individuals who were very good actors. I met bright individuals who could analyze a play but had no emotional reservoir to tap for a performance. On the other hand, I never met a good, versatile actor that did not have a rich and mercurial emotional life. The good ones are all “feelers”… only a subset of those are “thinkers”… and only a very small subset of the thinking subset have any perspective on the world outside of theatre, or show business, let alone on what has led to the coming war in Iraq.

Yet… they FEEL very strongly about it. And their feelings spring from the fountain of their own talent and craft. How would it FEEL to be in a Baghdad basement the evening of the upcoming attack on Iraq? Christ, it would be terrible. The smell of sweat, children crying… your old and feeble grandfather sitting ashamed in the corner because he’s soiled his pants in fear. And the good ones have the ability to “go to this place” at a moments notice, in Dolby Surround and Technicolor.

Add to this the current faux-bohemian, pseudo-Marxist pose of show business culture and a confused, ignorant notion of what artistic patronage is all about (They want government support of the arts with no strings attached… Hey, you can bet the de Medicis didn’t patronize artists critical of the de Medici family. They may have had you killed, but they wouldn’t buy your stuff.). Finally, mix well with the self-confidence required to be successful in show business and you get a Susan Sarandon (if they’re smart) or a Sean Penn (if they’re not).

There is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling compassion for the Iraqi civilians who will inevitably die in the next few days. The fallout, political and otherwise from this human impulse to identify with “the other”, which many good actors seem to personify, helps drive the species forward. However, when not tempered with historical perspective and analysis, you end up a view of U.S. international policy based on an almost childlike, false choice (Good – if it doesn’t scare, hurt or kill people. Bad – if it does.). You then find yourself defending a brutal, fascist dictator and comparing the current President of the United States to Hitler. Shallow identification with “the other” becomes a paralyzing fetish and a demonstrably murderous regime is seen as preferable to liberation by the country of your birth.

But, this is what we get when we want and expect wisdom, rather than entertainment from our celebrities. And WE give them the not-so-bully pulpit. Expecting intelligent discourse on world affairs from show business celebrities is like expecting professional athletes to be role models for children. Just because you are adept at throwing a baseball accurately 60 feet at 95 miles per hour does not mean that you are not a self-centered, shallow, dysfunctional asshole whom children should avoid emulating at all costs. Having the mastery of your craft and emotional talent to bring an audience to tears does not mean that you know your anus from a terrestrial aperture when you are railing against the war in Iraq. It just means that your talent and celebrity give you the media exposure.

It’s up to us not to give a damn about what they think. We pay them to feel.

For a different, complementary take on this see Bill Whittle's Celebrity.


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