USA Today, June 28, 2006
Hear them out
Celebrity activists are an easy target: When Hollywood stars stoop down
to help the underprivileged, their efforts often appear pious or self-serving.
The results, though, tell a different story.
By Bruce Kluger
Celebrity gossip has gotten to be a drag. While it used
to be a kick indulging in the guilty pleasure of showbiz
dish—marital infidelities, movie set tantrums, the
randomly tossed telephone—nowadays Hollywood
headlines seem more suited to page one than
In the past few months alone, say the papers, Nicole
Kidman was appointed goodwill ambassador for the
United Nations Development Fund for Women, Naomi
Watts and Matt Damon were in Zambia, sounding an
alarm about HIV/AIDS, and George Clooney was
kicking up sand in Darfur, hoping to shine a spotlight
on that war-torn region. Oh, yeah—and Los Angeles
cops plucked a protesting Daryl Hannah from a
When did everything get so darn serious? The truth is, celebrity activism has been
around since Charlie Chaplin first kicked that beach ball-globe as The Great
Dictator, and War Bonds saleslady Hedy Lamarr sold kisses for $25,000 each in
support of our GIs overseas.
But as the news and entertainment industries continue to morph into one another,
do-goodism of the rich and famous has become just another front in the culture
wars. As a result, the TV, movie and music stars who pipe up on behalf of pet
causes often earn more bile than bravos among grumpy pundits.
"The problem with the humanitarianism of the entertainers is that it perpetuates a
confusion of politics with culture," argues New Republic columnist Leon Wieseltier,
who calls Angelina Jolie "the African queen" and deems longtime rabble-rouser
Michael Douglas unworthy of discussing international peace. "(This) teaches
Americans to live vicariously...in slavish imitation of people luckier than themselves."
Then there's the hypocrisy factor. Peter Schweizer, author of the celeb-cause wrist-
slapper Do As I Say (Not As I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy, reports that Barbra
Streisand spends $22,000 a year watering her lawn and gardens, while she
lectures Americans on the need to cut back on water and gas consumption by
hanging out their wash and junking their SUVs.
On one hand, the critics make a good point. Those more accustomed to signing
autographs than to penning policy papers often raise eyebrows, not awareness, as
they move from the sound stage to the sound bite. (Bo Derek's vacant-eyed
endorsement of President Bush, for example, continues to amuse me.) And even
when a star knows of what he preaches, the delivery tends to teeter between the
riotously pious and hopelessly hammy.
Who can forget Richard Gere's infamous attempt to mind-meld with Chinese
leaders over the thorny issue of Tibet from the stage of the Academy Awards? Not
exactly a Bono moment.
But to write off all celebrity activists as windy, whiny and woefully out of touch is to
ignore the unique advantage celebrities have in getting their message out.
For starters, entertainment idols are notoriously image-conscious, so when they put
their careers on the line for a cause, you've got to figure they're drop-dead serious
about their positions. (See the Dixie Chicks as exhibits A through C.)
But more important, tarring all stars as know-nothing opportunists unfairly
undermines those who rise above garden-variety activism and actually conduct the
research required for good advocacy.
Take Martin Sheen. Because of the veteran actor's famous outspokenness—not to
mention the fact that he played the president on TV—conservatives have
practically called for an all-out jihad on the guy, depicting him as the worst thing to
happen to America since the invention of the Chia Pet.
But why not give Sheen his soapbox, especially considering his street creds?
Arrested for protests more than 60 times, he has engaged in the kind of
investigative legwork expected of journalists and scholars, not empty-headed
leading men. He has stood with impoverished migrant workers, provided hands-on
aid to the "scavengers" of the Payatas garbage dump in the Philippines, and
continues to speak with authority about the hazards of nuclear waste.
If this kind of substantive homework doesn't earn a fellow the right to spout off, what
Meanwhile, Leno and Letterman can make all the cracks they want about Angelina
Jolie, but when the actress sat down last week with CNN's Anderson Cooper for her
first post-Baby Shiloh interview, I learned more about child starvation in Namibia
than I've ever gotten from the nightly news.
For my money, I have come to appreciate what celebrity activism brings, not to the
rancorous roundtables but to where it's needed most: the coffers.
Last summer, Primetime Live's Diane Sawyer followed Brad Pitt to Africa, where the
actor was doing work on behalf of the ONE campaign to fight global AIDS and
poverty. Sawyer wanted Pitt to spill about his breakup with Jennifer Aniston, and he
agreed—provided the show would devote equal coverage to ONE's battle.
While the dashing actor's romantic confessional made headlines—then
evaporated—within a single news cycle, the wrenching images of hungry and
impoverished African children clearly had a lasting impact. Within two days of the
broadcast, ONE had recorded a 560% leap in Web donations and a sevenfold
increase in the sponsoring of needy kids. That's activism.
What's amusing about all of this is that conservatives are the ones who most often
sneer at Hollywood cause-peddlers—and yet they seem to have short memories.
After all, 26 years ago this November, didn't they take a particular shine to a movie
star-activist themselves? And if I remember correctly, the guy wasn't even that good