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Why Hollywood’s unified liberal elite is just a myth

Should awards shows be pulpits from which celebrities espouse their political views? Winners and hosts at this past Saturday's Producers Guild of America Awards and Sunday's Screen Actors Guild Awards certainly thought so. Maybe they were taking their cues from Meryl Streep's rousing speech at the Golden Globes a few weeks earlier, when she urged people to donate to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Maybe they would have done it anyway, after Donald Trump enacted his anti-immigration policy. But their celebrations became a cri de coeur from the liberal elite.

At the PGA awards, John Legend (a producer of La La Land) urged viewers to donate to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), saying, "I want to specifically reject his [Donald Trump's] vision and affirm that America has to be better than that." Presenting an award to their father, producer Tom Rothman, Elizabeth and Nora Rothman received a standing ovation for wearing pink pussy hats.

At the SAG Awards, host Ashton Kutcher welcomed "everyone in airports who belong in my America." Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep) told that crowd that her father fled Nazi persecution in France, and added, "This immigration ban is a blemish and it is un-American." Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) spoke movingly about how persecuted people "fold into themselves." Taylor Schilling said the actors on her show Orange Is the New Black represented "generations of families who have sought a better life here from places like Nigeria, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Ireland." Sarah Paulson (The People vs. O.J. Simpson) also asked viewers to donate to the ACLU.

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Viewers' reactions, of course, depended on their politics. The morning after the Golden Globes, conservative web pundit Matt Drudge ran a photo of Streep under the demeaning headline, "LA LA LAND." On the other hand, a spokesperson for CPJ reported that donations began coming in immediately after Streep's speech, and continued through the night and next day – in small amounts, which suggested average citizens were making them.

There are risks in speaking out. I don't believe there's such a thing as a unified liberal elite – if there were, people like Casey Affleck and Mel Gibson wouldn't receive award nominations. (Or it means that the liberal elite is open-minded and forgiving, but that's for another column.) But this year's speeches have been overwhelmingly liberal. That may turn off some viewers, or make people with other opinions feel silenced. It may affect Hollywood's bottom line: Based on box-office figures from the week before and the week of the Oscar nominations, none of the contenders I checked – Hidden Figures, La La Land, Moonlight, Fences, Lion and Jackie – showed an Oscar bump, an immediate post-nomination surge.

Trump, however has shattered traditional norms. A huge swath of thinkers inside and outside Hollywood believe he poses a threat, both existential and physical, to the planet. So battle lines are being drawn.

This past week, corporate America spoke out against Trump's immigration ban, including Facebook, Airbnb, and Netflix. Starbucks vowed to hire 10,000 refugees. Lyft pledged to donate $1-million (U.S.) to the ACLU. Filmatique, a New York-based collective specializing in the digital distribution of contemporary world cinema, is actively seeking films from the seven restricted countries. Actor Kal Penn turned a bigoted tweet into a CrowdRise fundraising campaign that raised more than $300,000 for the International Rescue Committee. A segment on Samantha Bee's TV show featuring sexual-assault survivors from I Can't Keep Quiet.org received more than 808,000 views on YouTube. Celebrity speeches are part of that zeitgeist, and likely encouraged some of it.

Not all speeches are equally effective. "I'm mad and I want to tell you why" iterations may be entertaining in the moment, but have little lasting effect. Others go off the rails – at the Golden Globes, Tom Hiddleston showed how not to make a speech by turning what should have been a thank you to Doctors Without Borders into a humblebrag. The most lasting are the ones like Streep's and Paulson's, which ask viewers to take specific action.

Personally, I'm all for political speeches at awards shows, for two reasons. First, SAG and the PGA are unions, just like the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers, and union action has long been part of American social change. Sure, some actors (a small percentage) are speaking from a place of great wealth and privilege. But so is the U.S. President.

A ban on travel and immigration negatively impacts Hollywood's business: Film crews can't move around the world; international audiences may avoid American product. Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi, whose film The Salesman is contending for a best foreign language film Oscar, has announced he'll boycott the ceremony in protest of Trump's ban, even if an exception were to be made for him. What if other countries begin banning our crews or films, or withhold theirs from our market? Actors have as much right as any American worker to protest restrictions on their business.

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As well, as the entertainment writer John Lownsbrough reminded me, actors speaking out is a relatively new phenomenon. For a good part of Hollywood history, they were chattels of the studios and did what they were told, which meant keeping their mouths shut. They also had to contend with the fear generated by Senator Joe McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Blacklist. Now the Trump administration is openly attacking the media, and the film business is part of the media. They're allowed to fight back.

My second reason is more emotional. I watch awards shows to catch a glimpse of the glitterati when they're unvarnished – to see beyond what they wear to who they are. I've been interviewing actors for more than 30 years. I've talked to hundreds of them. The majority of them did not come from privilege. Do you think Brad Pitt, growing up with his little dumpling parents in Missouri, knew that one day he'd bestride the world like a golden colossus? Or do you think he can still recall pretty clearly the person he was in middle school?

For most actors, that person was sensitive, probably a bit odd, outside the mainstream. As has been said many times, acting is an empathy exchange: an actor uses empathy to pretend he's someone else; an audience responds with empathy to that character. An actor's sole job is to feel what others feel.

That's why, of all the SAG speeches, it was David Harbour's (Stranger Things) that brought the crowd to their feet. His show's win, he said, is "a call to arms … to cultivate a more empathetic and understanding society …We will shelter freaks and outcasts …We will get past the lies …We will punch some people in the face when they seek to destroy the weak and the disenfranchised and the marginalized."

So yes, a political plea from an actor may be embarrassing or ineffective or off-putting. But the alternative – risking nothing, doing nothing – is worse.

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