One of my favorite actors, Kevin Spacey, appeared on The Bill O’Reilly Factor last week to plug a new movie about the incarcerated lobbyist Jack Abramoff. It is titled “Casino Jack”, which opens on December 17.
During the course of the interview, O’Reilly asked Spacey why virtually all actors in Hollywood appear liberal. The host of the Factor went even further, suggesting that progressive conformity was a prerequisite to working in the entertainment industry. The late Charlton Heston was cited as an example. According to O’Reilly, Heston’s liberal viewpoints gave way later in life to conservative thought. The result? His larger-than-life career suffered and his social contact list, to use O’Reilly’s words, “dried up”.
Predictably, Spacey did not agree with O’Reilly’s assessment and countered with these comments:
“I have never heard of a situation where, because somebody had a particular political belief, they didn’t get a part. I think it’s a bit of myth. I’ll take it from an acting perspective. I think that when you put yourself, as actors have to do, in other people’s shoes, when you have to put on the coat that someone else has worn in their life, I guess it’s much, much harder to be prejudice against them. And not to try to look at the world in the sense of “I’m going to judge somebody, (but rather) “I’m going to try to understand who they are and what they are about. I think that acting is very humanizing profession.”
“I don’t think it’s sympathy. For example, I can’t judge the characters I play because it’s for the audience to do. What I can try to do is to understand and embody what were they going through. How did they make the decisions they made? That, to me, is a more interesting way to approach someone, rather than saying “well this person is a villain and that persons is “this”, because it’s not very interesting to play that anyway.”
“What we’ve tried to do in this movie is to humanize someone that’s been de-humanized. They (the government) threw him under the bus pretty unceremoniously, I think, in an effort to show that they have cleaned up the lobbying industry, but I don’t think they have.”
“There are circumstances where people make decisions, or misjudgments, in such ways that you cannot actually believe… you couldn’t write this stuff, because it’s so outrageous. It’s inherently funny. I think we try to make a film that’s entertaining and makes this person a human being, because he is a human being. You call him “sleazy”, but he was living in an environment where a lot of people were doing very similar things.”
O’Reilly aptly pointed out that that you don’t justify a person’s bad behavior by pointing out the bad behavior of others. Stacey concurred, but continued to half-heartedly advocate for Abramoff.
“I definitely think he took responsibility for what he did. He knows he crossed the line, there was no question (of that) when I spoke to him. He understood that he did things wrong. He didn’t think that he was going to jail.”
“I think that, maybe even against your better instincts, which is to hate him, I think you might suddenly start to see that there’s more to him than he was painted out to be. “
Let me preface my comments by stating that I am a huge fan of Kevin Spacey. He is one of the best actors in film today and his characters are compelling. That said, I must admit disappointment with some of his comments.
Contrary to Spacey’s statements, the entertainment industry does rule politics with an iron hand. It is not “a bit of a myth” that actors loose parts if they share their conservative viewpoints. That’s not conjecture, that’s fact. Actors have been told not to come back to work unless they vote the straight Democratic ticket. Understandably, this has censored many conservatives in Hollywood, who are conflicted, demoralized and even frightened to the point where they have created support groups that meet in private, not unlike Alcoholics Anonymous. The difference, however, can be found in the secrecy and paranoia when sharing feelings with other conservatives. Apparently being right of center in Hollywood has a much larger social stigma than being a habitual alcoholic. No surprise there.
I also respectfully disagree with Kevin Spacey’s characterization that people who do bad things are simply making “misjudgments” or are victims of the people they associate with. I reject the premise that people in positions of power, whether they be lobbyists, American politicians or even infamous dictators, need to be viewed through the wider lens of empathy and social context. Although Spacey makes an argument that might be compelling to some, others in the entertainment community have taken that same empathic argument to ludicrous extremes.
Consider director Oliver Stone’s comments:
After a personal meeting with Ahmadinejad, Stone made the assessment that
“Iran isn’t necessarily the good guy, but we don’t know the full story.”
“brave, blunt, earthy man.”
He appears sympathetic to Aldolf Hitler, proclaiming this mass murderer
“is an easy scapegoat throughout history and it’s been used cheaply….We can’t judge people as only ‘bad’ or ‘good. ‘ [Hitler] is the product of a series of actions. It’s cause and effect.’”
The memory of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin received similar compassion. Now consider these excerpts written by actor Sean Penn for the website The Nation.
Conversations With Chavez and Castro
November 25, 2008
(Regarding Hugo Chavez)
“Though Chávez himself has a penchant for rhetoric, never has it been a cause for war. In hopes of demythologizing this “dictator,” I decided to pay him another visit. By this time I had come to say to friends in private, “It’s true, Chávez may not be a good man. But he may well be a great one.”
Regarding (Raul Castro)
“Joking aside, Castro moves with the agility of a young man. He exercises every day, his eyes are bright and his voice is strong. …. So much for the “cold militarist.” Raúl Castro was warm, open, energetic and sharp of wit.”
“The hour was getting late, but I didn’t want to leave without asking Castro about allegations of human rights violations and alleged narco-trafficking facilitated by the Cuban government. ….. As I await Castro’s comments, I can’t help but think of the nearby US prison at Guantánamo and the horrendous US offenses against human rights there.”
“As we exit his office, we are followed by staff as President Castro takes me down the elevator to the lobby and walks me to my waiting car. I thank him for the generosity of his time….. We share a laugh and a last handshake.”
Empathizing with someone like Jack Abramoff is not exactly shocking, particularly for an actor who is plugging an upcoming movie in which producers have invested millions of dollars looking for a profit. But the Hollywood liberal left finds itself on a slippery slope when the likes of Oliver Stone and Sean Penn defend the indefensible; Fascism. Ironically, this pro-dictator sympathy and endorsement is coming from the same mouths espousing freedom of expression and the pursuit of unbridled capitalism in the form of box office receipts. They seem oblivious to the fact that if given the opportunity, the very fascists they defend would have no trouble confiscating their wealth, censoring their speech, imprisoning them or even ending their life if it resulted in personal political gain. Do these celebrities really believe that past and present fascist dictators such as Hitler, Castro, Chavez and Ahmadinegad cannot be judged because their personalities are too complex? Or is it a specious argument designed to create controversy while keeping fading celebrities in the limelight? Perhaps they subscribe to the Lindsay Lohan motto that any publicity is better than no publicity. Frankly, it doesn’t really matter. Both Stone and Penn are living in an alternate reality that most rational Americans avoid, rendering these radical opinions moot.
But what about Kevin Spacey, who appears to be humble, lucid and thoughtful? It may be interesting for him to explore the complex personalities of criminals in an effort to “humanize” them, but I question whether it serves the greater good. Of course criminals are humans who have chosen to hurt others, either physically or financially, but is it fair for an actor to say that they shouldn’t judge the characters they play, leaving that to the audience? Perhaps, but that proposition seems to ignore the fact that all stories told in the theater have some bias that influences the public. In that context, does Spacey, or the entertainment community in general, have a responsibility to define, judge and advocate for scripts which seek some message of truth using a moral compass. Or is that concept too provincial in 2010? What about our impressionable youth who see criminals portrayed as sympathetic characters? Is it somewhat disingenuous to suggest that screenplays don’t influence the younger generation? Movies are much more than art. They are history lessons, philosophy popular culture, fashion and role models, all wrapped up into one potent message. We fool ourselves if we believe that scripts are morally neutral. Far from it.
At the risk of sounding redundant, let be repeat that Kevin Spacey is an intelligent, compelling and talented actor. But admittedly, it’s a little disappointing to learn that he prefers to humanize the bad guys he portrays in order to invoke audience empathy. Why? Because he is Spacey, unlike Stone and Penn, who are merely spacey.