As we have seen repeatedly, genetic fallacy — better known as “shooting the messenger” — is a very common propaganda technique; if you want to deflect attention away from the message, just cast aspersions on the person delivering it, and many people will divert their focus to that instead. (One reason this works so well is that people are generally more interested in hearing about other people than ideas.) For right-wingers, this often means attacking entertainment celebrities — who tend to be not only highly visible to the public eye, but overwhelmingly liberal or progressive. And this has given rise to the very, very common right-wing whipping boy of the “Hollywood Elite”.
This derogatory label has been applied quite frequently to just about anyone of even slightly progressive tendencies who is even remotely connected to the entertainment industry. It’s been especially amusing, for example, to see Al Franken and Michael Moore branded as “Hollywood Elites” when they were living and working thousands of miles away from Tinseltown — and their work was thematically and stylistically just as removed. But wait, we can top that: just recently, some right-wing website ran a story about “Hollywood Elites” that sported a cover photo of President Obama.
The word elitism bears a connotation of snobbery. But anyone who thinks Hollywood celebrities are snobby probably has spent no time around them. Well, I have. I spent more than two years working in the L.A. film industry (which these days is actually distributed over Hollywood, Burbank, Studio City, Culver City and elsewhere). I worked with and/ or met some of the biggest names in the business, some of them screen legends. They included Sally Field, George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, Glenn Close, Cicely Tyson, Billy Dee Williams, Jeff Bridges, George C. Scott, Jack Lemmon, Hume Cronyn, Ginger Rogers, Vincent Price, Ed Harris, James Garner, Helena Bonham Carter, Jerry Seinfeld and Bette Midler. As well as many others.
And guess what? Not a single one of them was the least bit snobbish; on the contrary, virtually all were quite humble and gracious, even toward the lowest people on the totem pole. Of course, one person’s experience is not a sound basis for a broad generalization. On the other hand, if there were any substance to the broad generalization that show biz types are snobbish, then it’s almost certain that I would have encountered a couple of examples among all the ones I’ve been exposed to.
Right-wingers do their best to build up this image of Hollywood elitism, and they’re not above making up stories to serve the purpose. Several phony anecdotes have made the rounds about Jane Fonda, for instance. In one of them, she goes to a restaurant, and upon being told there’s a lengthy wait, demands immediate service because she’s a celebrity — but the owner instead stands up for truth, justice and the American way by kicking her out. Never happened. What did happen once that better epitomizes her character, but never gets repeated, is that she was on her way to visit someone in Oakland one day and that person, expecting her to arrive in a taxi or limo, and growing anxious because she was so late, finally got a call from her from a pay phone. She was at a subway station, and wanted to know which bus she should take the rest of the way.
One day when I was playing with my son at a park in Santa Monica, we were next to a basketball court where a pick-up game was in progress. One of the players caught my eye — first, because he was the only white guy playing, and second because I thought he looked like Woody Harrelson. Turns out it was Woody Harrelson — the other players referred to him as “Woodrow” and joked about White Men Can’t Jump. And when they took a break and the fellows passed around a bottle, he took a swig along with the rest of them. Just a regular guy.
This, like much that follows, is anecdotal, and does not prove that actors in general are just ordinary folks. But the thing is, the right-wing narrative of Hollywood Elitism is also anecdotal; furthermore, the anecdotes are often apocryphal, dubious, or don’t tell the real story. Even so, for every one of their anecdotes, you can find, at the very least, another anecdote about show-biz types being fantastic human beings.
In addition to sheer snobbery, there are several supposed traits implied, and often specifically alluded to, in those wielding the “Hollywood Elite” epithet. Let’s take a look at them.
1. “They’re pampered and overpaid.”
Sometimes right-wingers apparently resent movie stars just for being rich. Which is bizarre, considering it’s a major linchpin of right-wing ideology that the rich are virtuous and benign and deserve their wealth — even those who inherited it without lifting a finger. Hollywood types who are rich, however, almost always have earned it many times over.
And it’s a mistake to think of actors in general, even in Hollywood, as financial elites. There’s a good reason you hear so much about the cliche of actors supporting themselves by waiting tables. It happens. A whole hell of a lot. Even among actors with considerable talent and experience. Among members of SAG-AFTRA (the union for film and TV actors), only about 1 percent are able to make a living just by acting. (Only 15 percent qualify for insurance through the union — a threshold that requires making only $16,000 per year.) And most of the jobs are merely union scale. The ones lucky to land a gig raking in the big bucks are the ones you’re always hearing about — but they’re very, very few in number.
And contrary to what many people would have you believe, the work they do is not a walk in the park. It’s intense and grueling with long days that require serious concentration and pushing themselves to emotional and physical limits. And the pressures of the job have left many actors hooked on drugs, much to the delight of right-wing pundits who cite this to portray the “Hollywood Elites” as decadent, entitled coke-heads. Preparing for a role can involve extreme weight loss or gain — or in the case of Christopher Reeve, bulking up from skinny wimp to musclebound hunk in just 6 weeks.
Sometimes actors work in extremes of weather, and engage in scenes that are exhausting and even dangerous. My wife, who was on the set of Waterworld, reports that several people passed out from the heat. When I met Edward James Olmos shortly after the release of The Ballad Of Gregorio Cortez, he mentioned that in order to look appropriately haggard for one particular scene, he’d stayed up all night before shooting it — and bear in mind that a day of shooting typically runs 12 hours or more. But lack of sleep is by no means the greatest of sacrifices these folks regularly make for their careers. Time away from family is routine. And bruises, cuts, broken bones and worse are more frequent than you might think.
Vic Morrow and Brandon Lee, among others, were actually killed on the set. Sylvester Stallone received nearly fatal injuries boxing as Rocky. William Shatner suffered damage to his hearing while filming that was so severe it actually left him suicidal. Dick York (of Bewitched fame) worked in constant agony because early in his career, a horrific back injury while filming a scene left him dependent on painkillers –which he refused to take while working, so they would not diminish his focus. George Clooney, while filming a torture scene in Syriana, suffered a skull fracture that caused permanent eye damage and nearly killed him. Orlando Bloom broke his ribs shooting Lord Of The Rings. Farah Fawcett literally had her hair yanked out filming Extremities.
Did you see Leonardo DiCaprio smash a glass and cut his hand in Django Unchained? That was real. It was an accident, but he kept his concentration and continued the scene. During that same film, you’ll see Christoph Waltz riding in a carriage instead of on horseback, because during equestrian training for the role he dislocated his hip. Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh’s toughest day at the office involves running low on his supply of oxytocin.
2. “They’re hypocrites”
Another claim the punditocracy often makes about “Hollywood Elites” is that they’re all talk and no action when it comes to their progressive convictions — or in fact that they often behave in a manner that is exactly the opposite of their avowed convictions. This claim frequently crops up especially in reference to climate change. Many celebrities have been outspoken about the need to address the climate crisis, and yet, lo and behold, they live in fancy houses and fly on airplanes. Well, of course they do. Did you expect them to live in caves and hitchhike everywhere? But that doesn’t mean they aren’t mindful of their carbon footprints. And they’ve never called for abolishing airplanes or houses.
Hollywood celebrities often put their money (and their time and muscle) where their mouth is in many ways. Keanu Reeves, for one, has a habit of giving away millions of dollars without fanfare. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have exhibited a habit of adopting kids in need. Oprah Winfrey’s philanthropy is the stuff of legend. Steve Buscemi, a former firefighter in New York City, returned after 9-11 to do volunteer cleanup with his former outfit. Furthermore, many actors (including Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Kate Winslet and Ryan Gosling) have displayed a heroic willingness to take action in real life by coming to the aid of others in danger, sometimes risking their own safety to do so.
The vast majority of even the wealthiest and most successful stars had humble origins, and got where they are largely by sheer hard work and determination. Harrison Ford supported himself as a carpenter while struggling for his big break. Chris Cooper was a construction worker. When the Phoenix brothers were kids, they and their family lived in a van.
3. “They’re out of touch with the real world”
Few things betray the fundamental elitism and snobbery of the right-wing punditocracy more than their insistent framing of the entertainment industry as being a thing somehow removed from “the real world”. They don’t seem to realize that it’s a business subject to the same rules as any other business. And they seem unable to distinguish between the product sold and the people who create it — which means that it is really they, the right-wing punditocracy, who are “out of touch with the real world”.
It’s no big secret that filmmakers often take liberties in their craft; like any other art form, movies tweak reality rather than just reproduce it by rote — even documentaries exercise poetic license. Otherwise, the audiences would lose interest rather quickly. But it’s a mistake to dismiss cinema as mere make-believe, much less the lives of the people who perform in it.
For starters, there are many films — some of the best ones, in fact — that depict the trials and struggles of blue-collar folks in the heartland. (And many of the actors grew up in such parts of the country — very few were born and bred in L.A.) In fact, there are far more films made on such topics than on the lives of movie stars themselves. And guess what? Creating a film about ordinary lives in ordinary places, like any other type of film, requires a great deal of research — on the part of the writers to write the script, and the performers to portray the characters. It’s virtually impossible to craft such a film (at least a film of any quality) and remain “out of touch” with its subject matter.
And even those movies that take place in a galaxy far, far away (again, assuming they’re a quality product) have a solid underpinning of realism, both in terms of their thematic basis and the emotional palette the actors bring to them. One such film was the apocalyptic 12 Monkeys, which, like good science fiction in general, uses fantasy as a stylized mirror on the real world. In that particular movie, Brad Pitt played the part of a patient in a mental institution; in preparing for that role, he spent two weeks actually living in a mental institution. Now this may not make him an an expert on mental health issues, but it certainly makes him a hell of a lot better informed (i.e., “in touch”) than just about any right-wing pundit. Not to mention any of the politicians who pass laws affecting those impacted by mental health issues.
Unfortunately, much of the general public has bought into the myth of Hollywood Elitism. This is an all too typical reaction:
That comment, as you can see, was made to Marina Sirtis, (aka Counselor Troi), and encapsulates much of the ignorance and stupidity among the public with regard to Hollywood celebrities. The myth is that because they are successful in entertainment (and in some cases wealthy), they live carefree lives with no stress, no setbacks, no tragedies, not heartbreaks, and hey, not even any work involved (this jibes with a very bizarre, but very common perception among right-wingers about left-wingers in general that the latter are a pack of loafers and leeches). Nothing could be farther from the truth, as Ms. Sirtis informed him.
Unfortunately, a great many right-wingers will not believe her because they are convinced that Sean Hannity must know more about her life than she does.
4. “They’re stupid”
Another very common thread about “Hollywood Elites” is that they are shallow dimwits. What’s ironic is that this kind of accusation is most commonly made by the likes of Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Candace Owens and Tucker Carlson — not exactly bastions of intellectual profundity.
Here’s the thing: acting, like many other professions, does not require intellectual brilliance. But it certainly doesn’t hurt; indeed, it’s hard to get very far if you don’t have something on the ball. The right-wing attack squad, however, zeroes in on a few select utterances of a few select celebrities that appear to be brainless (even if they have to be taken out of context and tweaked a bit to sound that way) and extrapolates from that thin sample that “Hollywood Elites” are dumb. If they really wanted to be fair and accurate, however, there are plenty of film celebrities that would blow such a thesis to smithereens.
Many members of the general public have difficulty distinguishing Hollywood fantasy from reality — it is not uncommon, for instance, for actors portraying TV doctors to receive hundreds of fan letters soliciting medical advice. And the wingers exacerbate that perception. But quite often the actor who plays a certain role is often very different from the role he or she portrays (although James Woods is just as sociopathic in real life as he is on the screen). After all, what’s the challenge of being an actor if you just portray someone like yourself?
Thus, many actors who create an onscreen persona of mindlessness are in real life quite brilliant. Charlie Chaplin was an excellent example. So was Stan Laurel, who was actually the mastermind behind the classic comedic bits he and Oliver Hardy enacted. So was Lucille Ball, the ditzy redhead on the screen who off-screen was a savvy businesswoman and visionary producer who, more than any other person besides its creator, was responsible for launching Star Trek. But perhaps the superlative example was Marilyn Monroe, who, while cashing in on a public image of a sexy dumb blonde, was actually a brilliant conversationalist and avid reader whose reading included literary heavyweights like D. H. Lawrence, Earnest Hemingway, and even James Joyce, for crying out loud.
Among contemporary movie stars, there are also plenty of cerebral achievements. Funny man Steve Martin has a degree in philosophy and is also a published (and brilliant) playwright and novelist. Natalie Portman has been published twice in scientific journals and speaks 6 languages. Conan O’Brien graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in History and Literature. James Franco has several degrees and is now a PhD candidate who once interned at Lockheed Martin. Kevin Costner invented a device to clean up oil spills in the ocean. Jodie Foster taught herself to read when she was 3 years old. And so on. Additionally, many film actors have achieved great success as writers and/or directors.
Of course, you’ll also find a few dim bulbs in the lot; and even the brightest among them will sometimes say stupid things — or things that can be taken out of context and made to sound stupid. And there are a few entertainers who say incredibly stupid things on a regular basis. These latter include Scott Baio, Kevin Sorbo, James Woods and Ted Nugent. But the right-wing pundits never seem to call them out for stupidity; on the contrary, they sometimes quote these idiotic utterances as if they were insightful and profound. Why would they do such a thing, contradicting their customary and insistent narrative about stupid celebrities? Simple: the celebrities just named are right-wing fanatics themselves.
James Woods is a rather ironic case, because apparently, he was once considered a rather bright lad himself –he attended MIT briefly, but dropped out, supposedly to pursue his acting career. In any event, whatever mental acumen he once may have had vanished decades ago, and there isn’t even a tiny shred of it left. Coincidentally, his mental decline seems to have started accelerating about the time he switched his party affiliation to Republican. Woods himself has boasted that he has an IQ of 184, but needless to say, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that he would have scored even half that high. He has no directing or writing credits, no creative achievements, no published writing at all except for thousands of tweets — virtually all of them mindless and bigoted parrotings of delusional right-wing conspiracy theories and allegations:
And for all his professed brilliance, he seems utterly incapable of conducting even the most basic research before mouthing off.
To close the deal, he is also an enthusiastic fan of the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant. And that is perhaps the biggest irony of all among those who promote the myth of Hollywood Elitism. While rambling about the “Hollywood Elitists” who are supposedly pampered, snobbish and air-headed, they also endlessly sing the praises of a severely narcissistic, sociopathic reality TV star who was born with a platinum spoon in his mouth, has never had to do an honest day’s work, calls the White House a “dump”, sneers at “shithole countries”, is functionally illiterate, doesn’t know how many articles the U.S. Constitution contains, and considers it a cognitive achievement to crow about if he can memorize five words in a row.