A town that just doesn't get it

Posted: Dec 12, 2004 12:00 AM

The leading strategists of the Democratic Party have entered a season of soul-searching and repositioning, and their allies in the Hollywood left need to follow their example -- for the sake of both political influence and commercial clout. During the campaign, A-list celebrities provided such fervent support for Sen. John Kerry that the entertainment industry's unabashed partisanship became something of a joke -- even within Tinseltown itself. The counterterrorism spoof Team America: World Police deployed marionette versions of Alec Baldwin, Danny Glover, Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon and other outspokenly liberal stars as duped allies of the movie's archvillain, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. But now, Michael Moore's feverishly conspiratorial Bush-bashing extravaganza Fahrenheit 9/11 rates as a serious contender for the best-picture Oscar, speaking volumes about the entertainment community's continued detachment from the nation at large and contempt for the results of the recent balloting.

Alienating half of your potential audience

Hollywood apologists comfort themselves with the thought that 49% of the electorate voted to dump President Bush. But it hardly sounds like a savvy business strategy to market your movies and TV shows exclusively to a minority -- however substantial -- of the general public. In this closely divided nation, it satisfies no practical purpose for the entertainment elite to be identified as so intensely political and utterly one-sided.

Fahrenheit 9/11 earned surprising box office returns by appealing to Bush-bashers, but during the campaign season, Hollywood turned out absolutely nothing to attract or reassure Bush-backers.

The Passion of the Christ (often cited as a counterweight to Fahrenheit ) carried powerful religious messages but scrupulously avoided partisan political overtones. In fact, Mel Gibson never endorsed a candidate for president.

In contrast to this reticence, three major feature films marketed as escapist entertainment in the midst of electoral battle conveyed gratuitous anti-administration messages. The Day After Tomorrow featured a right-wing vice president, who looked like Dick Cheney, contributing to environmental disaster; The Manchurian Candidate portrayed a Halliburton-style conglomerate that manipulated military and political leaders; Silver City focused on a Bush-like, born-again bumbler slavishly serving corporate sponsors.

Two weeks after the election, the entertainment establishment unleashed yet another high-profile project designed to raise conservative hackles.

Kinsey aggressively glamorizes the tormented, bisexual researcher Alfred Kinsey, who has drawn criticism for his shoddy scientific standards and wild overstatement of gay behavior and other sexual variations. The film also portrays Kinsey's father (played by John Lithgow) as an angry cartoon of narrow-minded, fundamentalist Christianity.

This Oscar-contending release arrives in the wake of an election in which evangelical Christians played a particularly prominent role, and highlights Hollywood's habit of treating this substantial segment of the population with dismissive contempt. Exit polling data from Nov. 2 showed that a startling 41% of voters attend church at least once a week, while only 4% identify as gay. In other words, in the real world, (including blue states as well as red ones) committed churchgoers outnumber homosexuals by a ratio of more than 10-to-1. It therefore makes no sense, as a means of either reflecting reality or connecting with a mass audience, that gay characters feature so much more prominently (and sympathetically) than religious people in movies and TV shows.

What's controversial to one ...

Hollywood insiders may explain this anomaly by suggesting that the industry avoids devoutly Christian characters because they're inherently controversial, while gay people are not. But this argument takes little note of the election results and the crushing rejection of same-sex marriage in all 11 states where it appeared on the ballot.

A readjustment for the entertainment industry needn't require strict avoidance of divisive issues, nor demand that celebrities shun off-camera crusades. For the near term, however, it might help to refocus on non-political, humanitarian efforts (Habitat for Humanity, anyone?) that don't polarize the public. By the same token, some of the season's most profitable movie crowd-pleasers (The Incredibles, National Treasure, Christmas with the Kranks) affirmed traditional, unifying values of family, service and patriotism with no discernible political agenda.

For the health of the culture, and the welfare of show business itself, the industry ought to make a renewed effort to reflect, or at least to respect, the underlying attitudes of the 51% of Americans who rejected Hollywood's advice on Election Day.