Thesps’ message is garbled

Samuel Goldwyn would probably be bemused as fewer and fewer actors these days heed his advice: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

Some folks didn’t listen, but fortunately we ended up with “Gentlemen’s Agreement” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and, more recently, “Erin Brockovich” and “Syriana.”

Nowadays, it’s arguably harder to make a convincing “message movie.” So instead we have Hollywood stars taking positions and expressing themselves endlessly on whatever platform in whatever venue.

Hearing actors critique the government or expatiate on poverty or lament the plight of the oppressed is much more common these days than hearing them elaborate on their acting methods.

Showing the inevitable clip of their new movie seems almost an afterthought during appearances on talkshows. The actors seem almost embarrassed by the exercise, especially if the movie in question is a popcorn rather than a political movie.

Some play the pundit role more convincingly than others.

While talking about Darfur at the U.N., George Clooney came across as measured in his assessment and modest about his own impact on the issue.

“If I’m standing next to Kofi Annan, the cameras follow, and that puts the spotlight on the problem,” he told reporters.

Others haven’t quite mastered the technique.

Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise and Sean Penn just can’t seem to keep the lid on, even when it might benefit their own pocketbooks to do so.

Gibson stepped in it again last week, suggesting at a test screening of his new movie “Apocalypto” that the sacrificial slaughter of Indians in the film is compellingly relevant because we’re doing the same thing in Iraq, sending Marines to be massacred.

Some will argue this wasn’t just another inadvertent slip-up but rather a sly attempt to pique interest in his Mayan-language epic. Still, a bunch of folks were more miffed than moved by Gibson’s comments.

Cruise’s antics and rants about Scientology apparently became so annoying that his Paramount boss Sumner Redstone decided enough was enough and pulled the plug on his deal at the studio. Whether Redstone overreacted or just wanted to beat Cruise to the punch is debatable, but the actor’s image as a bizarro is going to be hard to shake.

Now Penn, who has been tubthumbing for “All the King’s Men,” is spending most of his time talking politics — not those connected with the movie but rather those connected with George W. Bush.

To hear him talking to CNN’s Larry King, you’d have thought you were watching “Face the Nation.” Not only, per Penn, is there no democracy in Iraq, but there’s none in America either, he seemed to be arguing.

Even when actors say something outlandish, they are rarely taken to task for it, at least not on-air. They’re stars and they know it: They just won’t come back on said show if they’re ever shown up to be shallow or ill-informed or just plain full of themselves.

This is not about agreeing or disagreeing with their politics — it’s simply that it would be refreshing to hear these folks discuss their craft with a bit more relish. How did Penn come up with those idiosyncratic flourishes as the demagogic Louisiana governor Willie Stark, and how exactly did Gibson get all those extras to hold spears for hours in the broiling Mexican sun?

As for the messages themselves, I’d much rather see them dramatized in the movies these folks make.

We’re informed enough, now entertain us.

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