Doubtlessly few are surprised that a sizable part of showbiz in general — and Hollywood in particular — has spoken out against what many in the industry are already labeling as the worst foreign policy blunder in American history.
More interesting, though, is the growing number of women’s voices in that angry chorus protesting the war in Iraq:
- Jessica Lange on the radio show “Democracy Now” denouncing the Bush administration for “manipulation of facts, untruths and lies, lies and more lies.”
- Charlize Theron at the Venice Film Festival, calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
- Penelope Cruz telling a reporter that she has “always been against war. But I was particularly upset by the Iraq war.”
- Sally Field on the Emmys, denouncing all wars.
The list seems to get longer every week. True, Jane Fonda was doing more or less the same thing some 35 years ago, but how many other industry women can you remember speaking out?
Not that they speak for all women in the business. By far, most are not saying anything publically for or against the war. Some, such as Elizabeth Hasselbeck of “The View,” have spoken only in defense or support of U.S. troops without praising or criticizing the mission. Others, such as Cher, have focused on helping troops get adequate equipment — in Cher’s case, lobbying for more and better body armor.
But for a number of actresses and femme filmmakers, the Iraq war has become a catalyst for political action — either on the stump, with their checkbook or in their work.
“There’s a greater variety of ways to speak out now,” says Lara Bergthold, a founder of the now-defunct Hollywood Wo-men’s Action Committee in the 1980s. The advent of the Internet alone has provided new outlets — either on blogs or through electronic cash donations to activist groups — that didn’t exist for the most part even 16 years ago, when the first Persian Gulf war raged.
Similarly, films with a critical or antiwar point of view are hitting theaters sooner than before. The first features questioning U.S. involvement in Vietnam — “Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter” in 1978, followed by “Apocalypse Now” in 1979 — appeared several years after a cease-fire. As the situation in Iraq continues to bleed with no end in sight, at least three documentaries and three features taking a dim view of the war are either in theaters or about to be released.
One of those, “In the Valley of Elah,” features Susan Sarandon, who has made it a priority to bring attention to U.S. vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and are now suffering from inadequate treatment by the military or the government.
“Whether you believed in the war or not, ignoring what’s happening to these veterans, who lack real support, it’s not right,” she says.
Shortly after “Elah” was released, Sarandon was asked to appear on ABC’s “The View.” She agreed, she says, only if she could bring at least one veteran on with her. She says she will “keep plugging away” at this issue as long as necessary.
Will the 2008 presidential election change anything, especially if a Democrat wins? Sarandon isn’t hopeful. “The key issues are authenticity and standing by a principle,” she says, adding that, on those counts, “I’m disappointed in most of the candidates right now.”
For Patricia Foulkrod, director of the documentary “The Ground Truth,” the Iraq war “transcends the election,” she says, “because elections are ways for people to say to themselves, ‘Oh, there’s an election coming. That’ll fix things.’ But there’s no sitting back to see how this all plays out.”
Thus, she is now working on a doc about the effects of war on American, Iraqi and Afghani families. “We are in a war,” Foulkrod says. “What else is more important?”
Laura Poitras, who directed the Oscar-nominated doc “My Country, My Country,” says that “this war is going to haunt us for generations. So I wanted to document it for the record and also capture something about the human consequences.”
She says she never expected to change official policy, “but maybe reach people emotionally across the political spectrum.” Like Sarandon, Poitras doesn’t see much courage on the subject of Iraq from either the Democratic or Republican presidential candidates, but neither is she about to give up. She’s now working on a doc about the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay — as part of her larger interest in post-9/11 America.
“If you went into a coma on Sept. 10, 2001, and just woke up, you wouldn’t recognize this country,” she says.
In this regard, actress Julie Christie has become involved with the residual effects of Guantanamo and the aftermath of Abu Ghraib. The star of “Away From Her” has become involved with the London-based Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. “With Rumsfeld and Bush having ‘normalized’ torture,” she says, “its use has grown throughout the world and many, many more refugees from war have been tortured and therefore are in a state of extreme trauma.”
If the effects of the Iraqi war have bled into other countries, it is still the mother of all topics confronting the U.S., says Ellen Spiro, who co-produced and co-directed with Phil Donahue the award-winning doc “Body of War.” “You can’t help but connect it to all the other social issues today because of wasted resources,” Spiro says. “The billions squandered in Iraq — think of what all those resources could pay for, like children’s health insurance.”
While not a direct attack on the Bush administration or the members of Congress whose votes authorized the war, “Body of War” unleashes its unmistakably antiwar message by following the travails of a young American patriot who returns from Iraq paralyzed.
Spiro is “excited by the prospect of a woman president. I just wish she (Hillary Clinton) would apologize for voting for the war.”
Steve Hess, a scholar on presidential politics at the Brookings Institution, says that normally celebrity endorsements or opinions “don’t make much difference on getting votes, though they do get money.” However, one potential factor could be the Oprah Winfrey effect. “Somebody whose celebrity is based on something other than being an actor, that could be a powerful tool,” Hess says. “For those who think Oprah and her opinions are pretty special, they could be swayed” by her endorsement.
Whatever happens, it’s likely that women will keep speaking out. “What women understand slightly differently from men,” Foulkrod says, “is that we’re more goal-oriented. We don’t like conflict left unresolved.”