Small towns, Tinseltown have a lot in common

PENNSYLVANIANS WOULDN’T immediately appear to share much in common with Hollywood, which is perhaps why it took Barack Obama’s much-dissected gaffe about blue-collar voters — how they “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion” — to crystallize the connection.

Obama is running for president of the United States, not the Screen Actors Guild or Writers Guild of America. Still, contemplating the struggling electorate pandered to by the Democratic candidates during the interminable run-up to the Pennsylvania primary, there are notable sociological parallels.

Admittedly, being creative types, actors do things with their own unique flair. Instead of merely clinging to religion, the more enterprising souls create their own, or join new ones culled from science fiction.

Observing the guilds, though, reveals plenty of bitterness — including a strain born partly from understandable insecurity about the future, which seldom brings out people’s most flattering sides.

As an illustration, look no further than the WGA’s decision to circulate a list of writers that broke ranks and applied for financial-core status during the recent strike. The guild has every right to gloat about its “extraordinary solidarity” under fire, as the leadership put it; the decision to name names, though, only made guild leaders sound petty, historically tone-deaf given the parallels to blacklisting and, yes, bitter. The studios characterized the disclosure as a violation of federal labor law in a filing Tuesday against the WGA with the National Labor Relations Board.

In explaining why Pennsylvania voters don’t always cast ballots in their best economic interests, Obama was skewered for perceived elitism and for oversimplifying the circumstances shaping their politics. “The Deer Hunter” stereotype is certainly imprecise, as is lumping actors together; still, his remarks contain a grain of truth — especially given how such groups can be distracted by trivial wedge issues. Among actors, those have involved silly internal bickering, including the feuding between SAG and its sibling AFTRA.

ODDLY ENOUGH, technology has unsettled mill towns and Hollywood alike. Just as pressure to reduce costs has led to outsourcing and downsized factories, movie and TV production has fled to Canada or Budapest to save a buck, with corporate bosses exhibiting scant concern about the toll exacted on workers.

On a more basic level, many writers and actors came here with hopes and dreams that have been thwarted and frustrated. They scan Daily Variety and become irritated about people no more talented than they are pocketing gobs of money. (Thus was born the joke — generally credited to writer Jim Vallely — that the trades “take three minutes to read and three hours to recover from.”)

Cynicism runs rampant, even among those atop the food chain. So they cling to their beliefs (with occasional justification) that the powers that be are going out of their way to screw them. As with politics, moreover, the most disgruntled can now gravitate toward small online communities that reinforce their views — perusing blogs and message boards until they grow inordinately well-versed in Nikki Finke’s exclamatory style and various ailments.

Many actors erect psychic shells around themselves as shields against rejection, which represents a reasonable defense mechanism. Yet the buffer against failure drives some nutty upon achieving success.

NONE OF THIS should be construed as letting studios off the hook for their boorish behavior. Past pleas of poverty and creative accounting practices have undermined their credibility, so when they legitimately speak of hard times and economic uncertainty, the creative community has little reason to trust them.

All that bitterness, however, impedes addressing the real challenges that the entertainment industry faces. Nor does it help to see showbiz labor disputes consciously framed as a political battle, with SAG president Alan Rosenberg telling the New York Times that aside from his family, his “two great loves” are “acting and the fight for social justice.”

Emulating politics, however, isn’t necessarily the best model, given how easily the debate is diverted by minutiae, obsessing over flag lapel pins instead of holding candidates accountable regarding serious issues of the day. This modern formula feels self-defeating– and has staggered Obama’s attempts to position himself above the fray, a stance trumped by the media’s preoccupation with trifles and hunger for conflict.

Maybe if his White House bid falls short, Obama could emulate Ronald Reagan and prepare for another try by running a smaller enterprise with an influential if hard-to-handle electorate of 120,000. If he’s interested in seeing what a batch of bitter balloters really looks like, SAG selects new officers in 2009.

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