Given the membership overlap, there’s odd symmetry in watching the Screen Actors Guild and Democratic Party simultaneously struggle with the whole “One man, one vote” concept, with some in the guild advancing a notion that appears fundamentally undemocratic — one that says we’re in this together, but not all of us are equal.
That not all actors are equally invested in upcoming contract negotiations with the studios should hardly come as a major news flash. Yet a proposal floated within the guild would codify this disparity by establishing “qualified voting” — distinguishing between working performers and those holding a guild card with little to otherwise indicate they are presently “actors” in a professional sense.
Advocates have not set the bar especially high on who gets to vote. The proposal — whose backers include Amy Brenneman and Ned Vaughn — puts the minimum at five days of principle work or 15 days of background work per year over the last six years.
Nevertheless, SAG president Alan Rosenberg opposes the idea, maintaining that it will weaken the guild as negotiations commence to hash out a new contract.
Although writers have a similar threshold, SAG most ostentatiously displays the gap between the industry’s haves and have-nots — between those for whom a strike represents a major loss of livelihood and those chasing an elusive dream.
Even within the ranks of working actors, the business has divided into $20 million (against-first-dollar-gross) stars with the cachet to get movies greenlighted and everyone else, occupying the scale-plus-10 percent strata. Much has been written about the declining lot of what were once called character actors in an age where the emphasis on blockbusters eradicates fleshed-out supporting roles. Besides, if you’re paying the lead that much, you want him in practically every scene.
Such pragmatism, however, collides somewhat uncomfortably with egalitarian ideals, which is why officially recognizing this reality with voting prerequisites at first sounds a trifle harsh — and considering the source, a touch ironic.
Americans, after all, cling to the principle of equality. Strictly in political terms, the contention that the privileged few merit a weightier say in things is usually associated with conservatives.
No stance associated with Republican presidential nominee John McCain has done more to alienate the right, for example, than his support of campaign-finance reform, which some view as impinging on free speech — undermining wealthy individuals’ freedom to express themselves via their pocketbooks as well. As an attorney for SpeechNow.org (a conservative group against contribution limits) told the Washington Times, the goal is to let citizens “band together and spend unlimited funds to influence the outcome of elections” if they so choose.
Based on the progressive views harbored by many prominent stars, actors would seem an unlikely group to be aligned with this philosophy. Still, formalizing SAG’s caste system is actually an honest reflection of how things truly work in various talent-related spheres, including sports, media and yes, politics.
Marquee stars earns huge paydays on NBA teams, while role players fill out rosters to stay under salary-cap provisions. CBS News anted up $15 million a year for Katie Couric, highlighting the chasm separating the anchor class from on-the-ground correspondents, which explains the persistent rumor — newly recycled by the New York Times and denied by CBS– that CBS and CNN have contemplated outsourcing part of the network’s newsgathering as a method to cut costs.
With rare exceptions, though, the ways in which an aspired-to level playing field is really a pyramid are seldom acknowledged. Stars regularly applaud their hard-working crews, but anyone that has visited a movie set knows they are not and have never been Marxist utopias.
Observing the procedural mess the Democrats have made of the current primary cycle, SAG should be cut some slack regarding its internal conundrum. The main problem is that once you begin prorating voting rights it’s hard to decide precisely where to stop. Indeed, a case could be made for weighting the clout wielded by stars against those within the “She looks kind of familiar” category.
At that point, the expanded power granted certain voters would need some kind of name. How does “superdelegates” grab you?