Levinson doc looks at heartland's rift with Hollywood

When stars speak out on politics, it usually triggers charges of elitism, sanctimony and just plain ignorance.

Barry Levinson’s documentary “PoliWood,” which debuts Nov. 2 on Showtime, not only underscores that friction, but shows how it’s become an entertainment in and of itself.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than via the face-to-face meeting of main street types and Hollywood figures arranged at last year’s Republican National Convention by pollster and focus group guru Frank Luntz.

“You are not the normal America,” one woman sharply says at the gathering that included Rachael Leigh Cook, Robert Davi and Tony Goldwyn. Then things settle down as Tim Daly softly explains he too has Main Street roots.

“There is this kind of polarization,” says Levinson, who tracked members of the Creative Coalition through last year’s political conventions and the inauguration for the doc.

“Well, what happens if you put them all together in a room and let them talk? The anger diminishes because now they talk. They have been separated in a sense by a barrage of misinformation and in some cases by these kinds of sinister accusations, as opposed to any ability to unify.”

Levinson says that the supposed rift between Hollywood and the heartland has been created for “the purposes of entertainment,” fanned on cable news networks and elsewhere where “to disagree is much more exciting than to agree.”

The doc casts the fusion of showbiz and politics as perilous, but it also provides a defense of celebrities stepping into the fray. The Nation’s Eric Alterman even suggests that celebrity activists should stop being so apologetic, pointing out that a voter from the Heartland casts a ballot out of his own economic self-interest, but someone like Barbra Streisand “is considered kooky” for giving to causes “she believes in.”

The Creative Coalition members never say much that is controversial, certainly not on par with a Tim Robbins or Sean Penn, but some are resistant to suggestion. In another meeting Luntz tries to suggest ways they can reframe their arguments, but he gets a rather hostile reaction from Josh Lucas.

One of the chief issues of the non-partisan Creative Coalition is funding for the arts, but as is explained in “PoliWood,” it’s an issue that makes people’s eyes glaze over.

Stars “always are going to face a certain amount of negativity by virtue of them speaking out, because someone is not going to agree with them and they can be very vocal about that,” Levinson says. “The message can get lost because of the fact that someone is a celebrity, and then that becomes the polarizing point rather than the specifics of what they happen to support.”

As “PoliWood” explains, there’s little to suggest that will change any time soon. Hollywood is too easy a target.

“Look, it’s propaganda,” Levinson says. Critics keep saying “Hollywood is this elitist group that is not in touch with the main street of America. But they basically came from the Main Street of America, and they basically profited from the American dream, which we say is at the heart of America. And if they succeed with the American dream, then (critics) attack them and accuse them of being elitist. It is the most convoluted concept.”

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