Showbiz’s impact on politics usually ends at the surface: The red carpet is rolled out each year for the White House Correspondents Assn. dinner, a celebrity draws publicity to a vague cause by testifying before a congressional panel, or a documentary draws famous activists to a Newseum screening. Than all is forgotten and the real work is left to the policymakers.
But 2013 showed that entertainment figures could do more than just “raise awareness” for a cause, but actually have an influence, albeit not the only influence, over events, perceptions and politics. Here are five places where Hollywood made a difference.
1. Proposition 8 Repealed
California’s ban on same-sex marriage ended not with a sweeping ruling, but one all about process, as the Supreme Court ruled that Prop 8 proponents lacked standing in their effort to keep it alive. Nevertheless, Prop 8 was put into the dustbin of history after an unlikely four-year effort, seeded by entertainment and political activists who financed and helped promote the case. Its origins were in a Beverly Hills Hotel powwow that Rob Reiner had with his political consultant, Chad Griffin, and a chance meeting with a friend who led them to the odd couple pairing of Ted Olson and David Boies. When the Supreme Court rendered its decision in June, along with a far-reaching opinion that established federal recognition to same-sex marriage, public opinion had shifted considerably, treating the cause as less a right-left divide and more as a civil rights battle of the 21st century.
2. Eric Garcetti Elected Mayor of Los Angeles
It would seem a given that Hollywood would play a significant role in the election of a mayor of Los Angeles, but there had traditionally been some distance between the campaigns for City Hall and the interest of one of the city’s signature industries. But Eric Garcetti, who as a councilman represented Hollywood proper, drew the greatest amount of his campaign contributions from entertainment and arts sources, according to one study, with his nearest competitor in the primary, former DreamWorks executive Wendy Greuel, not far behind. Stars like Will Ferrell and Jimmy Kimmel lent their names to Garcetti’s campaign. What Garcetti also did is elevate a long-gestating issue, runaway production, into a citywide concern, creating the position of a film czar and making the restoration of Los Angeles’ production base a part of his initial agenda. The next year will tell if all of this new attention translates into Sacramento action to expand the state’s incentive program.
3. Race in the Oscar Race
“Lee Daniels ‘The Butler’” and “12 Years a Slave” were among the movies that delved into the history of racism in the United States, reflecting a much more personal, complex and frank depiction of the African-American experience framed from the point of view of those who lived through it. As politicians talk about having teachable moments and “conversations” about race, movies proved that there is a power to the untold story, defying assumptions about history. All the more surprising is that “The Butler” got a summer release, counting on audiences to be ready for something serious after apocalyptic tentpoles had run their course.
4. President Obama on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno”
It’s no longer a novelty for the commander in chief to make an in-studio appearance on an array of late-night talk shows. But Obama’s sixth appearance on “The Tonight Show” in August wasn’t a breezy encounter with a comic, but an guest spot that made news, as he made his first significant public comments about Edward Snowden and anti-gay laws passed in Russia. Leno’s show is no “Meet the Press,” but this White House’s propensity to choose unconventional outlets for one-on-ones — often to the disdain of the White House press corps griping about lack of access — doesn’t always translate into innocuous banter but occasional substance. As Chris Cillizza, editor of The Washington Post’s The Fix, wrote after the appearance, “News can be made and/or serious questions can be answered by a president on late-night television. President Obama and his team have adjusted to that fact. Us media types need to do the same.”
5. Internet Providers Launch the Copyright Alert
Last year, Hollywood tried to push anti-piracy legislation that died in Congress in the face of Internet cries that show biz shouldn’t be allowed to police the web. This year, in the spring, subscribers to a host of major Internet providers began receiving Copyright Alerts, or notices of when they were accessing infringing content. So what happened? The former was a legislative effort; the latter was a voluntary agreement between Hollywood and the Internet world. It remains to be seen how well it will all work, but the fact that it was launched without a massive Internet backlash, as happened with the Stop Online Piracy Act, signals the way forward for Hollywood, ever frustrated over rampant piracy. Getting Internet providers to sign on is one thing, however. Search engines, and particularly Google, are being pressured to has out some kind of pact with Hollywood that would establish voluntary measures to fight piracy. After studio chiefs met last month with President Obama, expect the White House to try to exert some pressure as well.
So-so Impact …
Oscar races capture the presidential seal. When Michelle Obama announced the best picture winner at the Oscars, it capped a sometimes bizarre mix of presidential impramantur on awards season. “Lincoln” screened at the White House, Bradley Cooper sat with Vice President Joseph Biden to talk mental health just as “Silver Linings Playbook” was seeking statuettes, and the first lady held an event dedicated to “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Former President Jimmy Carter appeared in a promotional video for “Argo,” and former President Bill Clinton introduced a clip of “Lincoln” at the Golden Globes. More recently, Hillary Clinton hosted a screening of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” at the Kennedy Center, and George H.W. Bush hosted a screening of “The Book Thief” at his presidential library. The danger, it seems, is in overdoing it. The flurry of activity has a spotty track record when it comes to collecting the statuettes.
And, Nice Try …
Hillary, the Miniseries. NBC’s plans to do a miniseries on the life of Hillary Clinton, on the cusp of her potentially jumping into the 2016 presidential race, drew fire from Republicans who doubted that it would be anything other than a glossy promotion for her campaign prospects. The same went for CNN’s effort to do a documentary on the former Secretary of State. While the RNC jumped on the flap as a way to reign in its unwieldy debate season, the networks’ abandonment of such unconventional projects showed that the effort to exploit celebrity politicians runs aground in the hyper-partisan environment of D.C.