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There’s a great scene in the wonderful 1982 movie “My Favorite Year,” which is set in 1954. Peter O’Toole plays a semi-washed-up actor named Alan Swann, famous for swashbuckling roles. For reasons too complicated to explain here, Swann tries to shimmy down the side of a building using a fire hose. He ends up dangling just below a cocktail party on a balcony. Two stockbrokers are chatting when one of them notices Swann swinging below them. “I think Alan Swann is beneath us!” he exclaims.
The second stockbroker replies: “Of course he’s beneath us. He’s an actor.”
It may be hard for some people to get the joke these days, but for most of human history, actors were considered low-class. They were akin to carnies, grifters, hookers, and other riffraff.
In ancient Rome, actors were often slaves. In feudal Japan, Kabuki actors were sometimes available to the theatergoers as prostitutes — a practice not uncommon among theater troupes in the American Wild West. In 17th century England, France, and America, theaters were widely considered dens of iniquity, turpitude, and crapulence. Under Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan dictatorship, the theaters were forced to close to improve moral hygiene. The Puritans of New England did likewise. A ban on theaters in Connecticut imposed in 1800 stayed on the books until 1952.
Partly out of a desire to develop a wartime economy, partly out of disdain for the grubbiness of the stage, the first Continental Congress in 1774 proclaimed, “We will, in our several stations, . . . discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shews [sic], plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments.”
Needless to say, times have changed. And I suppose I have to say they’ve changed for the better. But that’s a pretty low bar. I don’t think acting is a dishonorable profession, and I’m steadfastly opposed to banning plays, musicals, movies, and TV shows.
But in our collective effort to correct the social stigmas of the past, can anyone deny that we’ve overshot the mark?
Watch the TV series “Inside the Actors Studio” sometime. It’s an almost religious spectacle of ecstatic obsequiousness and shameless sycophancy. Host James Lipton acts like some ancient Greek priest given an audience with Zeus, coming up just shy of washing the feet of actors with tears of orgiastic joy. I mean, I like Tom Hanks, too. But I’m not sure starring in “Turner & Hooch” (one of my favorite movies) bestows oracular moral authority.
Similarly, to watch the endless stream of award shows for Hollywood titans is to subject yourself to a narcissistic spectacle of collective self-worship. In 2006, George Clooney gave an (undeserved) Oscar acceptance speech in which he said, “We are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood every once in a while, I think. It’s probably a good thing.” He went on to deliver a semi-fictional, though no doubt sincere, account of how actors are like a secular priesthood prodding America to do better.
The most recent Golden Globes ceremony has already been excoriated for being a veritable geyser of hypocritical effluvia, as the same crowd that not long ago bowed and scraped to serial harasser and accused rapist Harvey Weinstein, admitted child rapist Roman Polanski, and that modern Caligula, Bill Clinton, congratulated itself for its own moral superiority.
The interesting question is: Why have movie stars and other celebrities become an aristocracy of secular demigods? It seems to me an objective fact that virtually any other group of professionals plucked at random from the Statistical Abstract of the United States — nuclear engineers, plumbers, grocers, etc. — are more likely to model decent moral behavior in their everyday lives. Indeed, it is a bizarre inconsistency in the cartoonishly liberal ideology of Hollywood that the only super-rich people in America reflexively assumed to be morally superior are people who pretend to be other people for a living.
I think part of the answer has to do with the receding of religion from public life. As a culture, we’ve elevated “authenticity” to a new form of moral authority. We look to our feelings for guidance. Actors, as a class, are feelings merchants. While they may indeed be “out of touch” with the rest of America from time to time, actors are adept at being in touch with their feelings. And for some unfathomably stupid reason, we now think that puts us beneath them.
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