Jewish World Review March 8, 2006 / 8 Adar 5766
Hollywood's eye contact with social issues
One of my favorite tidbits about Hollywood that I've gleaned from the starstruck press is that a great many of its most accomplished stars don't allow their staffs to look them in the eye. I'm not making this up. It has been reported that Barbra Streisand not only discourages eye contact among staff, but that she required hotel workers to leave her presence only by walking backward. Jennifer Lopez — who had 75 attendants help her prepare for a cameo on "Will & Grace" — is also reputed to forbid her subalterns to look into the windows of her soul. Sylvester Stallone won't stand for such effrontery, and Tom Cruise likes to ban eye contact, too, at least while he's working.
This, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. Many of Hollywood's glitterati have staffers for every human need. Some of the biggest stars have personal aroma therapists. Mariah Carey employs someone whose only job is to hand her towels. Kim Basinger has a personal umbrella-holder charged with protecting her from the sun's aging rays. Sean Penn once made a staffer swim the icy and dangerous currents of the East River simply to get him a cigarette.
And so on.
I bring this up because when I hear a movie star boast that he's "proud to be out of touch," this is the sort of thing I think of.
George Clooney, Hollywood liberalism's best, prettiest and shiniest pony, has something different in mind. As you no doubt heard, Clooney offered an eloquent bit of self-congratulation Sunday night when he accepted his Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Responding to the notion that Hollywood is "out of touch," Clooney gushed that "We were the ones who talked about AIDS ... about civil rights, when it wasn't really popular" He swooned over the fact that "this Academy, this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters." And so, he testified, he is "proud to be 'out of touch.'"
One wonders whether he shopped this little speech out to one of his staffers or if he came up with all by his lonesome. Either way, he needs a new speechwriter.
First, let's keep in mind that it really wasn't "this group of people" who gave Hattie McDaniel the first Oscar ever awarded to an African-American for her work in "Gone With the Wind." But we all understand he was speaking figuratively.
Clooney wants to buy some grace on the cheap by getting credit for McDaniel's Oscar, and we might as well give it to him. But he should expect to carry some of the baggage as well. After all, while McDaniel's wonderful performance was certainly something to be proud of, the role she won it for — an archetypal Aunt Jemima — is hardly the sort of thing they like to encourage at the Image Awards. According to an illuminating 1999 article by Leonard Leff in The Atlantic, when McDaniel received her statue, she told the assembled Academy that she hoped she'd "always be a credit to my race."
Margaret Mitchell's book "Gone With the Wind" is hardly a staple of the progressive canon. Its black characters were either gorilla-like savages or complacent servants perfectly content with being slaves. The Ku Klux Klan, meanwhile, was a "tragic necessity." Sidney Howard, charged with making a screenplay out of the book, told Mitchell that she offered "the best written darkies, I do believe, in all literature," and hoped she might help him bring them to life on the big screen.
Of course, the same Hollywood that gave McDaniel her Oscar also produced "Gone With the Wind" and countless other films whose racism was, far, far, far less open to dispute. Al Jolson's blackface, Steppin Fetchit, "Mandingo" and, of course, Woodrow Wilson's favorite movie, "Birth of a Nation," seem like just a few examples of how "in touch" Hollywood was back then. And I'm not even going to get into all of the pro-communist and anti-American movies Hollywood has churned out over the last 60 years.
But you see, I'm simply missing the point. Not too long ago, Clooney said in an interview, "Yes, I'm a liberal, and I'm sick of it being a bad word. I don't know at what time in history liberals have stood on the wrong side of social issues." In other words, just as a Hollywood diva can never be wrong in the eyes of an underling — how could she be? they can't even make eye contact — being "out of touch" means, simply, being right. And just a little better than everyone else, too.
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