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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Campaigning on the silver screen stump

    Charlton Heston, the cinema casanova who brought us “”Ben-Hur,”” “”The Ten Commandments”” and “”El Cid,”” finally entered the great burning bush on Saturday, at 84 years old. But the film giant left behind more than just a filmography that would make the titans quake: Heston left a legacy of political influence that bridged the gap between entertainment and politics. A long list of American entertainers-turned-political-leaders, including Heston, speaks not just of the manicured expectations we hold for those in office, but the enormous role entertainers play in a digital world.

    As a staunch supporter of gun-ownership rights, Heston was elected three times as president of the National Rifle Association. The image was compelling: chiseled jaw, snow-white hair, ruffled charcoal suit, rifle piercing the air. While that sounds like a scene from a gangland epic, it was the image of Heston that was juxtaposed with scenes of tragedy by many critics after school shootings at Virginia Tech and Columbine High School shook our nation.

    Heston was not alone in his political activism. Many actors and actresses have used their fame and publicity to champion a cause. Angelina Jolie has campaigned internationally for the United Nations to raise awareness of refugee plights, Richard Gere is a long-time Tibetan rights activist and Brad Pitt, the actor who made a living imitating Heston’s chiseled physique and penchant for epics in movies like “”Troy,”” has joined U2 singer Bono in the anti-poverty One Campaign.

    Entertainers are public icons. Access to the public ear is a prize politicians have to fight tooth and nail to obtain. For this reason, it is tempting for entertainers to use that access for more than just entertainment. At times, entertainer activism has only made us think more highly of the individual. Angelina Jolie, before she was softened by the heart-melting smiles of impoverished children, was just the gun-wielding cyborg your mother warned you about. Politics can poison an entertainers popularity, divorcing a person from the beloved persona audiences admire. (Please Mr. Cruise, stop jumping on our couches). Here’s a question for thought: If Denzel Washington decided to run for governor, or even president, would you consider voting him into office? What about Tom Hanks? Morgan Freeman? Once an actor has saved the world on the silver screen, how different can it be for them to accomplish the same feat in real life?

    The sad reality is that it is exceedingly difficult to divorce a successful actor or actress from the fictional reality they create on the screen. The same marketing machines that turn celebrities into household names are used to give politicians an image, a memorable catch phrase. Actors and actresses have instant name brand recognition, and in a capitalist culture that tends to equate popularity with quality, their endorsement lends credence. While many bemoan the manicured qualities America expects in politicians, most people overlook the fact that we can hold the same expectations for leading actors and actresses: dapper, heroic, broad-shouldered, stunningly beautiful, courageous. Public figures, whether on the silver screen or the stump, reveal a great deal about our national ethos. Heston, along with Pitt, Hanks and Washington, can’t help but imbue his characters with a heavy dose of American, rugged individualism.

    It is still difficult to ignore the democratic, moralizing overtones of modern day epics crafted for the American public, such as “”300.”” While entertainers individually face the choice to pursue political motives with their status, audiences face the same temptation to read politics into entertainment. It’s ironic, however, that the same industry that brought us conservative lions like Ronald Reagan is so often blackballed for left-wing liberalism.

    Yet before World War II, there was very little interest in politically-charged pictures. As Hollywood pioneer Samuel Goldwyn once said, “”If you want to send a message (to the audience), call Western Union.”” After a few decades of incubation and network consolidation, television and Hollywood are now undoubtedly center stage for politics. Late night political satire is its own sub-culture. Even though Stephen Colbert’s mock presidential campaign was just a publicity stunt, the time is fast coming when celebrities like Colbert will likely be welcomed into the political arena. National politics today is a marketing machine, understanding and promoting name brand recognition and image are the top priorities for political neuroscientists. The great communications leveling technology – the Internet – both provides greater marketing scope for corporations, and greater opportunities for individuals to access national attention.

    Whether entertainment stays industry driven, top-down or becomes more grass-roots oriented, like the popularity of YouTube indicates, is a question that will only be solved after the final credits roll. Although Americans can still learn a lot from the images leading actors and leading politicians project. These images, whether of strong-jawed men holding the Ten Commandments or a rifle in the air, are famous because of the ethos they tap into, rather than the individuals that created them.

    Matt Rolland is a junior majoring in economics and international studies. He can be reached at

    letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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