Michael Moore's jeered-and-cheered, Bush-whacking blast—along with Adrien Brody's more pacific speech—at the Academy Awards last Sunday is the glowing tip of a growing volcano.
Gone are the days of the Great Wars I and II when actors and celebrities united to help a nation sell war bonds. Vietnam really tore the flag held by actors who both opposed and supported the war effort. But the pro-and-con division never has been more visible than in today's celebrity-conscious society.
Last week, the New York Post even jumped into the fray, with gossip columnist Richard Johnson—along with his cohorts Paula Froelich and Chris Wilson—using their "Page Six" column to parade a lineup of stars and call for boycotting their productions.
"If you'd prefer not to support the careers of stars who want to stop the liberation of Iraq from mass murderer Saddam Hussein and his rapist henchmen, PAGE SIX offers this quick reference list," Johnson and team wrote.
The column went on to list 13 performers, including 10 actors, and where they're appearing. Referring to the gallery as "appeasement-loving celebs," Johnson noted that the film "Mystic River" "boasts the mother of all appeasement casts, with Tim Robbins, Sean Penn and Laurence Fishburn." He also listed Samuel L. Jackson, calling him a "Hollywood drone," and citing his film "Basic."
He went on to cite Susan Sarandon, saying she "can currently be boycotted" on the Sci-Fi Channel; then Alfre Woodard and her film "The Core," Danny Glover and "Good Fences," Martin Sheen and "The West Wing," as well as James Whitmore on NBC's "Mr. Sterling."
On the other hand, four days later, Newsday carried Linda Winer's article headlined, "A Blacklist? It's Out There." She paid particular attention to a website called Celiberal, and its 37 names on a celebrity blacklist. Besides the names listed in the Post gossip column, the website includes Alec Baldwin, Edward Norton, Julia Roberts, and Jennifer Aniston. It also lists actors on the "right" including Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Malkovich, James Earl Jones, and Kelsey Grammer.
The intensity of reaction from both sides to the Bush administration and the Iraqi war led the Screen Actors Guild to get involved. Wary of a return to the McCarthy-era days of blacklisting artists, SAG in early March denounced calls it was hearing for firing performers and other creatives who oppose a U.S. war with Iraq.
"A disturbing trend has arisen in the dialogue," SAG stressed. "Some have recently suggested that well-known individuals who express 'unacceptable' views should be punished by losing their right to work. This shocking development suggests that the lessons of history have, for some, fallen on deaf ears."
The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees immediately released a statement the same day supporting SAG's stance.
"That we are forced to confront this heinous issue again is a sad commentary. Free speech is a basic right guaranteed to all by the U.S. Constitution and will continue to be the cornerstone of our great democracy," the IATSE statement said.
Robert J. Dowling, editor-in-chief and publisher of The Hollywood Reporter, put the issue in perspective on March 12 when he wrote of outspoken celebrities, "As Americans and as citizens, they are entitled—as we all are—to their opinions. And they have earned the right to exploit their notoriety on behalf of what they believe."
The constitutional right to publicly state our opinions about what we believe: That's powerful fuel for a civilized society.
The interesting measure, and one that may end up having to be determined legally, may linger here: When does the legal right to call for a boycott of one's work—and then to boycott it—turn to the illegal action of denying the right to work? Or does it ever? If the war in Iraq continues for long, and becomes more incendiary at home, we all may find out.