I mentioned to a colleague that I was going to be interviewed for a documentary about do-gooders in Hollywood, and he found the concept laughable. Isn’t a do-gooder in Hollywood an oxymoron?
Of course there are plenty of worthy causes in Hollywood. Hundreds of advocacy groups subsist on the fringes of Hollywood’s global media machine, trying their best to get their signature social message into entertainment fare and often giving awards to those celebrities and studios who seem to have taken heed. But the question at the heart of this documentary is not “who’s making Hollywood behave itself?” It’s “who are the Warner Brothers of tomorrow?”
The Warner Brothers you might ask? A few years ago, I co-edited, with Marty Kaplan, a book about the Warner brothers’ anti-fascist efforts both during World War II, when the studios were rewarded for their patriotism, and during the 1930s, when the Warners in particular were criticized for being war-mongering propagandists. Just three months before the U.S. entered the war, Jack and Harry Warner had been forced to testify before a Senate subcommittee which accused them of violating the official neutrality policy of the U.S. by criticizing Hitler and fascism in movies like Confessions of a Nazi Spy. The hearings stopped abruptly once the U.S. entered the war, and the Warners were then celebrated for their patriotic anti-fascist position.
It took some guts for studio moguls to take an unpopular public political position, but the Warners were running a privately-held company that didn’t have to answer to public share-holders who may have been nervous about the effect on the bottom line when, for instance, the Warners pulled out of the very lucrative German market in 1934. Do we expect movie studios to act similarly today? Absolutely not, but guess who’s picked up the slack? Does the name Angelina Jolie ring a bell?As the Washington Post recently reported, celebrities like Jolie can dramatically increase public awareness of specific social issues. Drew Barrymore’s public appearances raised about $25,000 for the World Food Program in one week. After Lucy Liu appeared on Oprah to discuss earthquake victims in Pakistan, UNICEF saw 240% more donations than normal, raising nearly $500,000. And Jolie has been a goldmine for the U.N. After an interview with Anderson Cooper last year, donations to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees was bumped up by more than a half million dollars.
Now that actors are no longer the property of the studios they work for, as they were in Jack and Harry’s day, they’re actually in a better position to use their notoriety to attract attention to social issues. It’s still a risky thing to do since a lot of people are skeptical about allowing social agendas to be driven by the interests of a handful of Hollywood celebs, who usually have no expertise in policy development and whose messy private lives are publicized broadly. However, some issues are far less risky than others. The actor who decides to promote the health and safety of hedgehogs will probably attract more derision than respect. But the celebrity who rallies to end global poverty may just become as big as Bono.