Straight Outta Hollywood

Hollywood seemed like a good idea at time. Why not live at the center of American pop culture? The center of everything serious and important in America may be Manhattan, but no one can afford to live there, and it’s cold there. Washington is the seat of power in America, but they built that city in a former swamp – it’s rather miserable in the summer, and it’s a political swamp. Everything there is about something else. Paris, of course, is wonderful – still the center of real culture and deep thought, and fashion and food and whatnot – but the French do make it hard to settle there. Bureaucracy is a French word. They invented it – so Hollywood would have to do. Growing up in Pittsburgh in the fifties, which is the center of nothing much, did generate a need to be at the center of something – anything – and high school in the early sixties was particularly painful. It was the Beach Boys and Gidget. It was 77 Sunset Strip, even if there is no such address. It was every damned movie, and every damned palm tree in the background. It was the endless sunshine – and finally, in 1981, after almost a decade of teaching English at the prep school in snowy upstate New York, it was California. Then it was Hollywood, the heart of Hollywood, the snazzy apartment just off the Sunset Strip, with a view out the window of the cantilevered glass houses in the Hollywood Hills. Joni Mitchell used to live just up the street in Laurel Canyon. So did Jim Morrison. So did Frank Zappa. Cool.

That was twenty-two years ago. Hollywood isn’t that cool. The Oscars, each year just down the street, are a pain in the ass. All the useful streets are closed for two weeks, and fewer and fewer people care about movies anyway. America may have moved on, or movies aren’t very good these days – smug or loud and more of the same. Or that may be a generational thing. There’s too much other media for millennials that the studios hadn’t anticipated – young folks do things with their iPhones and whatever. They make their own movies.

The culture does change. Movies may not be particularly important these days, and then there are the Golden Globes, the junior varsity Oscars. That awards show shuts down Santa Monica Boulevard at Wilshire for a full weekend, a month before the Oscars, and it matters even less. Win an award there and win the same thing at the Oscars, or not. The Golden Globes are a trial run. Sometimes things don’t work out – but that doesn’t matter either. The big stars show up for the fun of it. They go there to be seen. There are a lot of cameras. It’s a lark. Those of us who live here ignore the whole thing.

It turned out that Hollywood wasn’t that cool after all. Hollywood may not be particularly important these days, not in the days of Donald Trump. There’s a lot of empty space between Hollywood and Manhattan where lots of stuff happens, and those who live in that space resent being told that Hollywood is the center of things, or that Saturday Night Live, from the middle of Manhattan, is the source of all that is hip and cool – and they’re in neither place, so maybe they ought to just curl up and die. Donald Trump told them they should resent that. They already did. He won their respect.

So it was war this year at the Golden Globes, as Brooks Barnes reports here:

It surprised no one that Hollywood used the Golden Globe Awards on Sunday as a platform to condemn Donald J. Trump. Moviedom power players mostly supported Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Many stars openly telegraphed their disgust when Mr. Trump won instead. The president-elect has struggled to book A-list talent for his inauguration.

But nobody was quite expecting Meryl Streep, as she collected a lifetime achievement Globe, to so firmly lay down the gauntlet for a new kind of culture war, targeting Mr. Trump’s skills as a showman and entertainer and branding them as insidious. She called on actors, foreigners, journalists and others to stand together and support the arts and the First Amendment, while portraying Mr. Trump as a bully who could whip his supporters into a frenzy and “show their teeth.”

Judging by his reaction to her rallying cry, Mr. Trump is ready to fight. And he seemed eager for the distraction, coming after days of intense scrutiny about Russia’s involvement in the presidential election and the business dealings of Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and soon-to-be senior adviser in the White House.

Ms. Streep, Hollywood’s most celebrated actress, with 30 Globe nominations (eight wins) and 19 Oscar nods (three wins), started her acceptance speech by acknowledging that entertainment industry elites – after eight warm years under President Obama – suddenly find themselves on very different footing.

“All of us in this room really belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now,” she said.

What actually happened was this:

Meryl Streep won the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes Sunday night in honor of a career full of brilliant performances. And she used her acceptance speech to shame Donald Trump for the performance he’s given America over the past few years…

Trump’s performance, Streep said, “sank its hooks in my heart, not because it was good.” It was so memorable to her because “it made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth.” Specifically, she was referring to the time Trump mockingly imitated an epileptic reporter at one of his rallies, a moment the press optimistically dubbed the end of his campaign.

This is what she said:

The person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter – someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie; it was real life. And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing.

Disrespect invites disrespect; violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.

Aja Romano takes it from there:

Some praised the speech as “epic and powerful,” while others called it a classic example of Hollywood “elitism.” Even Trump himself joined in, calling Streep “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and labeling her speech as an attack.

The uproar isn’t surprising given the longstanding proclivity of certain groups, particularly conservatives who often find themselves at political odds with celebrities, to write off Hollywood as the home of a bunch of out-of-touch progressives. But thanks to Trump jumping into the fray himself, it’s also more complicated than that: Even though Streep’s speech is less pointed and politically charged than similar speeches have been in the past, the stakes feel higher than normal.

Yes, it was war, even if an odd one:

The speech has since drawn several different reactions, in a rather predictable order: 1) Progressives immediately lauded Streep. In particular, Variety called the speech “extraordinary” and hailed it as a signifier of the Golden Globes’ ascension to respectability. 2) Conservatives dismissed the speech as a typical example of Hollywood elitism and self-congratulatory smugness. 3) Progressives responded to conservative backlash by pointing out that the content of Streep’s speech was barely “incendiary” and that it’s a bit hypocritical for conservatives to complain about celebrities having too much power and influence when they just elected one.

In the middle of the hubbub, Trump told the New York Times that he hadn’t seen the speech but wasn’t surprised that “liberal movie people” were criticizing him.

They would, but he’s got the little people in those in-between spaces on his side, unless something else is going on:

Many pundits, including Vox’s Ezra Klein, have suggested that Trump chose to comment publicly on Streep’s speech in order to divert attention away from another current headline: that many of his Cabinet appointments and other nominees have not undergone the ethical review period that is typical for these positions.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time Trump has been accused of picking a fight on Twitter as a diversionary tactic; in November, many members of both the media and the public cited Trump’s fiery tweets about the cast of Hamilton as an attempt to distract people from scrutinizing his questionable business entanglements and potential conflicts of interest.

Above all, Trump’s denial that he ever intended to mock Kovaleski is a distraction from the real point Streep was making, which is that people with power – whether in Hollywood, politics, or the press – need to work together to protect equal rights for everyone.

It’s important to note that despite all the controversy around her speech, Streep was calling for more empathy toward those outside Hollywood, not less. And a call for empathy is not, in and of itself, a political rallying cry.

It may be a political rallying cry now, although Kellyanne Conway did say, late in the day, that she wished people would pay attention to what’s in Donald Trump’s heart, not to what he says. That generated a few blank stares. How else are we supposed to know what’s in his heart? Kellyanne Conway has a hard job. She’s the cleaning lady, and Brooks Barnes also notes this:

Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to Mr. Trump, continued the counterattack on Fox News Monday. She criticized Ms. Streep for “inciting people’s worst instincts” and poked fun at celebrities “talking about how vilified poor Hollywood is” while wearing “their gazillion-dollar gowns.”

She added of Ms. Streep: “She sounds like 2014. The election is over. She lost.”

And Barnes notes this:

The perception of Hollywood as one of the country’s most prominent liberal bubbles has been long established. But from a business perspective, television networks and movie studios can little afford to alienate any audience as they contend with pressures that include declining DVD sales, competition from streaming services and wildly uneven box office results. At the glittering Globes after-parties, several studio executives privately applauded Ms. Streep but refused to join her in speaking publicly, citing business interests. Several industry executives expressed confusion about why she would use her speech to convey a message that seemed predictable: a Hollywood star denouncing Mr. Trump.

Those little people in the empty in-between spaces do matter. That’s where the money is, so confusion reigned:

Danny Strong, the executive producer of “Empire,” acknowledged that the most Globe ceremony attendees were probably “liberal Democrats.” But, he said: “It’s not about the 200 people in the room; it’s about the millions of people watching. That’s who that message was for.”

At the HBO party, Eddie Redmayne said that he found Ms. Streep’s speech “incredibly emotional,” but he would not say whether he thought Hollywood should follow her example and speak out politically.

Producers who specialize in awards telecasts have said that post-show research indicates that many viewers dislike it when celebrities turn a trip to the stage into a political bully pulpit.

Hollywood really isn’t that cool anymore, but Mark Harris looks at things from the other end:

On January 4, the president-elect of the United States woke up in a mood, as he seems to have done on so many mornings since the election. It was a day of angry tweeting – about the media’s “double standard,” about the “terrible things” the DNC did, about the “failed ObamaCare disaster” and the “Schumer clowns” who must not be let out of “the web,” whatever that is. But capping his fulminations was this: “Jackie Evancho’s album sales have skyrocketed after announcing her Inauguration performance. Some people just don’t understand the ‘Movement.'”

For those of you who have been thinking about Cabinet appointments or the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act or the Russian hack or America’s relationships with China or Israel rather than the truly important things, a quick primer: Jackie Evancho is a 16-year-old pop singer from Pittsburgh who, despite a Wikipedia entry that is three times as long as the one for Joyce Carol Oates, has only two real claims to fame: She came in second on the 2010 edition of NBC’s competition series America’s Got Talent, and she was, as of Trump’s tweet, the biggest celebrity to agree to perform at his inauguration.

Never mind that the claim that her sales had “skyrocketed” was quickly debunked by, of all places, Access Hollywood… That celebratory-but-actually-defensive tweet outlined the contours of a tiny post-election tempest: The entertainment industry does not like Donald Trump. He got inauguration turndowns from everyone. The A list is staying away. The B list is staying away. Most of Nashville (with the exception of Big & Rich, a duo one half of which won Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice in 2011) is staying away. Even the Rockettes, that bespangled bastion of heartland America in a bubble within the bubble of the putative coastal elite, raised a ruckus when MSG executive chairman James Dolan tried to get them to perform, with one dancer pointedly asking whether they were supposed to “tolerate intolerance.” (Yes, said Dolan, who ultimately lost that battle.)

We are in a strange situation:

No President in any of our lifetimes, not even the one who started out as an actor, has been more obsessed with show business or its many yardsticks of success than Trump is. This is a man who, two weeks before assuming the presidency, publicly crowed about how numbers for “The New Celebrity Apprentice” are down now that Arnold Schwarzenegger is hosting. Two days after his tweet about Evancho, Trump referred to himself as a “ratings machine”; that boast connects to his obsession with crowd size at his rallies, which connects to his public preening about how his every appearance gooses the ratings for the cable news channels that both enrage and transfix him.

But it’s all good:

On Twitter afterwards, reaction broke as one might have expected, with lavish praise from the left, including much of Hollywood, anger and contempt from some on the right, and no small amount of concern-trolling. “This Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won,” warned Meghan McCain. “And if people in Hollywood don’t start recognizing why and how – you will help him get reelected.”

That’s a worry, but Eugene Robinson is worried about something else:

Is President-elect Donald Trump so thin-skinned that even criticism from Meryl Streep triggers a nasty, over-the-top response? What kind of crybaby have Americans elected as their leader?

That is a worry:

Trump threatens to snatch health insurance coverage from millions, enact huge tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, reverse progress against climate change, destabilize the Western alliance, pick fights with China while cuddling up to Russia – the big-issues list is long and frightening. But I believe it would be foolish not to examine the personality and the psychological makeup of the man who will soon be in the White House.

My view, then, is that we cannot ignore his vitriolic tweet storms. No, we should not let them distract us from other news about the incoming administration. But the Twitter rants offer a glimpse into Trump’s psyche, and it’s not pretty.

And it’s dangerous:

The man who is about to become president is enveloped by a shell of self-regard that at first seems armor-like but turns out to be delicate and brittle.

He couldn’t endure Alec Baldwin’s impression of him on “Saturday Night Live,” calling it “not funny” and saying that it “just can’t get any worse.” He reacted to an unflattering piece in Vanity Fair by saying that the magazine is “way down, big trouble, dead!” and that its editor has “no talent.” He taunted his replacement on “The Celebrity Apprentice,” former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, for having low Nielsen numbers “by comparison to the ratings machine, DJT” – and noted that Schwarzenegger was not a supporter of his campaign.

Conversely, he shows nothing but high regard for anyone who says anything nice about him. Thus he calls Russian President Vladimir Putin “very smart” and quotes him approvingly, despite the fact that intelligence officials say Russia actively meddled in our electoral process.

I don’t believe Trump’s tweets are part of some sophisticated strategy to draw attention from other events and topics. To me, this looks like simple action and reaction. When someone criticizes him publicly in a way that threatens his stature, he seems compelled to hit back. He can’t seem to ignore any slight.

That’s a sign of weakness, not strength – as Putin and other world leaders surely have figured out.

They’ve got his number – another thing to worry about. Meryl Streep isn’t the problem. Hollywood isn’t the problem, unless it is.

That’s what Kevin Drum notes here:

I just want to remind everyone what the actual theory here is. The theory is that although country mice might not personally experience much diversity in their lives, they are saturated with it in the media. They know all about us city mice and how we live because they watch TV and movies, listen to music, and read magazines that relentlessly portray our lives and our beliefs. Nearly all of this media is produced by urban folks, and for the most part it presents cosmopolitan urban lives sympathetically and accurately. Even TV news gets in the act. The three network evening news broadcasts pull an audience massively greater than anything Fox News gets.

Most urban residents, by contrast, don’t know much about small-town life because it’s almost never portrayed in the media except comedically or satirically. They may think of themselves as open-minded and tolerant, but in fact they have little idea of how rural Americans really behave and are openly disdainful of most of their beliefs.

This is the actual argument that conservatives make:

The “bubble” here isn’t a question of whether you have a Somali family living down the street or have never traveled outside the US. The bubble is whether you have some genuine understanding of both American rural life and American city life. Conservatives argue that the country mice do much better on this score than the city mice.

Perhaps they do, and they don’t see Donald Trump as a dangerously weak thin-skinned crybaby, easily manipulated by even the totally harmless rather insignificant Meryl Streep, who probably didn’t mean to “set him off” in the first place. He stood up for them. That’s enough. Democrats should worry about that – the cosmopolitan urban isn’t all of America – but everyone should worry about his rage at this harmless rather insignificant woman, because Hollywood isn’t the center of everything. It’s just another place, with bad traffic, full of self-important people.

There’s a larger world. That’s the worry.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Straight Outta Hollywood

  1. Since 1965, I have mostly lived in the Twin Cities, a metropolitan area of three million – now 60% of the population of Minnesota. Eight of those 52 years were assigned to rural Minnesota, representing teachers in rural school district unions, but the center of my work activities was in the Twin Cities. When we tried to schedule leadership meetings in whatever was proper to call the rural area, (an interesting debate, always, never resolved), attendance would always suffer. People wanted to come to the Cities, not, say, Brainerd or Duluth.

    My first 25 years were in the most rural of places in one of the most rural of states: North Dakota. Since 2012 I have made endless trips to a tiny county out there which voted 75% for Trump; the reason for the trips was to represent the affairs of my Uncle, in his last years, a small farmer who finally died two years ago about this time of year. I have gotten to re-know the state of my birth very well, from coffee shop conversations, nursing home visits, stops in lawyers offices, and on and on.

    The big cities, of course, don’t have a lot of “natives” – we mostly come from somewhere else. Say “North Dakota” in a public place anywhere down here, and you’ll find common ground with someone like me. Most recent for me was Saturday, at a meeting. A dozen of us there. One whose Dad was a minister in ND; another whose husbands family comes from a town, we learned, that is maybe 60 miles straight west of the little town I describe above. And these were just casual references.

    The last sixteen years I’ve lived in this suburb of St. Paul which, in the just completed election, found Hillary Clinton winning in 15 of 16 precincts. We mostly are a prosperous suburb, sometimes called “suburban 3M”. But there is an aggressive Tea Party bunch out here who arose with “Obamacare” in 2009.

    A bunch of we “Democrats” are starting to meet out here to try to figure out what/how to do things. We are not all “cut of the same cloth”, shall we say – not some amorphous mass as is always suggested as for reasons somebody won, or somebody lost.

    Of necessity, your always excellent collections of opinions try to distill the undistillable.

    I really don’t know how this will play out. I do have a sense that the ordinary folks, here, there and everywhere, worry about what they have unleashed.

    I wish us well.

    March on.

    (If you want to see some excellent movies, check out Hidden Figures, and Fences…. Outstanding.)

  2. Vince says:

    Good article this morning Alan. And good extension from write-up earlier on need for formal psychological evaluation…

    I’ve never been as worried at the core about anything I don’t believe – give or take the social angst we ALL succumbed to on and after 9-11… which by the way I don’t believe has EVER experienced a full national catharsis.

    The fact that Bush was inherently incapable of leading us through any kind of emotional resolution of that significant national angst… I believe has been a primary element in the continued unraveling of our country’s fundamental social fabric. That anxiety still lays at the heart of the pit I feel in my core today…

    It’s ALL about lack of leadership when we’ve needed it. Getting the right leader at the right time – isn’t that the business credo for executive transitions… We needed someone else behind the Chaney puppeteer at the turn of the Century – privatizing our military excursions and entanglements in the Middle East, in retrospect, was no great global achievement.

    Maybe we needed Obama, the great compromiser and negotiator, to help build us – oh so slowly – out the debacle of a recession of ’08… that looks to have been his most appropriate moment and significant achievement. His ethical core and high-road determination has inspired many at times. But his wonderfully intellectual approach to neutrality hasn’t exactly strengthened or settled our growing world of violence and hostility.

    So time now for a “new personality” for America. I just can’t envision why at this juncture we need someone so false and shallow, thoughtless, someone who embodies the very worst elements of the America’s worship of… gluttony…

    Why do we need this man – so prominently in the global psyche – just now?
    Is he the extreme that finally launches silent America back to its sense of unity?

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