Ever since Gettysburg, the Great American Speech has not only been the aim of every US politician seeking to define their time and enshrine their place in it; the moment talking pictures appeared, the movie industry realised few tactics served better as the denouement of a drama than the lead character pausing to passionately speak his mind to an assembled group of characters (and the audience) in a highly theatrical manner, as though he too was on a podium addressing the nation. This week has seen two examples of this enduring gesture – one coming from an outgoing President and the other coming from an ageing actress.
Like Barack Obama and his predecessors, Meryl Streep’s field of expertise is speaking lines written for her by somebody else. Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley sang lines written for them by somebody else; they were aware they didn’t possess the talent to write their own, so they focused on what they did best and didn’t lose any sleep over it. But professional actors are a different breed of entertainer and they often make the mistake of believing the adulation and awards that shower down on them for doing their job is somehow a reflection of them as individuals rather than the characters they’ve portrayed. When they sever the strings of the scriptwriter and, like Pinocchio, imagine they’re flesh-and-blood instead of wood, the illusion is shattered and the audience winces.
It doesn’t matter if it’s Charlton Heston cheerleading for the NRA, Clint Eastwood interviewing an invisible Obama, Michael Caine endorsing Cameron, Sean Penn intervening in the Falklands or the conveniently-distanced George Clooney lecturing Europe on its refugee crisis, the impact is the same. We belatedly (not to say disappointingly) realise they’re not who we thought they were when we watched them on the big screen. Tell an actor he’s wonderful and he’ll do anything for you – something those who benefit from a celebrity endorsement know all too well.
With last year’s PC Nuremberg Rally masquerading as the Oscars ceremony still sending a lingering shudder down the spine, 2017 hasn’t even got as far as the Academy Awards before the same narcissistic urges have claimed centre-stage again. The Golden Globes is the Song for Europe to the Oscars’ Eurovision, but the woman one US critic referred to as ‘America’s Judi Dench’ decided to pre-empt the biggest bash in cinema’s calendar by using the Golden Globes as her own personal platform, knowing full well she was playing to the adoring converted.
Actors will become increasingly dispensable in the next few years; the CGI ‘reanimations’ of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher in the latest ‘Star Wars’ movie are probably the shape of things to come, and as the technology advances more and more thespians will have to specify beforehand whether or not they consent to their image being resurrected in the event of their death. Therefore, Streep, as the reigning grande dame of Hollywood, grabbed the headlines with her own words in a way a CGI version of herself from twenty years hence would be incapable of; she never said the words ‘President-Elect’ or ‘Donald Trump’, but her target was implicit in the speech. She delivered it with the kind of faux-earnestness she’s called upon in a hundred movies – the final scene in which a solitary piano accompaniment gradually builds up into a rousing, swooping crescendo of soupy strings cynically engineered to provoke tears and applause. She may have had a salient point hidden behind the hammy window-dressing, but it was buried beneath a landslide of emotional apple pie.
As a man who has yet to come to terms with at least the pretence of dignity that is supposed to compliment his office, Donald Trump responded to Streep’s speech in the style of a petulant Twitter troll, oblivious to the fact he should be above all that by now. He’s no longer merely a reality TV star anymore, lest we forget. But Trump is at war with anyone who mocks or criticises him; he’s Richard Nixon taken to an online level, not simply dismissing his knockers with foul-mouthed vitriol behind closed doors, but engaging with them in unedifying internet fisticuffs in full view of the world.
He could have made Meryl Streep look even more foolishly self-indulgent had he just ignored her; but what he shares with Hollywood royalty is his inability to relent from imposing his opinions upon a populace he genuinely believes is enamoured with everything he says or does. In this respect, Trump and the red carpet A-listers should be natural allies, for their conceit and vanity is their dominant mutual personality trait.
As with the pyjama-clad slovenly shoppers captured on camera last weekend, who responded to being rightly shamed by crying racism, the majority of Trump’s most vociferous critics fall back on wearisome buzzwords that ironically mirror the similarly simplistic and crude playground taunts of the man himself. By contrast, Hollywood’s pampered starlets, labouring under the misapprehension that their public edicts carry the kind of weight ordinary Americans lack the intellectual capacity to articulate, clearly imagine that the audiences who pay good money to watch their overhyped brain-dead blockbusters will instinctively agree with their anti-Trump rhetoric just because they have achieved the wealth and privilege every US citizen is duped into believing they too can attain.
But perhaps there is one saving grace to emerge from this sad little war of words between America’s ultimate showbiz elite and a President-Elect who himself is more showbiz than political: George Clooney has hinted Hollywood will go ‘on strike’ until the President-Elect is booted out of office. Just think about it – no mainstream Tinsel Town popcorn slopping around the multiplex aircraft hangers like a celluloid slick for four years! Go for it, George!
Everyone is acting out their preordained parts because none of the participants are smart or shrewd enough to see that they’re doing so; their egos are too immense to discern anything beyond the shadows they cast to recognise the clichés. Like two competing B-movies at the local fleapit, the right-on left and the rabid right are back where they belong, engaged in a tired battle neither will concede and neither will win. They both deserve to drown in a perpetual golden shower.
© The Editor