“Lethal Weapon actor Danny Glover is the latest celebrity facing an icy brand of national pride that puts the pinch on public figures who question American foreign policy.”
So begins a recent Associated Press story about a “threatened boycott” of MCI for its pitchman employment of the antiwar actor who also voices support for Fidel Castro. According to Glover and two law professors quoted in the article, the outcry directed at outspoken celebrities like himself and Sean Penn indicates that the country is teetering on the precipice of McCarthyism.
Glover’s political illogic aside (endorsing the Cuban people’s “right to self-determination” under a regime that doesn’t offer free elections and executes or imprisons anyone trying to flee), the question is why so many celebrities still seem to confuse free speech with censorship.
Take Sean Penn. (Please.) The actor filed a lawsuit against producer Steven Bing for allegedly firing the actor from a $10 million payday after he returned from his Iraq fact-finding mission having found no facts — which he nonetheless recited endlessly to Larry King. The predictable result, just before a war that at the time had the support of at least half the country, was public outrage — and his unhiring.
Now, $10 million paydays are a wonderful thing, and so is the freedom to say whatever’s on your mind, but they may not be wholly compatible. More and more often, the list of actors who command that — Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, among others — are all talented folks who command huge salaries not because they’re necessarily the most talented actors around, but because over the years they’ve built up an extraordinary amount of goodwill among the movie-going public. In the trade parlance, Cruise, for example, “opens a film” — meaning that his millions of devoted fans plunk down ten bucks at the box office on that all-important first weekend in order to see what they undoubtedly call “the new Tom Cruise movie.”
Are there actors who could better pull off whatever the particular role is? Maybe, but it doesn’t matter. Cruise doesn’t get $25 million for winning Best Actor; he gets it for delivering his adoring audience. That’s why he protects his image so fiercely. He knows well that if he wants to continue earning a salary the size of Luxembourg’s GDP, he has to maintain the public’s enormous fondness for him.
Sean Penn, by contrast, has displayed a career-long disregard for the nice-guy images cultivated by Hanks and Cruise and Washington. His persona has been that of a bad boy — a brawler. Somehow, though, it’s worked for him, enough so that Steve Bing believed Penn’s built-in audience — and talent — justified a $10 million salary for whatever film he was making.
But what works in peacetime doesn’t necessarily work in wartime. Penn’s ill-timed and ill-considered comments — no matter how heartfelt or well intended they may have been — made him look like Jane Fonda in Hanoi, 1972. Given the amount of revulsion they engendered, Bing would have been extraordinarily foolish to hire him on a film destined, perhaps, to face a serious boycott by citizens who have every right to vote against the star through the only method available to them — withholding their ten bucks. If it had been Penn’s money at stake, he might’ve understood that.
Which brings us to Danny Glover and MCI. It is a colossal irony that an actor earning two million easy bucks as a TV pitchman only and entirely because a vast swath of the American public felt affection for him, should now scream McCarthyism after he bulldozed those good feelings with comments which an even wider swath found insulting, hateful, and, yes, stupid. Like Bing, MCI has every right — in fact, as a public corporation, it may have a fiduciary obligation — to protect the company from a boycott organized by customers voting their disgust through the only method available to them.
Such give and take is the bloodstream of a democracy. Inoculating anyone, even celebrities, from the consequences of their speech would only weaken the First Amendment. While it guarantees our right to make complete fools of ourselves, it doesn’t guarantee good reviews.
Glover and Penn can’t seem to get that. And given how relentlessly the issue keeps popping up, they probably won’t unless they ask themselves how they’d expect the public to react if, say, Julia Roberts decided to endorse David Duke for president.
— Joel Engel is an author and journalist in southern California.