Jon Voight is a great actor. He won an Oscar (nominated four times) and four Golden Globes (nominated for a total of ten). His career spans more than fifty years – from Gunsmoke to the current Showtime hit Ray Donovan – and includes knockout performances in Midnight Cowboy and Runaway Train as well as highly entertaining stunt-casting jobs in Pearl Harbor, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (where he shared the big screen with his daughter Angelina Jolie) and Zoolander. Voight is an iconic talent and household name. He’s really good at what he does, and what he does is an art.
Casual moviegoers might miss some of this. In recent years, Jon Voight’s name has become increasingly synonymous with conservative activism in Hollywood. His public pronouncements on various political issues stand out amid a sea of lock-step progressivism in Tinsel Town. Passionately calling out beautiful starlets over their comments on Israel will do that. Frequently popping in on the set of Hannity and Huckabee will also do that. Regardless of how one might personally feel about the specific ways Voight has articulated his positions to the public over the past decade, no one can deny the courage of his convictions.
But that kind of political engagement can be the kiss of death, even when the politics are closer to standard Hollywood leftism. The slide from movie star to crotchety caricature is often quick and hard to watch. Bitterness at the ever-shrinking number of meaty roles and the temperature of the soup at Craft can get the better of the best performers.
To his enormous credit, Jon Voight is kicking that caricature in the teeth. As he demonstrates every Sunday night on Ray Donovan, the aging political activist has acting chops better than stars one-third his age. With his magnificent turn as Mickey, the lovably selfish and troubled ex-convict father of the title character (played by Liev Schreiber) Voight displays considerable range as an actor. The series follows the extended Donovan family of Boston, who have made their various ways to Los Angeles over the course of twenty years — several of them trying (not always successfully) to run from criminal pasts.
Voight’s Mickey Donovan is mesmerizing and hilarious to the point that you almost forget everyone in the show – Voight included — is doing a horrible Boston accent. Although he is not the billed lead, Voight leads the way in bringing genuine layers of humanity and emotion to each episode. Longtime fans recognize the gritty, believable solidness Voight brings to performances where you’d least expect to find it. (His supporting role as Derek Zoolander’s father must rank as one of the great straight-man roles in recent movies.)
In Ray Donovan, he plays a foul-mouthed, two-timing criminal with such flare and gusto that even hard-core liberals (presumably including at least a few of his fellow thesps) can forget about his politics and enjoy the ride.
The entertainment industry is a persistent temptation and hobgoblin for conservatives, who would like to have the kind of artistic megaphone Hollywood liberals enjoy, but who also recognize nothing empties a theater or prompts a channel change faster than political pedantry. By simply doing what he’s great at, Voight shows another way for conservatives to participate in the culture.
Granted, Jon Voight’s role in Ray Donovan is not going to swing the pop-culture pendulum toward conservatives in one fell swoop, but in an era where perception is everything and television dramas rule the day, it is nice to have one of our own killing it, in a show that is popular and edgy.
At the very least it’s nice to think of leftists for once having to make a concession that is very familiar to conservatives who happen to enjoy TV and movies: “I hate the guy’s politics, but I have to admit he’s a great actor.”
— R. J. Moeller is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter at@rjmoeller.