I’ve never been terribly keen on actors. I prefer hairdressers and accountants. And teachers and builders and lawyers. I may even prefer politicians and footballers to actors. It’s a modesty thing. No profession demands more attention. And no attention is less warranted. Everywhere you look, there they are pouting and grimacing on billboards and TV screens, like oversized teenagers. How have we come to this? These people dress up and pretend to be other people — for a living!
It wouldn’t be quite so bad if that were all they did. But these days actors are taking over our public space in a way that is unsettling and impossible to ignore. Actors now take centre-stage in all the serious debates of the day — from sexual equality and national security to education and wealth distribution. A squeak from James McAvoy on social mobility or a belch from Russell Brand on pretty much anything at all seems enough to send us into an ideological swoon.
I’m not taking issue one way or the other with the opinions of Brand and McAvoy and Cumberbatch and Sean Penn and Julianne Moore and all the other members of the actor-commentariat. And to be clear, I’m all for these people voicing as many of their ‘serious’ opinions as it takes to get them their next ‘serious’ acting part. My issue is with the unmerited power that we seem to have given them. We treat them like divinities. We debate their pronouncements like medieval scholars squabbling over holy texts.
OK, I’m exaggerating. But only a little. Look at the moral panic over Benedict Cumberbatch’s splutterings about diversity, or the frenzy over Greg Wise’s resolution not to pay any more tax until the ‘evil bastards’ in the HSBC scandal are all banged up. (How’s that going by the way, Greg?) What about the clarion calls of Julianne Moore and Patricia Arquette at the Oscars, or Michael Sheen’s recent battle cry for the NHS? These are perfectly legitimate views and actors are of course entitled to express them. But can you think of any voice today that sounds more loudly than an actor’s?
Then there are the ludicrously aggrandizing titles and honours. Did you know, for example, that Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Douglas, Edward Norton and Charlize Theron are all ‘Messengers for Peace’ for the United Nations?
Let’s be clear. Actors today aren’t just vocal spectators. They’re political participants. They’re at the table. The current President of the United States has described George Clooney as ‘a good man and a good friend’. Ben Affleck has appeared before a US Senate committee as an Africa expert. European politicians have drunk the Kool-Aid too. Remember William Hague and Angelina Jolie? (Actually, it’s ‘Dame’ Angelina to you and me.) Even Madonna is elbowing her way into the political fray. She’s invited Marine Le Pen to join her to talk politics over a drink. Madge is worried that France is becoming nasty and she wants to do some straight talking with Marine while there’s still time to save France.
Whence comes this quasi-Messianic status for these purveyors of low-brow entertainment? Clearly, it has something to do with all those ‘political’ films that keep coming out of Hollywood. But the main problem is us. We make too many allowances for actors. We acquiesce in their absurd elevation. We drink the Kool-Aid. Many moons ago, actors were so lowly they were deemed unworthy of Christian burial and were thus condemned for ever. I wouldn’t advocate anything quite so drastic, but isn’t it time we took them down a peg or two?