In a past issue of the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town, actor Ted Danson talks to Elizabeth Kolbert—the magazine’s environment expert—about his work in the field of oceanography and marine conservation. He talks about the protection of oceans and marine life, about his concern over the fact that a year after the BP oil spill, offshore drilling is again being promoted. (Though why he should be disappointed by politicians being politicians and wealthy companies getting away with murder indicates naiveté more than anything else.) I was surprised at Kolbert who wonders about whether an actor shouldn’t stick to acting.
Yes, that’s the common attitude toward celebrities putting their weight behind a cause. Elizabeth Taylor and AIDS, Sean Penn and Haiti, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon in their heyday as all-round activists, of course Jane Fonda who asked for and never received forgiveness for her brief stint as Hanoi Jane, the list goes on and on. These celebrities are sort of admired for their role but mainly vilified. True, they tend to go overboard. Sean Penn calls brother some unsavory characters (Venezuela’s Chavez or Iran’s Ahmadinejad come to mind), but that doesn’t diminish in any way his tireless efforts for a Haiti pretty much forgotten in the aftermath of devastation. The former Sarandon/Robbins couple were rightly ridiculed for using the Oscar stage as a platform for some fairly incoherent statements, but their heart was in the right place. Angelina Jolie or Madonna are criticized for their gaggle of adopted African or Asian children from dubious sources and in unclear circumstances but I much doubt they would go to such length for publicity rather than out of compassion and concern. Princess Diana, not an actress but an accomplished thespian, did believe with all her heart in the need to rid the world of landmines.
So, my question to critics is, why should actors not be allowed to embrace causes? Why should they be restricted to acting and not use their fortune and spare time in helping others to the best of their ability? Would we mind a grocer tithing his church or mosque, a carpenter working on Habitat for Humanity construction sites, a photographer starting a journalism school in god-forsaken, war-torn countries? As a matter of fact, would we begrudge the consultant, the teacher, the yoga instructor, the bus driver, their opinions on politics, on life, on the world? Would we be rude enough to tell them to mind their own business? No, it’s only actors that we mind seeing occupy center stage in areas beyond their profession. We resent them, we envy their wealth, their assured demeanor, their often striking physical appearance. We cannot stand the fact that, on top of it all, they have the nerve to think, to care, and to take action.
Ted Danson’s closing words to Elizabeth Kolbert, “Do not use the excuse that I’m an actor to dismiss this subject. Say what you will about me, but if you use that as an excuse not to take what’s happening to our oceans seriously, then you’re an idiot.”
As all of us often are.