Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
BART: Now that the voters have transformed a reality television star into a potential world leader, they are trying to figure out the monster they’ve created. So let’s help them, Mike. We have spent many years of our lives dealing with stars, and we know what to expect.
FLEMING: I am over the Oscar-season distraction and watched the last two debates, including the Republican debate on Fox News, and the after-coverage. It reminded me of when I was a kid and watched pro wrestling. Not the matches, but rather the insult-laden and posturing verbal jousting that preceded them and were the reason to tune in. So I’m all in here. Go ahead.
BART: Here are some hints: If he rises to power, Donald Trump might pull a Marlon Brando: He’ll walk off the set if he doesn’t like the way the scene is lit. He might pull a Steve McQueen: He won’t introduce a foreign dignitary if he has too long a speech to make. “I’ll do it with a look,” McQueen would famously say. He might do a John Wayne: He’ll walk out of a conversation if he becomes suspicious of its political tint. Donald Trump isn’t a politician, Mike, he’s a star. Albeit a Kardashian-era star. He has star ego and star neuroses. He won’t take a step outside without calling hair and makeup. He’ll do a one-eighty on important policies if he feels “his public” is drifting away from him.
FLEMING: Steve McQueen? Marlon Brando? To me, Trump comes off like the heavy in one of their movies. Better yet, like Ben Gazzara in Road House. Plenty of money, and insults, threats and strong-arming if you stand in his way. What part of this makes him a protagonist in this movie you are creating here?
BART: Trump is the prototypical product of our celebrity culture. Celebrities can do anything today – sell movies, sell products, sell ideas. But here’s the problem: They don’t stand for anything. They need writers to tell them what to say and directors to tell them how to act. So pity Donald Trump; he is trying to go it alone. And pity the voters. They expect a real person to emerge from the celebrity aura. They will be disappointed. George Carlin used to say, “If you don’t vote, you don’t have to complain.” He had a point.
FLEMING: Watching that debate, I’ll give Trump this much: Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were worse. The only candidate with substance was Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Nobody seemed that interested in hearing what he had to say, not when the others were insulting penis size, height, hair. This is the best that the GOP has to offer as a viable candidate to run the most powerful country in the world? And this is what they have to say? You hear Ted Cruz talk about how we are one Supreme Court judge appointment away from repealing the Second Amendment, like it’s accepted fact and not preposterous. He said it over and over again. He made Affordable Care sound like the Zika virus, saying that single mothers are forced to work an extra 28 hours a week because of Obamacare and promising he will eliminate every speck of this plan if he is voted in. Maybe after the Internal Revenue Service, which he also said would be history. This from columnist Michael Hiltzik of the LA Times, who followed up on Cruz’s health care rant: As the Department of Health and Human Services reported Thursday, “20 million uninsured adults have gained health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act as of early 2016.” The figure includes 17.7 million who gained coverage via the insurance exchanges or Medicaid, and 2.3 million young adults age 19 to 25 who were able to remain on a parent’s plan up to age 26. The overall uninsured rate has been cut by nearly half, from 20.3% in 2012 to 11.5% now. The trend includes every ethnic group and both genders; for whites and non-Hispanic blacks, the reduction in the uninsured rate exceeds 50%, and for Hispanics the rate has come down from 41.8% to 30.5%.” Why would a single mother bristle that her children have medical coverage?
BART: The stars themselves are going crazy with Dump Trump fever. Sean Penn calls his campaign “the defecation of America.” Louis C.K. says Trump is Hitler. Sacha Baron Cohen buries Trump in effigy in his new film The Brothers Grimsby. As for me, I’m going to wear a hat that says, “Let’s Make Celebrities Great Again.” By getting them out of politics.
FLEMING: I heard Trump say in a speech he would rewrite libel laws and make newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times culpable for stories he doesn’t like. There is a threat to an amendment in there somewhere, even if the GOP rhetoric focuses only on the Second Amendment. Isn’t the last time we heard this rhetoric back to the days of Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon, who were rooted out through the work of dogged journalists operating under First Amendment protection? Trump said in the debate I saw that he would go much further than waterboarding. Can you actually expect politically active stars to sit silently while Trump leads the polls and is shaping up to be the Republican candidate for president of the United States? Hence, the Hitler references. This guy will be a lightning rod for outspoken celebrities. Good for them. This guy is as scary as he is vulgar. You want to feel bad for him that the whole GOP is trying to undermine him, but when he gets the chance to counter Mitt Romney’s attack by simply saying he loved Trump when fishing for his endorsement last time, Trump has to say that Romney would have been on his knees if Trump had asked. Seeing an outsider use his fortune to will himself to office might not be so bad; Michael Bloomberg did it and was a pretty good NYC mayor, and he’s probably entering the presidential race as an Independent. Maybe he watched the same debate I did and that sealed the deal for him. But Trump doesn’t have the finesse of Bloomberg, whose courageous stand and financial support for candidates in the NRA cross-hairs is admirable. Trump’s blathering about torture, wall building, etc, just makes him so unappealing. Anyone sold on Trump won’t have their minds changed by celebrities. It’ll be a question of whether he has enough of those supporters and how effective the GOP can be in toppling his momentum in the coming weeks. He’s got a real foothold toward the nomination.
BART: When movie stars of old pondered entering politics, the results were always uncertain. Ronald Reagan was a centrist when he was effectively drafted to become President of the Screen Actors Guild. He’d supported a number of liberal causes but also had the instincts of a Midwest conservative. At SAG he suddenly discovered that a lot of his actor friends were pushing for an actors’ strike. Reagan didn’t like the idea of strikes. Then he learned that there were growing pressures to put “lefty” actors on the blacklist. A decent guy, Reagan didn’t like blacklists. So suddenly Reagan was way over his head. He hated his new responsibilities. He wanted to quit. Friends like William Holden persuaded him to stay. Years later when he was running for Governor, I spoke often with Reagan and he admitted that his SAG period presented an uncomfortable introduction to public life. It forced him to make up his mind about a lot of issues he had never confronted. Maybe Donald Trump could use a similar learning experience.
FLEMING: I’ve taken this politics stuff about as far as I am equipped to. I think of Reagan, and how he’s sainted in these Republican debates, and all I can remember is how he ignored the AIDS crisis because the sufferers were mostly limited to the gay community. How does the decent guy you knew do something so indecent, to kowtow to the Religious Right?