Gulf oil spill, Haiti, Darfur: Hollywood stars rush to do their bit

Stars seem to be stumbling over themselves to get to the neediest regions and biggest causes, like the Gulf oil spill. Is celebrity activism meaningful, or is it just another PR move?

Carrie Devorah/
Kevin Costner testifies about the Gulf oil spill during a House Committee on Science and Technology hearing on Capitol Hill June 9.

As solutions to the Gulf oil spill elude top experts, at least two events are reassuringly predictable: congressional hearings and the appearance of Hollywood celebrities once the cameras begin to roll.

This week, actor Kevin Costner carted his oil spill cleanup technology up Capitol Hill in hopes of finding an audience for his company (and, say skeptics, his flagging movie career as well).

Take a broader look around the world’s hotspots, and the star power increases – director Spike Lee is in Louisiana doing a five-year follow-up to Hurricane Katrina, and Haiti hosted Sean Penn at the same time as George Clooney wrangled Hollywood cohorts into a charity telethon that raised millions.

But as stars seem to be stumbling over themselves to get to the world’s neediest regions and biggest causes, the question arises: Has celebrity activism gotten more serious – and meaningful – or is it just bad taste not to have a good cause these days?

The answer is a bit of both, say academics, actors, and PR professionals.

“There is more emphasis on the authentic these days,” says University of Southern California professor Elizabeth Currid, who has just finished a book on celebrity, called “Starstruck.”

'Social activism is the modern currency in Hollywood'

Social activism, Ms. Currid points out, is the modern currency in Hollywood, forming an important part of a performer’s public persona. Celebrities use it to jockey for position in the entertainment ecosystem. The relationship between celebrities and fans has become less iconic and more accessible, she says, adding that their appeal is more about their personal narrative and less about talent or glamour.

“Activism plays a huge part of that,” she says. “And we consume this with an insatiable appetite through new forms of media.”

Longtime PR professional, Richard Laermer takes the point further.

“You can’t be in Hollywood without a cause these days,” he says with a laugh, suggesting that the scene in the film “Bruno” in which star British comedian Sascha Baron Cohen is being tutored on the fine points of a Hollywood career is spot on. Key to it is picking a cause – any cause – he is advised.

Mr. Laermer agrees that more stars are more deeply involved in more issues than ever before. But he says that with few notable exceptions, this is simply another business move.

“Appearing to be socially conscious is the only way to go,” he says, adding that whether the commitment is more than skin deep can usually be measured in dollars. “You won’t see them touching anything that might actually hurt their careers, and you can bet that Brad Pitt and the rest all have to pay attention to their movie career. If that slumps, you won’t see them tromping off to foreign lands quite so quickly.”

One of those exceptions – and one whose career took a noticeable hit as a result of his early commitment to weaning western nations from dependence on fossil fuels – is actor Ed Begley, Jr.

Mr. Begley dates his conversion to everything from recycling to electric cars and solar power to Earth Day, 1970.

“It just made so much sense to me,” he says, so the performer gave up his car, began using a bicycle and started slowly spreading the word – decades before these actions became politically correct.

Ed Begley's career suffered

During the 1990’s, he notes, his management pleaded with him, telling him that his career was suffering.

“I didn’t believe them until the day in 1992 when I was on a film and they were terrified to tell me that I had to drive a station wagon that wasn’t electric,” he remembers with a laugh.

“I guess they thought I would just yell at them or something,” he says. But he notes that during that entire decade he worked a total of three weeks in US films. He applauds the newfound enthusiasms for social causes in Hollywood.

“These guys who go off to Darfur and India to help people, you have to give them a break for trying to help,” he adds.

Professor Currid agrees.

While much of the gusto for good causes may come from self-interest, she notes, celebrities still bring important attention to needy people and places – even though it reflects a culture that consumes these glamorous narratives.

“It’s too bad that we seem to need a glamorous star to tell us what we should care about in our personal lives,” she says.


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