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Rising Activism : Hollywood and Politics: a New Grit

October 10, 1989|JOHN BALZAR | Times Political Writer

Money and glamour always have been Hollywood's easy entre to politics. Let others sweat it out in cigar smoke and crowded meeting halls; democracy here has been accompanied by the tinkling of cocktail glasses and properly hip parlor chatter.

But something else is stirring now. Here and there in Hollywood are the sounds of fine Italian shoe leather hitting the asphalt and the rustle of silk sleeves being rolled up. Here and there, Hollywood is getting its hands dirty at the work of politics.

Two issues sweeping across the nation, abortion and the environment, have aroused the liberal wing of the Hollywood activist community. The intensity is like nothing else since perhaps the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.

Old-Fashioned Politics

What's more, the entertainment industry's 40ish baby boomers, for all their city-view homes and leather-upholstered cars, are coming up with that empty feeling as the 1990s approach. Some of them are turning to old-fashioned politics to add purpose to their lives. And, too, there are younger talents in Hollywood, small but growing numbers of them, who defy the stereotype for relentless self-indulgence.

Maybe the vibrations measure only 2 or 3 on the Richter scale, but consider this sampler:

--The Hollywood Women's Political Committee began five years ago as an archetype in the cloistered world of elite money-and-glamour parlor politics. But abortion altered that. With star power and persuasion know-how, the group strode to the front lines of the national feminist crusade to protect a woman's right to choose on abortion. Rather than plan fund-raising parties, the HWPC now acts like it is planning for war.

--Whether the concern is global destruction of rain forests or local pollution of Santa Monica Bay, Hollywood is going green. Entertainers and activists and organizers have swarmed over the environmental cause with a whole alphabet soup of committees--EMAs and ECOs and IRMs and AOCs. Even the cynics say, WOW.

Standing-Room Breakfasts

--Week in and week out, an assortment of Hollywood producers and lawyers and mangers rub the sleep from their eyes in the early mornings. Calling themselves the Show Coalition, they fill standing-room-only breakfast meetings to hear and question a parade of national political leaders. At night in their homes, they conduct talking sessions. And on weekends, it's issue seminars. These are not fund-raisers but rather the breeding grounds for broader and more organized political activity by Hollywood.

--Scores of youthful entertainment celebrities, Young Artists United, are plunging into politics at the neighborhood level. One weekend, 60 converged on the Crenshaw District to refurbish a house for teen-age runaways. During the week, they fan out to schools across California and the country to help youngsters find the strength to cope with today's pressures.

"It's cool to care," said young actress Alexandra Paul, a founder of Young Artists United and a spark plug among the new breed of activists.

Hollywood, of course, always has had its well-manicured fingers in politics, more or less.

Going back to the 1930s, films and pop music and have gone through cycles of politicization, from "Grapes of Wrath" and Woodie Guthrie to "Wall Street" and Bruce Springsteen. Celebrities have long been around to help build crowds for candidates and issues. And, as a result of the campaign spending reforms of the past years, the role of the millionaire fat cat has been reduced and celebrities have become important attractions for raising money.

But interviews with elected officials, consultants, entertainment industry activists and assorted armchair scholars about town found near unanimous agreement. Today's political energy is keener than in recent years. Interest in politics is broader. And, most important, liberal Hollywood is becoming better organized than perhaps ever before.

'Much More Effective'

"The community has gotten more strategic and much more effective," said Stephen Rivers, a longtime political organizer who works for Jane Fonda.

Conservatives are not without their voices in Hollywood, from Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston to Chuck Norris and the Beach Boys. But while they can fill head tables three deep at fund-raisers, conservatives have yet to coalesce into meaningful activist groups as the liberals are doing.

Nothing better illustrates the new activist energy than the evolution of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee.

This is a group of 190 of the highest liberal flyers in show business, such stars as Fonda and Morgan Fairchild, producers such as Paula Weinstein ("A Dry White Season") and songwriter Marilyn Bergman ("The Way We Were").

Millions Raised

For the 1986 elections, the women threw one of the more glittering political parties in the history of Hollywood at the home of Barbra Streisand. Millions of dollars were raised for liberal Senate and congressional candidates.

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