Hollywood stays behind scenes in race

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‘08 ISSUES:

The entertainment industry is usually a lightning rod when presidential contests roll around.

Who can forget Bill Clinton’s “Sister Souljah” moment in 1992? Or “Saturday Night Live” while skewering Al Gore in the 2000 presidential debates? Or Michael Moore’s anti-George W. Bush documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” in 2004?

Unlike those contests, however, the impact of the entertainment industry and Hollywood seems to have been minimal thus far in 2008. Other than the occasional fundraiser, celebrities are keeping their distance from Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama and the election in general, afraid of again tilting the election in the Republican Party’s favor. There hasn’t even been an entertainment-related controversy to fire up either party’s base.

Mr. Obama has nimbly eluded efforts to tie him to an entertainment industry out of step with Middle America’s values. “I do think as president you can use the bully pulpit to speak out against some of the coarsening aspects of our culture,” he told the Christian Broadcast Network’s David Brody. “I am not someone who believes in censorship, but I think there’s nothing wrong with speaking out against things that are teaching our kids the wrong lessons.”

Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, has close ties to Sen. Joe Lieberman, a leading crusader against violence in the media. Neither Mr. McCain nor Mr. Obama has made regulating the entertainment industry a focal point of his campaign, and other than a reference to protecting children from Internet pornography by Mr. McCain, neither’s Web site touches on the entertainment industry.

Celebrities have confined themselves to nonpartisan get-out-the vote efforts; the Creative Coalition released a video last week starring Anne Hathaway, Samuel L. Jackson and other A-listers reminding voters to hit polling places on Nov. 4.

“Certainly in this election cycle more than ever, getting out the vote no matter what is important,” said Creative Coalition Executive Director Robin Bronk. “We all want to do our part to encourage voting.”

As the election draws to a close, the only explicitly political films to get a major push are Bill Maher’s anti-religion documentary “Religulous,” Oliver Stone’s biopic on President Bush, “W.,” and David Zucker’s “An American Carol.”

Content to spend most of its running time making fun of unsophisticated rubes, Mr. Maher’s film closes with a fiery polemic exhorting agnostics like himself to vote the religious out of office.

Mr. Maher’s targets are bipartisan - a segment of the film is dedicated to mocking Mark Pryor, Democratic senator from Arkansas, and his general distaste for Mr. Bush is almost palpable - but the policies for which Mr. Maher argues (tighter environmental regulation, an end to the war on terror and others) clearly lean leftward. Mr. Maher’s film’s impact, however, probably will be limited, just like its screen count - it opened Oct. 3 on just 502 screens.

“W.” is a different matter. Opening this week on 2,000 screens, Mr. Stone’s picture will be seen by many people. But in an election that has turned its focus to economic issues and other domestic priorities, will an anti-Bush, anti-war-on-terror polemic sway audiences toward the Democratic candidate?

“An American Carol” was a unique creature: a conservative political film. Unfortunately for its creator, Mr. Zucker, it was a massive flop. Few people saw the film, and it’s fair to say that its impact is limited to nonexistent.

The situation was much different four years ago, when Mr. Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” picked up trophies at Cannes and a nine-figure haul at the box office. The documentarian was intent on ejecting Mr. Bush from office, but the results were mixed, said Robert Brent Toplin, author of “Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11: How One Film Divided a Nation,” a book that examined the effects of Mr. Moore’s documentary on the voting public.

“There was great concern for a while that it might affect the election,” said Mr. Toplin, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. “What I found was that there was considerable concern among Republicans too that it could make a difference. Frank Luntz, the pollster for Republicans, did a little survey with a special group and found that people who watched it - and even Republicans - came out, some of them saying they wouldn’t vote for the president.”

The Republican Party did an effective job of making Mr. Moore radioactive, however, and the film’s message got lost in the wake. “As you got closer toward the election, people got the sense that maybe Moore is off the edge, over the top and all this stuff,” Mr. Toplin said. “The campaign to discredit the moviemaker as well as the movie had an impact, so in the end it didn’t make the difference.”

Despite taking in $119 million at the box office, it’s not clear how much - or in which direction - Mr. Moore’s film pushed audiences.

On the celebrity front, it appears as though the glitterati have learned their lessons from elections past: The American public doesn’t care what it’s movie icons and rock stars have to say about the election.

In a New Yorker profile earlier this year, liberal icon George Clooney is portrayed as having come to grips with that fact. “He has not publicly campaigned, for fear of doing damage” to Mr. Obama, wrote Ian Parker. “He felt that his father’s campaign for Congress was undermined by ‘Hollywood versus the Heartland’ rhetoric.” The actor’s father, Nick Clooney, ran for Congress in Kentucky in 2004.

For the most part, limousine liberals have stayed under wraps, confining their support to lavish fundraisers off-limits to the press. When a celebrity does make a political pronouncement - as Madonna did last week when she “banned” Gov. Sarah Palin from attending her concerts - they tend to either be ignored or laughed away as irrelevant.

It’s fair to say that the most visible aspect of the entertainment industry’s attempt to influence the election comes from a stalwart: “Saturday Night Live.” Tina Fey’s impressions of Mrs. Palin are spot-on and, in the words of conservative entertainment blogger John Nolte (aka “Dirty Harry), “devastating, but fair.” Mrs. Fey’s skit lampooning Katie Couric’s interview with the vice-presidential nominee has turned into a viral sensation, showing up in all corners of the blogosphere.

“Katie Couric didn’t ask one question Palin shouldn’t have expected and been prepared for,” Mr. Nolte wrote in the days after the episode. “Katie Couric is not the problem.”

Mrs. Palin has taken the teasing in stride, however, and plans on appearing on “Saturday Night Live” on Oct. 25 to score some points of her own.

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