BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Hollywood has long maintained a mutual love affair with the presidency. John F. Kennedy was famously friendly with Marilyn Monroe, who serenaded him with “Happy birthday, Mr. President,” and his father, Joseph, financed movie studios and dallied with Gloria Swanson.
The entertainment biz begat Ronald Reagan and embraced Bill Clinton, who returned its affection. Barack Obama’s historic presidential drive took a great leap forward in early 2007 when David Geffen publicly dissed Hillary Clinton around the time Geffen and his DreamWorks partners, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, threw a $1.3 million fundraiser for Obama.
After eight years of George W. Bush, Hollywood is eager to embrace a president that it passionately backed. But does that mark a return to the Clinton years, when the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom had a revolving-door policy for such star supporter/donors as Barbra Streisand, Tom Hanks, Ted Danson, Chevy Chase, Spielberg and Geffen? Or will Obama keep the celebrity crowd at more of an arm’s distance, as he did for much of his campaign?
“I’ve known the Clintons very, very well over the years, and I just think he is a different quality person,” Katzenberg said of Obama, for whom he was one of the top fundraisers. “It’s like apples and submarines. I think he is way less interested in or fascinated by Hollywood.”
One key difference: Clinton basked in the glow of celebrities. Now celebrities bask in the glow of Obama while hoping not to diminish him. Throughout the campaign, stars such as George Clooney were careful not to be too public in their Obama support for fear of stirring up an anti-Obama backlash. “I think we were all quite aware that we didn’t want to blow it for him by endorsing him too loudly,” actress Sigourney Weaver said.
As it was, Republican presidential nominee John McCain aired an ad depicting Obama as a celebrity along the lines of Paris Hilton. Even now, Matthew Broderick, who made a “Ferris Bueller”-themed campaign message for Obama shortly before the election, said he is reluctant to attend the inauguration out of concern for the new president’s image.
“I know it wouldn’t look good if a lot of celebrities pushed out regular Joes to get on that lawn,” said Broderick. “With him, my instincts are celebrities ought to be a little more careful.”
Will Smith, however, has no such reservations and says he plans to be there. “He’s all inclusive,” the megastar said.
This dynamic marks a dramatic change from the previous eight years. During the Bush presidency, aside from a brief respite after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the entertainment world maintained an adversarial relationship with the man who lost the popular vote but gained the presidency over Hollywood-backed Al Gore - and who presided over an unpopular overseas war as well as a cultural clash that saw the Federal Communications Commission levying record fines against television networks and radio stations for perceived obscenity.
Hollywood’s feelings about the Bush administration were reflected in a wave of cynicism-tinged dramas and thrillers such as “Syriana,” “Rendition,” “In the Valley of Elah” and this year’s “Eagle Eye” and “Body of Lies.” In those movies, as well as TV shows such as “24,” the government is portrayed as sinister and invasive.
“There was a reason people felt they needed to generate that storytelling,” said Greystone entertainment company president Craig Haffner, a prominent Hollywood Republican who has produced and/or directed “Biography” episodes and history documentaries such as “The True Story of Seabiscuit.” “I’m very bullish that (Obama’s election) has the potential to push down the divisive and let everybody say, ‘OK, let’s get back to the business of doing what we do best.’”
The Clinton era wasn’t exactly lacking in cynicism either, particularly after the Monica Lewinsky scandal hit, but the president maintained much closer ties with the entertainment industry than either President Bush. The husband-and-wife producing team of Harry Thomason and Linda BloodworthThomason was active in his campaigns and inauguration festivities, and Clinton spent much energy courting the Hollywood crowd.
Politically active producer Lawrence Bender remembered the pivotal moment when Clinton invited him, his movie “Good Will Hunting” and its cast to Camp David for a screening in early 1998. Star/writers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were there along with co-star Robin Williams and former Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein. So were the president, Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
“I saw everyone there upfront and close and saw how they made a difference in the world, and I thought this is what I wanted to do,” reflected Bender, who went on to produce the Oscar-winning Al Gore documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”
But Hollywood executives and filmmakers paint a picture of Clinton embracing the glitz in a way that Obama has not.
“He (Clinton) loved celebrities, period,” said one executive, who asked not to be named. “Money was important. Money bought access. You saw who stayed in the White House.”
One big difference is that Bill Clinton arrived in and presided over a period of relative peace and prosperity. Obama is taking over a country bogged down in two wars and an economic crisis.
“It was OK for the Clintons to come here and be part of the party,” said Lionel Chetwynd, a Republican producer/writer (TV’s “DC 9/11: Time of Crisis”). “The ‘90s were a big party. The Obamas have a more sober view of Hollywood and what it represents.”
The big question is what impact Obama’s presidency will have on our culture.
Members of the Obama camp did not respond to interview requests, but Hollywood Republicans and Democrats were united in their hopefulness.
“Speaking as a real dedicated Bushie, I do recognize the enormous change that this guy represents psychologically,” Chetwynd said. “And when you work in a business that is driven almost exclusively by the psychological impulse, you’re going to see an enormous difference.”
“I am a great believer that art can transform situations that politics can’t, and I feel that Obama is too,” Weaver said. “I’m actually hoping the time of Obama will inspire Hollywood to do things that aren’t quite as formulaic, to understand that people want something new in terms of their entertainment too.”
Veteran writer-producer Larry Gelbart (“M*A*S*H”) envisions a general raising of the intellectual bar. “I think there’ll be a slow awakening or reawakening of the fact that it’s OK to speak in complete sentences,” he said, also noting: “He has young kids, and they have to be keeping up with the culture. He knows the songs they know. He knows the performers. They have lively curiosities, and I think we will see jazz musicians in the East Room and classical musicians other than Condoleezza Rice.”
Gelbart added that this horizon broadening should extend to an increased diversity in the culture. “I think we’re going to discover a pool of African-American talent of all kinds, and they may crack the racial ceiling that exists still as always here,” he said. “I do definitely think this is kind of a new age.”
Given the full plate of troubles that Obama is inheriting, setting the nation’s cultural agenda may be low on his priority scale. But even by doing nothing, he may have a profound influence.
“I think the Obamians aren’t that concerned with whether Hollywood product reflects well upon them,” Chetwynd said, “but I think it will anyway.”
WILL SMITH: ‘PEOPLE LOOKED AT ME CRAZY’
To actor Will Smith, one of the planet’s most reliable box-office stars, Obama’s impact transcends the cultural world.
“He has validated something that I’ve believed for a lot of years, that I’ve never really been able to say,” Smith said. “People looked at me crazy, and as a black man you were never really allowed to say: ‘You know, I don’t think America is a racist nation. I think there are racist people that live here, but I think as a whole America is not a racist nation.’ You were Uncle Tom if you ever said that before. ... I think (his election) completed a cycle of African-American citizenship. It was like the last stamp on African-American citizenship, and no longer are we African-Americans. We are Americans of African descent.”