The Conscience of the Artist

Scripps-Howard News Service 1.08.03
Balint Vazsonyi

Last week, anyone would have had the opportunity to acquire a comprehensive picture of Hollywood's view about the presidency of the United States. Within 48 hours, one could watch "The American President," "Dave" and, of course, "The West Wing."

Major forces of our entertainment industry have been involved in the making of these films, many of them truly gifted and - an important point - intelligent. Some represent second generations of distinguished motion picture and television families; there is every reason to assume more than adequate knowledge of history in general, of the presidency in particular.

Yet, as if to establish the only natural state of affairs, the president is invariably a Democrat. In fact, every "decent" person in these films is a Democrat. Also invariably, Republicans are portrayed as certifiable morons whose hostility toward good Americans everywhere is surpassed only by their machinations against all those things that decent people want, such as a 20% reduction in the use of fossil fuels.

(For some reason, decent people, too, transport themselves in cars, helicopters and jet airplanes, but that may be an oversight by the production team.)

It is an interesting - but not unusual - casting decision that a GOP presidential candidate would be played by Richard Dreyfuss, whose rejection of anything Republican is as well known as his brilliant performance in "The Goodbye Girl." Not unusual, I suggested, because casting Martin Sheen as president of a country whose founding principles he openly rejects is in the same vein.

Martin Sheen and Richard Dreyfuss are as entitled to their political views as the rest of us. So are Rob Reiner and Michael Douglas, although one might expect better of the sons of Carl Reiner and Kirk Douglas. In his time, Carl Reiner had taken on many a social challenge and managed to treat them with the fine hand of an artist. Apparently, he recalled the maxim of the unforgettable Sam Goldwyn - "if I want to send a message, I call Western Union." While he did not shy away from messages, they never were crude or insulting.

To learn about strong political views expressed in the form of art, everyone in Hollywood could look to Frank Capra. The gulf that separates most artists in that older generation from today's "lions" was the former's unshakable love for and belief in America. Certain people may have been evil or guilty - not their beloved America.

Yet there is another, perhaps equally important consideration that actually prompted this column.

Whatever the beliefs of Rob Reiner, Michael Douglas, Richard Dreyfuss or Martin Sheen happen to be, they know that neither America nor its presidents are the way they had chosen to portray them. Statistics show the number of Republican presidents to be, if anything, higher in recent times, and a caricature like Richard Dreyfuss's bears no resemblance to any person, living or dead. Also, it simply does not stand to reason that all good attributes would belong to one political party.

On that score, they know as well that this Republic was conceived as a two-party system and, if one of them withers on the vine, so does our entire political structure. I say they know, because they present themselves as politically sophisticated. And listening to them in interviews leaves no doubt about their level of intelligence. Personally, I cannot fathom what led them so far to what is conventionally called the Left. But be that as it may, they live in the real world (or do they?) and ought to be fully acquainted with issues, events, and other people who live and work around them. Significantly, they must realize that there are two sides to every issue, and that highly reputable people may be found on both sides.

If that is so, they are clearly and deliberately misleading their audience - which comprises the entire country. They do so by showing America as they themselves know it not to be. Such an act requires suspension of the artistic conscience.

Throughout the ages, nothing else could guarantee the integrity of an artistic creation but the conscience of the artist. It acted as a filter, stood guard, raised a silent warning when personal passions threatened to destroy artistic truth. Yes - artistic truth may be, and often is, different from crude reality, but truth it must remain.

"The play's the thing," exclaims Hamlet, "wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

In Shakespeare's world, even the evil Claudius was presumed to have an active conscience.

Must we make do with less in Hollywood?