Postcards From the Left
South Africa or South Central?
The Hollywood of 1999 endures the same political downsizing as the rest of America. "Hollywood is at its best when it is relating to a progressive left political force that's already out there," says Marge Tabankin. "It prefers to jump on a train that's in motion. But there's no train to jump on. What do you sign on to?" So in these times of narrow national debate, what passes for political activism today in Hollywood is often indistinguishable from mainstream charity work. Few dare to take on any controversy.
"What's called the Hollywood left ran from the medical marijuana campaign like it was the plague," says political consultant Bill Zimmerman, who managed California's successful Prop 215 campaign. "I have never encountered such celebrity resistance to a single issue since the early days of Vietnam." And while many of the Third World causes that still resonate in Hollywood have an intrinsic legitimacy, they demand little political courage when they are not linked directly to US policy. Nobody risks ostracism for supporting Tibet. "I pretty much founded the Human Rights Watch chapter out here in the early nineties," says Stanley Sheinbaum. "Now all of a sudden it's a big deal. We had a big dinner and out came [Seagram magnate Edgar] Bronfman, [former studio head Sidney] Sheinberg and Lear, and each gave $25,000. That's great, really. But it hardly risks McCarthyism."
There is, however, a faint silver lining in this political shift. More attention is being paid now to local organizing projects rather than to grand, often abstract and distant international causes. And at least one LA-based group, the Liberty Hill Foundation, is trying to funnel celebrity energy and cash into hard-core issues of economic justice--that is, into class-based politics.
"Most rich people don't make any connection between their own wealth and their immediate environment," says producer Sarah Pillsbury, who, along with three others with inheritances, founded Liberty Hill in the mid-seventies. "But it is particularly true with the Hollywood rich. They don't recognize any relationship between their wealth and the city of Los Angeles. They don't ever say LA's been very, very good to me and I have some sort of responsibility. That's why it's often easier to raise money around the Taliban women than it is around victims of welfare reform."
With support from celebrities like Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen and Alfre Woodard, and with an extensive Hollywood mailing list, Liberty Hill donates about $1 million in grants to frontline grassroots activist groups: from the Korean Immigrant Workers Association to the Bus Riders Union, welfare rights organizations and groups that fight environmental racism. "These economic issues are the toughest for Hollywood," says Liberty Hill executive director Torie Osborn. "Contrary to public perception, Hollywood has not been a consistent philanthropic source. A cash machine for Democrats? Yes. But if you compare Hollywood as a funding base to New York as a funding base, Hollywood comes off as notoriously stingy. Very volatile. Very cause oriented. Very related to passing fad. We're trying to create a culture of giving--giving for change."