Page Two: Loving and Hating John Wayne, Meryl Streep, Free Speech
Public or private, unspoken or expressed, the rights of every citizen are guaranteed
So when you see your neighbor carryin' somethin'
Help him with his load
And don't go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road
– "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," Bob Dylan
There are legitimate discussions over personal political opinions being offered at public culture events, such as Meryl Streep's comments at last Sunday's Golden Globes ceremony. Many of those engaged in participating in the current controversy claim that their concern is not content but rather propriety and decorum, with their special focus being on stars abusing their celebrity status. Unfortunately, the often ugly tone and undisguised hostility of many comments argues that this claim is just subterfuge, the outrage actually driven by a very partisan effort to limit free speech and suppress progressive voices. This is made so clear when conservatives such as Drew Carey, Dennis Miller, Victoria Jackson, Tom Selleck, and Clint Eastwood express their political views, the same community responds with enthusiastic support rather than indignation.
Regardless, Meryl Streep is clearly among the greatest living actresses. Visiting the sets of The Manchurian Candidate and Ricki and the Flash during filming, I've been lucky enough to have gotten to watch Streep at work. Immediately, it's obvious as to why her performances are so consistently brilliant. In almost every take she offers different variations of her character's behavior, yet stays faithful to the circumstances of the scene, thus providing the director a uniquely rich palette from which to edit.
In 2003 before going to the set in NYC where The Manchurian Candidate was filming, we watched dailies with director Jonathan Demme. They consisted of five very long takes of the scene where Streep's character, championing her son's candidacy, dresses down party leaders. In each take, though in basic ways her performances were similar, she offered different bits of physical business. While walking the room talking, there was a different emphasis and phrasing to her delivery of the dialogue. Each take remarkable, each different, yet all easily cut together.
Over a decade later again we got to watch her work, this time on the set of Ricki and the Flash in a converted warehouse in Brooklyn. When she arrived on set, she began each day by greeting every cast and crew member, each by name. Again, the rhythm of her performances were different than that of other actors. Most stay very focused, maintaining a similar tone and movements take after take, working at getting their performance just right.
Streep, while managing to nail every take, does so while still offering a somewhat different performance each time – and this done with such an overall consistency that they all lend themselves to being easily edited together. These variations in her performances come from a deep understanding of the character she is playing, allowing her to offer a range of different versions of how they might act under the circumstances, all clearly emanating from the same organic, fully perceived personality.
Her Golden Globe speech – in which she called out Trump for abuse of power and called on the Hollywood community to support the free press – seemed more pained and sincere than crafted. Even though she was clearly speaking from her heart, this did nothing to blunt the outrage of the many who very viciously attacked her. Yet they claimed that their outrage was less about what she said than where she said it. "Performance artists are usually not the best informed of the facts, tend to be highly partisan and argue from an emotional viewpoint," one commenter offered. "She has the right to dissent but it is not the time or place to use the microphone at the awards ceremony for a bully pulpit."
This criticism, no matter how well intended, still misses the point. Defending free speech requires one to most militantly defend those expressing the opinions with which you most violently disagree. Free speech must be an absolute. As soon as you start adding in "buts," it becomes compromised. In this case, it is suggested that being a celebrity Streep actually has less rights than other citizens.
Actually, when doing publicity for The Manchurian Candidate, she had already addressed this issue, saying "Yes, of course, I always question why anyone would listen to an actor. But it's not your profession so much that defines you as your personhood. I listen to all kinds of people whose qualifications to opine on anything are that they have a radio show or a degree in art history. Our most famous president of late was an actor. You don't jettison your citizenship just because you're famous."
Many of those insisting that the current outrage is driven by a deeply felt and genuine outrage over celebrities abusing their position are being at least somewhat dishonest. Instead, that many are knowingly participating in a petty partisan assault on free speech is so clearly indicated in how casually they ignore that the soon-to-be president they support used his reality TV star celebrity not just to offer opinions but run for president.
Pointing out hypocrisy, this is still not an effort to condemn or restrict any speech. As citizens all of us are entitled to our own beliefs, even when outspoken in presenting them. There is no better way to state this than quoting Jean-Luc Godard's rhetorical question: "How can I hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?"