Just ask Brad or Angelina or Leonardo. Stars can’t afford to take a pass on world politics.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON June 4 2007


Just ask Brad or Angelina or Leonardo. Stars can’t afford to take a pass on world politics.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON June 4 2007


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Just ask Brad or Angelina or Leonardo. Stars can’t afford to take a pass on world politics.



A wharf in Cannes. A limo backs up to a yacht and disgorges Jessica Simpson into a blaze of cameras lining a narrow strip of red carpet. The tabloid queen, famous for being famous, goes right to work, pollinating the TV microphones one by one, as a handler cradles her tiny waist and shunts her down the line. She talks about her overnight shift to brunette from blond, her desire to be Goldie Hawn, and her role as an actress who joins the Marines in Major Movie Star, a film that does not yet exist. I’ve wedged myself into the press line, and when my turn comes, since she’s about to play a soldier, it seems fair to ask if she supports the war. Her face hardens. “I will not comment on that, but I do support the troops.”

Wrong answer. These days, major movie stars can’t afford to take a pass on world politics. Just ask George or Brad or Angelina or Leonardo. They served as icing on the anniversary cake at the 6oth annual Cannes Film Festival this past week. And each demonstrated that a social conscience is one accessory no celebrity can afford to be without. Under the new politics of stardom, global compassion is as vital as hair and makeup. Deflecting the media spotlight onto the world’s problems is an antidote to the isolation of fame, the glare of the paparazzi, and the exorbitant lifestyle. Consider it the showbiz version of carbon credits.

George Clooney was in Cannes to promote a Hollywood blockbuster that celebrates the joy of getting filthy rich from robbing a casino. But at the same time, the debonair star of Ocean’s Thirteen was masterminding another kind of heist. Anyone hoping to sip a glass of champagne with George had to fork over US$250,000 ahead to attend a party he hosted on a yacht, with proceeds going to Darfur. Leonardo DiCaprio has gone a long way to roughing up his Titanic image as teen heartthrob. But in Cannes, he came across like

a younger, more delicate Al Gore as he launched 11th Hour, a dire environmental documentary—posing on the red carpet one year after Gore premiered An Inconvenient Truth on the same spot.

Then there was the extraordinary apparition of Brangelina, which was tantamount to a royal visit, and ignited enough flashbulb wattage to power a small African country. But Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were on a mission—as producer and star of A Mighty Heart, the harrowing story oí Wall StreetJournal correspondent Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded by jihadist kidnappers in 2002. It was a bizarre spectacle: the world’s prime celebrity couple turning the media’s attention to the politics of journalism and jihad.

The days of studios controlling actors, and muzzling their political and sexual proclivities, is long gone. In the 1960s, Marlon Brando was one of the first to break the mould by becoming an outspoken advocate for civil rights and Aboriginal justice. And Brando, a

documentary that showed in Cannes, reminds us that, even before he retreated into exile, the actor was virtually ostracized by Hollywood for doing what is now routinely expected of superstars. But then it felt uncalculated. Brando was not a brand.

On this anniversary, Cannes was rife with nostalgia for cinema as a dying art. With the Internet barbarians at the gate—Gus Van Sant used MySpace to recruit his amateur cast in Paranoid Park—you wonder if we’re witnessing the end of stardom as we know it.

Nowhere was the paradox of modern celebrity—a soap opera craving substance—more keenly focused than in the press conference for the premiere of A Mighty Heart. It was Brad and Angelina’s first joint audience with a media juggernaut. In a strategic coup of spin control, the couple sat far apart on the stage, diverting attention to the uncanny symmetry between Jolie and the woman sitting next to her—author and journalist Mariane Pearl, whom she plays in the movie. A French beauty of Dutch and Afro-Cuban descent, Daniel Pearl’s widow bears a striking resemblance to Jolie. And as she spoke with sharp eloquence in English and French, she was as magnetic as her screen surrogate.

A Mighty Heart is a far cry from a Hollywood movie. Shot in Pakistan and India by British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo), this intense vérité drama tries to do for kidnapping and murder what United 93 did for the 9/11 attacks, conveying the tragedy as a complex event. As the distraught and pregnant Mariane, Jolie proves there’s a potent actress behind the celebrity madness. As Mariane awaits news of her kidnapped husband, every time she leaves their Karachi apartment she must run a gauntlet of reporters at the gate. And for Jolie, who spends her life dodging the paparazzi, it’s ironic to see her playing a journalist caught in the crosshairs of her own profession.

So at the press conference, I asked her the obvious question: how did it feel to play those paparazzi scenes, and did the movie change her view of journalism? “It’s the opposite of what you’d expect,” she said. “I felt sorry for her, thinking ‘My God, what must it be like

for somebody in that situation?’ I really can’t imagine having that kind of media coverage for something as difficult as that. On the other side of it, I revisited my appreciation for honest journalists and people who go out there and commit themselves. You’re reminded of what a great thing a journalist can be, and really should be, and is.” Or sometimes is. In the movie, a CNN interviewer enraged Pearl by asking her if she watched the video of her husband’s beheading. “How dare you ask me


that?” she replied. At the press conference, the real-life interviewer, Chris Burns, stood up before the world’s media, made a petite Buddhist bow, and asked Pearl for forgiveness. A cringe-worthy moment all around.

In Cannes this year, it seemed no one was immune from the horror of global politics. Even David Cronenberg. The Canadian director explored his Jewish identity for the first time on film in a short titled At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World—one in a compilation of threeminute films from 35 auteurs that Cannes commissioned for its 6oth anniversary. Playing a grizzled old man pointing a gun to his head, Cronenberg shoots himself shooting himself. “I’ve never thought of myself as a Philip Roth whose subject was his Jewishness, but I’ve never denied it,” he told me (coincidentally echoing the outlook of Daniel Pearl, who was murdered for being a Jew). So why now? “Because of Hezbollah,” he says. “It’s pretty interesting to hear someone say our goal is to kill every Jew in the world wherever they are. That means me and my children. It does evoke a reaction.”

So can movies change the world? “It might not be movies as we knew them,” says the

director. “Images that go around the world in a flash on the Internet are more likely to change things than a stodgy Hollywood blockbuster. Just seeing this girl being stoned to death on YouTube, the repercussions are huge.” Meanwhile, Cronenberg defends stars who take a stand. “I’m not sure I want to hear what Paris Hilton has to say about the environment. But it’s completely legitimate. It’s the way democracy has evolved.”

Attaching a star’s face to a cause, however, doesn’t guarantee mass appeal—even if the host is Leonardo DiCaprio. In 11th Hour, a dry documentary, a barrage of scientists deconstruct doom amid clips of planetary havoc. As narrator, DiCaprio winds up in the odd position of being less charismatic than Al Gore. The problem is not that he’s a posturing movie star, but that he’s an earnest activist with an honest mission.

But he’s accustomed to a certain lifestyle. The afternoon before his premiere, DiCaprio holds court in a seaside cabana at the legendary Hotel du Cap, where room rates start at $1,000 a night. Asked about the contradiction of defending the environment from such a luxurious perch, the actor says, “A lot of us have good intentions. In a culture where so much is focused on the superficial excess of Hollywood and what it is to be a rich person, to do a film like this where we have scientists talking about the truth feels good.”

Sadly, however, it’s unlikely his movie will do as well as An Inconvenient Truth—or Sicko, the documentary assault on American health care that Michael Moore unveiled in Cannes. In fact, Uth Hour could use a dose of Moore’s snake oil. Despite Sicko’s comic distortions, which include a utopian caricature of Canadian medicare, its devastating portrait of health insurance in the U.S. packs an emotional wallop. And Hollywood couldn’t have dreamt up a more ingenious hook than Moore’s stunt of shipping sick 9/11 relief workers to Cuba for treatment—asking why they can’t get the same free medical care offered al-Qaeda prisoners in Guantánamo. In a world where stars

behave like activists, Moore is an activist who behaves like a star.

Angelina Jolie balances both worlds, with diligent humanitarian work that leaves her star power undimmed. The day after her premiere, she and Winterbottom met with a few journalists in another cabana at the Hotel du Cap. Asked about using her celebrity to fuel the project, she said, “Sometimes it can be a distraction and undermine how serious it is. But now that the film is made, I’m glad to do everything I can to bring attention to it.” After she left, we debated her outfit. The ivory skirt and silk blouse, half unbuttoned with the sleeves rolled up—was it Yves Saint Laurent? Chanel? No one could be sure. But the five-inch caramel stilettos were Christian Louboutin. No question. M

ON THE WEB: For more Brian D. Johnson, visit his blog at briandjohnson.