The Stars Are Out in Denver

Posted August 22, 2008 at 5:10pm

Every detail of the political conventions in Denver this week and the Twin Cities next week is calculated for maximum effect: The prime-time speaking slots are doled out, the patriotic-themed backdrops TV-ready, the soundtracks cued, the scripts readied.

With so much stage management at play, it’s no wonder that celebrities — consummate professionals at the art of theatrics — are flocking to the events. Groups from the Creative Coalition to Rock the Vote are stocking the conventions with celebrities like so many overstuffed swag bags.

There will be the usual suspects who seem to promote most Democratic causes — like Sean Penn and Ben Affleck — as well as relative newcomers to the political scene, such as Jennifer Lopez and Zooey Deschanel.

The preponderance of actors, musicians, comedians and the like, ranging in stature from A-list to barely Z-list, is staggering, particularly for the Democrats’ confab in Denver.

Those who live in the nexus of politics and entertainment are quick to point out that mixing the two is nothing new. But this year’s celebrity involvement in the conventions has attracted wider attention, with Hollywood types set to headline concerts, sit on panels and co-host parties, with causes ranging from diabetes care to youth-vote turnout.

The explanation of why causes seek out bold-named faces is simple. “Where celebrities go, that’s where the cameras go,” says Robert Baruc, president of Screen Media Films, which is partnering with the nonprofit arts advocacy group Creative Coalition on a series of film screenings at both conventions.

Drawing cameras and press is particularly important in an election cycle that’s being covered by media usually more concerned with celebrity breakups and weight-loss secrets. Outlets like gossip sites TMZ.com and PerezHilton.com will be covering the conventions cheek-to-jowl with traditional outlets. “This cycle, you have so many more media outlets looking for content, and celebrities are magnets for them, so there are a lot more opportunities,” Creative Coalition Executive Director Robin Bronk said.

Rock the Vote communications associate Stephanie Young says an unusually large contingent of the international media, too, is covering convention events. “I really have the feeling that the whole world is watching this one,” she says.

But while trotting out any old celebrity might get an organization some short-term attention, it might not necessarily help their cause. “You have to use celebrities in a strategic way,” says Bronk, who bans what she calls “red-carpet baggers,” celebrities who might parade for the cameras but aren’t committed to or knowledgeable about the issues.

Actor Tim Daly, who is attending the Denver convention in his capacity of co-president of the Creative Coalition, says it’s wrong to lump all the celebrities attending the conventions together. “Some will bring nothing but themselves and might detract from what’s important at the convention,” he says. “And some will be good because they have an issue that they know and care passionately about and they’ll be there to form relationships and communicate a message to lawmakers.”

Lots of the big Hollywood names expected in Denver have long been affiliated with political causes: Actor and liberal-cause devotee Penn, for example, will attend an event with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader; actor Affleck, who’s practically a Washington fixture, will be there; and social-issue provocateur filmmaker Spike Lee also is slated to attend.

Denver is also drawing big names newer to the political game, such as actress/musician Lopez, who is co-hosting a party for Hispanic lawmakers, and a long roster of younger musicians and actors, including Deschanel, an actress and singer who’s performing at an art event in Denver sponsored by MoveOn.org.

But according to University of Southern California professor Leo Braudy, who studies film and pop culture, celebrity involvement in politics isn’t always helpful. “It’s much more common now than it used to be, so it’s generating its own backlash,” Braudy says. ‘“Why, just because a celebrity likes something, should I like something?’ voters will say.”

Daly chafes at the way Republicans have used “celebrity” as an epithet — for Exhibit A, see the mileage Republican candidate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) got out of likening rival Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. “The McCain campaign is trying to turn the word ‘celebrity’ into a dirty word, and that’s not appropriate — McCain is a celebrity, and he wants to be an even bigger one,” Daly says.

While celebs have been involved in politics for decades, their effect on the public has changed, Braudy notes, specifically pointing to the image President John F. Kennedy managed to create using his relationships with celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe.

“In those days, there was a sense that there was this world of fame, and it was the first time that somebody was going to be president who was going to be like a movie star,” Braudy said. “I don’t think it has that kind of aura that it used to have.”

These days, celebrities can be helpful to candidates seeking to gain name recognition, Braudy says. But in the long run, Obama and McCain aren’t going to get elected president because of the celebrities who support them.

“It’s exposure,” Braudy says. “And neither one of them need it.”

But America’s celeb-focused culture makes it inevitable that famous folks will take part in politics, Braudy says.

“Do French movie stars and British movie stars go around endorsing candidates with the same sort of frequency we do? I would say, certainly not with the same kind of frequency,” Braudy says. “It’s more just part of our celebrity culture.”

The collision of artists and politicians isn’t just an academic subject; it’s being turned into entertainment itself. Top director Barry Levinson will begin shooting at the conventions for a feature-length documentary on Hollywood and politics, Bronk says.

So the celebrities planning to be in Denver and Minneapolis, in addition to talking politics and button-holing lawmakers, will be doing what they do best: getting ready for their close-ups.