Around the time of the Iraq War, I delicately asked director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill,” “The Duke”), who was arranging a political event at the U.K.’s National Theatre, why he thought anyone should listen to artists’ political opinions just because they happen to be famous.
“I know what you mean,” he replied, “but then, why shouldn’t they be allowed to say what they think just because they’re famous?”
It was a fair answer: Artists have as much right to state their opinions on politics as anyone else. But that doesn’t mean their opinions are any more valid or informed than mine or yours. Yet their fame ensures they will be widely heard, and thus they have a duty to be responsible and think deeply before speaking.
This is something that actors Susan Sarandon, Steve Coogan, Cynthia Nixon and many others have emphatically not done during these terrible weeks following Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion and massacre in Israel.
Not thinking deeply is actually the opposite of the way actors are trained. There is an old stereotype, once beloved of lazy comedy shows, that portrays actors as shallow “luvvies.” In most cases, nothing could be further from the truth. The process of understanding a character involves deep immersion, complete internalizing of their motivations, their needs, their emotions and the context in which they operate.
An actress who plays Shakespeare’s Cordelia in “King Lear” has to understand the many things that are going on all at once in regard to that character. When Cordelia refuses to play the king’s game that demands she say that she loves him most in the world, she is being honest, decent, impertinent, full-hearted, publicly embarrassing him in front of his most powerful courtiers, unthinking, brave, impetuous, point-scoring against her sisters and simply being young. Actors have a dizzying range of options from which to choose, and they’re all there in that one role at that one moment. This is because, as actors must realize if they are to be true artists, humanity is complex.
Real life is still more complex, as are questions of international security. So, why does it seem impossible for some actors to treat crises, especially when Israel is involved, with the same kind of empathetic, multi-dimensional intelligence they bring to their roles?
If Susan Sarandon’s turn in “Dead Man Walking” had been as one-dimensional as her stances on Israel and indeed Jews, she would never have won that Oscar. If Steve Coogan had not had the intellectual richness—missing from his response to the Israel-Hamas war—to imbue his great comic character Alan Partridge with hints of tragedy alongside the ridiculousness, the show would have run out of steam years ago. I’m sure the same can be said for Cynthia Nixon’s long-running turn in “Sex and the City,” in contrast to her doubtless well-meaning but narrow-minded protest in Washington, D.C.
So here, in four acts, is the plot of our current tragedy and my review of these illustrious actors’ responses.
Act One: Israel captures the Gaza Strip from Egyptian occupation as part of the defensive 1967 Six-Day War.
Act Two: Israel attempts to return Gaza to Egypt in 1978 as part of the Camp David peace treaty, but Egypt refuses, so Israel is stuck with it.
Act Three: Israel unilaterally pulls all of its citizens out of Gaza in 2005 and gives it to the Palestinians in the hope that will create the model of a future Palestinian state. Four West Bank settlements are also vacated as a declaration of intention. The Hamas terror group seizes control and starts attacking Israel with rockets. In response, Israel is forced to impose a blockade, alongside Egypt, to ensure that no goods entering Gaza can be used as weaponry. Hamas never stops trying to attack Israel, using its favorite tactic of “human shields” by firing rockets from within civilian populations, U.N. schools, mosques and hospitals.
Act Four: Oct. 7. After several years during which Israel, in an attempt to encourage Hamas to “normalize,” facilitated the transfer to Hamas of hundreds of millions of dollars from Qatar and allowed increasing numbers of Gaza workers into Israel every day, thousands of Hamas fighters invade Israel and carry out the worst terrorist atrocities since 9/11. They sadistically rape, murder, mutilate and undertake the largest mass abduction of its kind in modern history. Babies are among the murdered and abducted. At the same time, antisemitism around the world skyrockets. Demonstrations against Israel in Europe and the United States begin on Oct. 8, before Israel had even begun its military response. Many of them go so far as to celebrate the massacre.
Now for the reviews.
How nuanced was Ms. Sarandon’s performance? She stood at an anti-Israel rally chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”—a thinly veiled call for Israel’s destruction—and proceeded to give a speech that suggested frightened American Jews were “getting a taste of what it is like to be Muslim in this country” and that to understand the conflict “you just have to show the babies that are dying in incubators.”
So, the IDF supplying hospitals with new incubators is not relevant? Or helping to safely evacuate maternity wards? Or the very fact that under the hospital in question is a major Hamas military facility?
Sarandon’s was not a great performance and she later had to issue an apology (“my phrasing was a terrible mistake”).
Mr. Coogan was one of the fastest to denounce Israel, being a prime signatory of a letter by a group called Artists for Palestine, sent as early as mid-October, just after Israel had started its defensive operations in Gaza.
The letter called Israel’s actions “a crime and a catastrophe” and “unprecedented cruelty.” It didn’t manage to even include the word “Hamas” or express the merest shred of regret for the terror group’s unprovoked invasion and massacre. Apparently, the Israeli dead, who at that point hadn’t even been completely counted or collected, weren’t human enough to mourn.
At least, that’s the impression Coogan was giving his audience, until some days later he too issued a less than fulsome clarification, saying, “I do of course condemn the recent Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel.”
This is more than most of his fellow signatories like Tilda Swinton and Miriam Margolyes managed to do, as far as I’ve been able to see. They apparently have nothing to say about the massacre of Israelis, the rapes, the hostages or indeed the many efforts the IDF has gone to—in stark contrast to most armies in such situations, never mind Hamas—in providing warnings, humanitarian safe routes, safe zones and facilitating aid.
As for Ms. Nixon, I’m afraid it’s yet another stinker. The actress embarked on a two-day hunger strike in Washington to advocate for a ceasefire, which would be a tremendous victory for the still-intact Hamas, whose leader said only this week that Oct. 7 was “just a rehearsal.” She held a sign with the Hamas-supplied figure of the number of Gazan children Hamas says have died, with no disclaimer citing the source of the statistics, nor the fact that Hamas does not differentiate between civilians and terrorists, or that Hamas fights using civilians as human shields.
In addition, if Nixon were going to go method, hunger-striking for two days doesn’t really measure up to how we already know Israeli hostages are being starved—the children who have been returned having lost some 15% of their body weight. Of course, they were also branded, but one wouldn’t expect Nixon to undergo that.
Not all artists have been so unthinking. Many have shown empathy for innocents on both sides, understanding of the tragic context of military conflict and anger at Hamas. But far too many have been content with a meme-like level of comprehension. One searches for a mention of Iranian influence, of the all-important fact that Hamas is but one of Iran’s “octopus tentacles” surrounding Israel and that Iran and its other proxy armies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, are watching carefully for any sign of Israeli weakness.
When I had that conversation with Roger Michell all those years ago, the initiative we’d been discussing was an intelligent one—he’d placed a little stage in the foyer of the National Theatre where artists could get up and talk about the war. They weren’t limited to one viewpoint or one “side” or another. As he explained it, the idea was to facilitate discussion rather than to dictate or browbeat.
That was closer to what an actor does: debate, discuss, workshop and then present ideas. What Sarandon, Coogan, Nixon, Swinton, Margolyes and others have been doing has nothing to do with what one expects from true artists. They’ve behaved more like the half-drunk guy at the bar you visit after the show, who blurts things out without thinking.
But it does make me never want to see any of their performances ever again.