The solemn presence, the sculpted physique, the shoulders that could bear the weight of portraying Michelangelo and Moses: these were among the assets that Heston brought to his big-screen roles in his heyday. But an underrated strength was his growl, as when his previously mute astronaut shocks his simian tormentors in the first Planet of the Apes movie with his guttural demand: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” Three decades later, as president of the National Rifle Association, Heston used that same growl to help immortalize his cri de coeur: Gun-control advocates, he insisted, would pry his rifle only “from my cold, dead hands.” Heston actually showed more flexibility in his political persuasions. He began as a New Deal liberal, and he helped to organize Hollywood’s participation in Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington. But Heston found Barry Goldwater’s message in 1964 attractive and soon crossed over to become Hollywood’s most engaged conservative—the one most likely to duel with liberals. During the 1980s, Heston served as President Reagan’s most energetic defender in the film community; he slugged through a bitter long-term public battle with Ed Asner, who was using his platform as Screen Actors Guild president to assail Reagan, his distant predecessor in the job. From the nuclear freeze (about which he once debated Paul Newman on ABC) to gun control, Heston was a theatrical and effective, if occasionally ponderous, advocate for conservative causes. When voters heard his voice coming through the television, one Democratic strategist lamented, “People say, ‘If he’s saying it, it must be true.’ It’s Moses, God. That’s the thing that people really latch onto.”
ANGELINA JOLIE AND BRAD PITT
Stars are often most effective in the public arena when their political identity is an extension of their image as an entertainer. John Wayne symbolized bravery and courage so often that people invested him with those qualities when he joined debates off screen; George Clooney today similarly benefits from the Bogart-like image of rueful realism that he projects in his films. Think of Jolie as the exception to this pattern. On screen, she often plays icy action heroes who are alluring but amoral, desirable but duplicitous. Yet over the past decade, Jolie has steadily earned respect in the international development community as a nurturing source of compassion in some of the world’s most troubled places. As a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations since 2001, she has used her celebrity to shine attention on the struggles of refugees everywhere, from Cambodia and Thailand to Sierra Leone and Darfur. Among NJ’s Insiders, she ranked third among Republicans and fourth among Democrats as the most-effective celebrity advocate on Capitol Hill. “She appears to be living her commitment,” said one Republican, “and it’s not an easy commitment to live.” Pitt, her partner, hasn’t been as publicly engaged in causes, but he has participated in Bono’s ONE campaign and joined with Clooney to found the Not On Our Watch project. Pitt has made his biggest mark by raising tens of millions of dollars, and by donating millions of his own, toward the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
As a political activist, Nelson calls to mind another Texan who made a mark in Washington: “Good time” Charlie Wilson, the late Democratic member of Congress who was known for his hard partying, his rebellious streak, and his undeniable effectiveness. Nelson isn’t the typical celebrity who trades (expensive) jeans and sneakers for a briefcase and a button-down when he comes to Washington; he claims to have once smoked marijuana on the White House roof during the Carter presidency. But along with fellow singers Neil Young and John Mellencamp, Nelson played a critical role in building one of the sturdiest vehicles ever constructed for celebrity political engagement: the annual Farm Aid concerts that have raised tens of millions of dollars to support family farmers since the first show in 1985. Nelson has had less success with his other causes—legalizing marijuana, mobilizing opposition to the Iraq war before the 2003 invasion, and touting Dennis Kucinich for the Democratic presidential nomination. But the durability of the commitment to Farm Aid from Nelson and the other founders (each of whom still sits on its board) sets them apart in a field where commitment often burns as brightly, and as briefly, as fame itself.
No prominent elected officials stood with Sen. Eugene McCarthy when he launched his seemingly quixotic 1968 Democratic primary challenge to President Johnson. Fortunately for McCarthy, his few assets included one of the world’s most recognized movie stars. Newman proved a relaxed and compelling campaigner, drawing huge crowds in frozen New Hampshire. At Polish pool halls in Milwaukee during the Wisconsin primary, he also demonstrated his form from his gripping role in The Hustler, bringing cool to a candidate often considered cold. Until his death in 2008, Newman remained a mainstay in liberal politics, part of the “Malibu Mafia” of Los Angeles donors who helped launch George McGovern’s insurgency in 1972, a prominent advocate of a nuclear freeze in the 1980s, and part owner of the Nation magazine in the 1990s. He used the proceeds from his eponymous Newman’s Own food line to fund wide-ranging philanthropies. For all his achievements, Newman once said that his greatest accomplishment was appearing on Richard Nixon’s enemies’ list.