Few stars have shown more longevity in their political commitments than the flamboyant and impassioned Streisand, who has lent her soaring soprano to Democratic presidential candidates from Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The list of causes she has embraced spans decades—from Daniel Ellsberg’s defense fund, to post-Chernobyl opposition to nuclear power, to her early involvement in the debate over global climate change. But Streisand’s greatest political impact came when she emerged from a self-imposed exile from politics and public performing in 1986 to sing at a fundraising gala she held at her Malibu home for Democratic Senate candidates. The event pulled in $1.5 million—a huge sum at the time—and helped Democrats recapture the Senate that fall. It also signaled Hollywood’s revival as a fundraising powerhouse for left-leaning causes after the decline of its ’60s-era liberal establishment. With her star power, Streisand widened the path from Washington to Hollywood—deepening the conviction in the capital that an unparalleled pot of gold awaited along the Pacific.
Taylor’s career arc took her from child star to global sex symbol to tabloid magnet, and she was better known to many for her multiple marriages than her compelling acting. But in the 1980s, Taylor unexpectedly emerged as a powerful voice for tolerance and compassion in the frightening first years of the AIDS epidemic. Taylor testified in Congress for more AIDS funding and founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research with Mathilde Krim, a researcher at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the wife of Hollywood titan Arthur Krim (himself a major power in Democratic politics). Taylor’s greatest impact, however, may have come through the simple decency of being seen hugging and kissing Rock Hudson, her costar in the classic 1956 film Giant, while he lay in the hospital after an AIDS diagnosis—at a time when many people still feared that casual contact could spread the disease. (His illness helped spur her activism.) Later, she quietly paid bills for friends and even strangers suffering from the disease, and visited them in hospitals. Few celebrities ever risked their fame on a cause shrouded in such a social stigma.
As a political activist, Wayne was less important for what he did than for what he symbolized. He was relatively reticent as an advocate. Although he served as the president of a conservative Hollywood group that supported the purge of communists (and liberals linked to them) from the entertainment industry during the blacklist era and later campaigned for Richard Nixon (including an appearance at the 1968 GOP convention), Wayne wasn’t a regular on the campaign trail. Nor was he as aggressive as later generations of stars in using his celebrity to deliver political pronouncements. Mostly he influenced politics as a symbol of patriotism and strength; he lent to conservative causes and politicians an aura of rectitude and resolve that by the 1960s struck more-cosmopolitan ears as simplistic if not jingoistic but that still resonated powerfully with the cultural traditionalists who became known as “the silent majority.” It was no coincidence that Reagan, in the election-eve broadcast of his 1980 campaign, cited not another political leader but the recently deceased Wayne as the antithesis of President Carter’s fear of American “malaise” and decline. “Duke Wayne did not believe our country was ready for the dustbin of history,” Reagan declared, genuflecting at one of the few celebrity images constructed from even more primal American iconography than his own.
Those who remember Welles, if at all, only as the bloated pitchman for middle-brow winemaker Paul Masson, probably can’t imagine what a meteor he was when he emerged as a triple-threat writer-director-actor on Broadway and then in Hollywood in the late 1930s. The auteur of Citizen Kane blazed as brightly across the political world, campaigning tirelessly for Franklin Roosevelt (even standing in against GOP presidential nominee Thomas Dewey at one 1944 event), enlisting in causes from civil rights to global peace, and penning a column for the New York Post, then a pillar of liberal thought. In 1946, Welles even seriously considered seeking a U.S. Senate seat from California until he was dissuaded partly by a young Democratic activist named Alan Cranston, a future senator himself. On screen and off, Welles’s youthful brilliance soon burned out. But over an incandescent decade, he set a standard for substantive engagement with politics that very few of his celebrity successors would match.
Scott Bland contributed
This article appears in the April 30, 2011, edition of National Journal.