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Separation of Church and Film: Does an Actor’s Personal Beliefs Affect Whether or Not You Tune in?

ben-affleckDoes an actor’s political, religious, or other personal beliefs/opinions have anything to do with how you enjoy his work?

Ben Affleck got me thinking about this when he said that he’s pretty sure he’d have trouble hanging out with Republicans in real life.

“When I watch a guy I know is a big Republican, part of me thinks, I probably wouldn’t like this person if I met him, or we would have different opinions,” Affleck told Playboy. “That s–t fogs the mind when you should be paying attention and be swept into the illusion.”

First of all, I have to give big points to the soon-to-be-Batman — a politically active Democrat who campaigned for Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama — for self-awareness and honesty. Whether you agree with him or not, it takes a lot for a person in the public eye to admit that he judges colleagues for their personal beliefs, especially in an industry based on illusion, like he said, and high-dollar dealmaking. And it really is a sign of being an adult to be able to know and own our biases, and to state them in a fairly civil way. Affleck isn’t taking the typical, political “I’m right, you’re wrong, that’s that” tactic. He’s saying he knows he judges based on personal beliefs, when what he should be doing is kicking back and enjoying a movie.

Affleck doesn’t name Republican actors, but upon doing a quick mental scan, Clint Eastwood was the first one to pop into my mind. I don’t know how Ben Affleck feels about Dirty Harry or Million Dollar Baby, but I loved the first film and was in the vast minority of people who didn’t like the second one at all. Both of them were made years before Eastwood famously spoke to an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention, which is arguably when his politics began to catch up (in my mind) with his legendary film career. (I guess I should have been paying more attention when he was the actual mayor of an actual town. Whoops. Distracted, I guess.)

Now, let’s say I don’t agree with Clint Eastwood’s politics, and found his RNC talking points objectionable. Does that mean I stop saying, “Go ahead, make my day,” in annoying homage to Dirty Harry?

Probably not. Sorry, world.

What if I agreed with Mr. Eastwood, and thought that the chair and the president it represented had it coming to him? Does that mean I like Eastwood — or even Million Dollar Baby — more? Do I stop saying to anyone who will listen that the film’s overrated, and instead urge them to add it to their Netflix queue right this second?

I might like him, yes. The movie, though? Probably still a no.

The real answer is that it’s difficult to say. It’s human nature to like and identify with people — as much as we can “like” celebrities we don’t know — who think like us and support similar views. It’s also natural to feel less comfortable with people who are vocally opposed to what we believe, whether they’re sitting across from us at a table or not. This is why my grandfather told me never to discuss politics or religion with anyone, basically. Potential hot buttons are everywhere, and it’s difficult to maintain the “can’t we all just get along” philosophy if we really just can’t.

There are people in the entertainment industry who have suffered mightily for expressing political views. The Dixie Chicks were shunned by fans and peers in the country music industry that previously adored them when they expressed dissension with then-President George W. Bush and the Iraq war. Their CDs were bulldozed and they got death threats. Art was definitely not separate from life in that case, and songs like “Not Ready to Make Nice” off of Taking the Long Way — their first record after the controversy — spoke to that experience. The tune won Grammys for Song and Record of the Year, but their politics made a critical difference in their career path.

Running bulldozers over CDs is absurd, in my opinion, but it’s anyone’s right to do it in the United States. The First Amendment means we can say what we like, but it doesn’t say it will be without consequence. It’s Ben Affleck’s right to vocally support a political candidate, and Chuck Norris’s, too, while we’re at it. It’s okay for Tom Cruise and other big names to be actively involved in the controversial Church of Scientology, for Ellen DeGeneres to be a vegan, and for Angelina Jolie to share her personal choices and what they have to do with the state of healthcare in the United States.

It is also the viewing and listening public’s right to take in an entertainer’s personal belief systems and practices, as best as we can judge them from the outside, and make our decisions accordingly. We can all vote with our feet and our dollars, if we feel so moved, and can certainly shar our own opinions based on what we think is right. If I’m honest, I’d say there are people I’m probably less likely to support, to listen to, or to watch based on what I perceive as unacceptable belief systems and/or behaviors, but there are very few.

However, I can’t always be sure that every store I patronize, every piece of media I consume, every place I travel to, and everything I do is produced and maintained by people whose views and approaches to life are right up my alley. And honestly, I don’t want to be bogged down in analyzing that all of the time, anyway. Beyond the most egregious and offensive, sometimes I have to trust that what I’m doing is the right thing and that what you are is, too. And if that’s happening, chances are I’m engaging with the right stuff for me and what I believe.

And sometimes I really do just want to kick back and watch a movie or maybe listen to a song. Ben Affleck is right about that part: Most of the time, it really should be just that simple.

Image credit: Pacific Coast News

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