LOS ANGELES -- Hollywood politicalactivism has become part of the American landscape, but in these early days of the war in the Persian Gulf, there's been an uncharacteristic quiet in the liberal quarters of the movie colony.
That's not to say there's been silence. Such longtime liberal activists as Ed Asner, Mike Farrell and Robert Foxworth ("Falcon Crest") have been publicly critical of the war. "Cheers" star Woody Harrelson has participated in several anti-war demonstrations here, and actor David Clennon -- ad agency boss Miles Drentell on "thirtysomething" -- has been vocal as well. It's likely all of them will be faces in the crowd that is scheduled to gather downtown today at a rally to protest the Persian Gulf War.
But any public anti-war talk has been measured, calm and devoid of the emotion that has characterized previous anti-war efforts -- whether it was Vietnam or El Salvador -- undertaken by celebrities. Nor is the tenor of the protest anti-establishment. "I'll be putting on my suit and tie and walking in the demonstration," says Foxworth about today's rally.
Perhaps the most strident message you will hear is the one Clennon, a 20-year peace activist, leaves on his telephone answering machine:
"It's not too late to stop the madness in the Middle East," Clennon states before encouraging callers to attend the rally today. "To call for a cease-fire and to tell George Bush what you think of his brave new world order, call 202-456-1111... ." (The number is the White House Comments Office's.) But even his statement ends in a spirit of openness: "Please leave a message and feel free to disagree."
Certainly the community is absorbing information. A couple of nights ago, a long-scheduled fund-raiser for Americans for Peace Now -- an organization that advocates a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue -- at a West Los Angeles activist's house was packed from living room to swimming pool with concerned listeners, including Barbra Streisand, Richard Dreyfuss and Bonnie Franklin. "The community is doing things, but not as much as people have come to expect them to do in a very visible way. But that could change in a short time," says Kathy Garmezy of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee, which has been active for years on several fronts, notably the anti-apartheid movement. However, at the moment the entertainment community's most visible liberals are maintaining low profiles when it comes to the war.
Jane Fonda has said nothing. Early last week she canceled satellite television interviews she was scheduled to do to promote a children's exercise video with which she had been involved. "She felt it was inappropriate to talk about working out when the country was on the verge of war," said a friend. Thursday night she accompanied her fiance, Ted Turner -- whose CNN network has gained enormous prominence as a result of its gulf coverage -- to a dinner in Beverly Hills sponsored by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Jewish Committee. Turner was honored with a human relations award and made a brief acceptance speech. Fonda made no remarks at all.
"What she's doing is she's watching television every night like everyone else," says her spokeswoman, Pat Newcomb. "She's just hoping and praying it will be over soon." Presumably Fonda is watching CNN? "I don't know," says Newcomb, laughing. "I'm not there."
Dreyfuss, who has been extensively involved in several liberal political issues and employs a full-time political adviser, has not spoken out on the war. Dreyfuss has worked on abortion rights issues and is an active member of the advisory board of Americans for Peace Now, which seeks a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
The gulf war, says Dreyfuss's adviser, Donna Bojarksy, "is all we talk about all day long. It's constantly on our minds, and we follow the news." But Bojarksy describes Dreyfuss as still privately sorting out his opinions.
Those sentiments are echoed by other political activists in the Hollywood community. "The entertainment community is not that much different from anybody else -- they call home to Iowa and Oklahoma," says Garmezy. Many also have family and relatives in Israel and in the American military stationed in the desert, she says, adding, "The time in which people have had to digest this is not very long."
The Hollywood Women's Political Committee has taken no public stand on the war, but it has chosen to act as a clearinghouse and conduit for information and discussion about it. Early next month the organization will hold a forum here with the Military Family Support Network, and a few days after that it will hold a town hall meeting to discuss the issues.
Says HWPC's Margery Tabankin: "People think war is horrible, but they think Saddam Hussein is horrible too. Unlike in the '60s, when there was a romanticism about what the Vietnam government was, there is none of that conversation now."
In addition to the sense that people have simply not made up their minds is the sense that speaking out must be done carefully. Although this is a different kind of war, the specter of Vietnam does haunt this community. There is a fear that a protest of U.S. policy could be misconstrued as a criticism of U.S. troops.
"Everybody is concerned about one of the lessons of the war," saysGarmezy. "If there's anything I feel very acutely and the entertainment community feels acutely, it's that if you spent the last 10 or 15 years grieving over the people killed in the Vietnam War -- and how you mistakenly made them the enemy -- you can't expect people to make a gestalt shift to knowing how to protest the war without undoing a whole process of healing."
Some Hollywood liberals are finding that, this time around, being a vocal anti-war activist can be unpopular. When Ed Asner appeared on a local morning television talk show last week, just on the eve of war, he was virtually the only anti-war voice among the guests, who faced an audience of what turned out to be mostly military families.
"The horrible spot we find ourselves in now is if you propose being against the war, you're supposedly against our troops," Asner says. "It's an odious approach -- you're unpatriotic. Yet the greatest patriot in the world could be one who protests the war and the loss of lives, and by his protests saves other lives from being sacrificed."
Mike Farrell, who has lobbied members of Congress in Washington against the war, says he finds fewer compatriots in this cause than in others such as the protests against U.S. intervention in El Salvador.
"Hearing people talk about their kids over there breaks my heart," says Farrell, who contends that the emotions behind the issue have become too heavily charged. Support for the war, he says, has "become an emotional bandwagon, and it's set up so if you don't get on it, you're against us."
The day before Farrell was to attend a press conference to announce the formation of an anti-war organization, he was asked if he expected other members of the entertainment community to be there. "I hope so," he said ruefully. "It gets pretty lonely out there."