I think most of us had the same reaction when we heard the news that actress Daryl Hannah had been arrested:
Hey, what did she steal?
Turns out, Hannah didn’t steal anything. She was arrested Tuesday near the White House for protesting a proposed oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast. It was a sit-in situation, not a shoplifting situation. Hannah and a handful of other activists sat down in the park across from the White House and refused to move until the Park Police arrested them (and enough reporters had arrived).
But I think we can be forgiven for our initial reaction. These days, when celebrities are arrested, it’s usually for disorderly conduct, smacking someone around or, as was the case with perennial arrestee Lindsay Lohan, stealing jewelry. And it’s always a big deal, with the attendant TMZ photographers, live news feeds and salacious stories.
It was the same when Charlie Sheen was arrested for assault in 2009. Or, this past week, when “Lost” actor Matthew Fox was detained for allegedly punching a bus driver. Or when Sean Combs, Nicole Richie, Charles Barkley and Rip Torn were locked up for behaving badly. If you want to lose your afternoon, Google “recent celebrity arrests” and go to town.
It’s rare that a celebrity is arrested for a reason that is thought-out and principled. People may disagree with Hannah about the usefulness of an oil pipeline spanning most of North America — and for the record, with gas in my neighborhood at more than $4 a gallon, count me among those dissenters — but you have to admire the dedication and passion that it takes for a woman in her 50s to get carted off by the police.
Yes, that’s right: Daryl Hannah is 50, which will make anyone who remembers watching her 1984 big-screen turn as an innocently ravishing mermaid in Ron Howard’s “Splash” feel old. But her age is important. People in their 20s steal jewelry; people in their 50s think about things.
Usually, though, it’s the jewel thieves that we’re interested in. Hannah’s arrest in front of the White House may have been a carefully planned event designed to draw attention to her cause, but it barely registered in the national media. It’s tempting to conclude that it’s just a matter of timing — that in a summer with budget meltdowns, a collapsing Dow, a presidential election campaign creaking into gear and a Gaddafi manhunt in Libya, people just have too many apps open on their mental desktops to download another one called “Keystone XL Pipeline Awareness and Concern.”
And it’s also possible that the whole vibe of the protest— movie star from decades ago denounces an oil pipeline — just seemed too 1970s-ish. With a sputtering economy, high unemployment and an unpopular president, it feels enough like 1978 as it is. No one needs Hannah to enhance the flashback.
But I suspect that the next time another celebrity finds him- or herself arrested for something weird or lurid, there will be plenty of room in the national attention budget. The tragic mug shot will be all over the dial. The perp walk will be remixed for YouTube. And the tweets will come.
Poor Daryl Hannah: She wasn’t even a trending topic.
This is a hard lesson for some celebrities. They mean well. They have big thoughts, passionate concerns and sometimes even deep knowledge of an issue. They’d like to offer their famous faces so that people will learn about something that’s important to them.
It rarely works out. Perhaps the one or two “good” celebrity arrests are swamped by the dozens and dozens of “bad” celebrity arrests — the Lohan Effect, we could call it. When people hear that a famous person was arrested, they assume it was for driving on the sidewalk.
More likely, though, it’s a case of celebrities misreading the audience. They are, first and foremost, entertainers. Some captivate us by following carefully plotted scripts; some by improvising a series of ludicrous disasters in their private lives. But that’s why we pay attention. We want to be entertained. The minute they stop singing, or dancing, or acting, or stealing jewelry, we look for something else.
Celebrities hate to hear this. It’s demeaning and insulting, they say. And perhaps it is. On the other hand, it’s a highly compensated form of insult, and that must help a bit.
If only Hannah had worn the mermaid outfit. Now that would have gotten some eyeballs.
Rob Long, whose work as a television writer and producer includes “Cheers,” writes frequently about politics for the National Review. He is the editor in chief of Ricochet.com.